Final Thoughts: Computers

Of all the changes that have rippled through the world in the last 50 years - and I have touched on more than a few - the development of computers has been the most mind-boggling, society-changing, terminally frustrating and generally brilliant evolutions in our time. That makes me sound geeky and I'm not - and because I am not, I constantly marvel at the way computing and communications are changing our societies. Sure, there are bad things on the Internet, but so much good has been done I hardly know where to start.

Getting back to the point though, what has happened in 50 years? This won't seem a big deal to folk older than us, but it will to the young 'uns. The first integrated circuit was demonstrated the year before we were born, but we went though school without even knowing what a pocket calculator was, and my first contact with a computer was at University. Contact is a loose term, as we had to painstakingly punch holes in cards, leave a wad of cards in a tray somewhere, and a day later the cards were replaced with a pile of strange, green-striped paper with holes down each side, usually printed with strings of messages like "****error****error****error***". We never even saw the beast, I think they kept it in a pit and fed it coal and Christians.

My first employer was very forward thinking for 1978, they had several mini-computers to work out what needed to be bought and stocked. It produced a lot of paper, it ran "batch" which meant it only processed its main calculations once a month, then spat out the answers in a pile of paper we literally had to collect in a van. We then spent a month trying to work out what it was on about before the whole cycle started again. Business computing moved on slowly, we started to see the occasional computer screen (heavy lumps, with green letters on a black screen and an irritating blinking cursor). The first commercially mainstream PC was the IBM PC in 1981, although Apple had produced a PC in 1977 and there were many predecessors for the home boffins. The IT Departments resisted these PCs as if they were a disease, insisting that all serious computing had to be done in an air-conditioned room. Eventually PCs were produced with software suitable for small businesses, and the IT empires started to wobble. Wealthier people bought one or two for home use, micro-processors were put in things other than computers, and gradually, computers became part of our lives.

What computers costing a few hundred pounds can do now, compared to those expensive lumps of tin we used to revere, is as different as we are from a bracheosaurus. If you are into statistics, Google it and marvel. Not just marvel at the stats, marvel at what you have just done. Think that when we were kids, the only way of finding anything out was to look it up in an encyclopedia, if you had one, or go to a library. To communicate in writing meant sending a letter and waiting for a reply. Generally you only knew people you had met. You only heard or read news that editors had deemed you should receive. The world is so, so different now. The next 50 years are going to be either very exciting or very scary. I think it will be both, actually.


olwyn said...

best dad ever

Robin said...

A most interesting and characteristically honest and revealing retrospective which captures so much - so good to learn what has happened to my old friend from Lincoln Hall, Nottingham University!

Neville said...

What a delight to hear from you after all these years! You don't appear to have contact details on here - do get in touch via my email