Fasten your seat belts!

By Paul Broadbent • 12 December 2017 • News

MacintoshFor five millennia or more, the propeller of boats was the wind. The last battle fought entirely by sailing vessels was exactly 200 years ago. Not long in the tide of time. Today, the America's Cup is fought between unpowered wing-sail hydrofoil catamarans sailing at 50 mph into a 20 mph wind. That’s technology for you.

It took sixty years or so for powered flight to progress from a flying kite put together by the Wright brothers to the record-breaking maiden flight of Concorde flying at twice the speed of sound. And only 53 years separate Man’s first adventure into space and Phelae’s recent landing on a predetermined patch no bigger than a tablecloth on a comet 4 billion miles away travelling at 84,000 mph. Get your mind around that.

Science in all its branches is moving at a phenomenal speed but you are probably oblivious to its fleeting progress. It’s like sitting on the Eurostar reading your paper with little sensation of its travelling at 300 kph - until you look out of the window.

I encountered LEO III in 1963. It was  one of the first computers created for commercial purposes built by a company that made tea cakes and had a tea shop on every corner of every major town in Britain. LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) was a leviathan that took up 5,000 square feet of floor space. It is mind boggling to think that in less than 50 years its functionality, speed and capacity could be so massively surpassed by a computer that sits in the palm of your hand – your mobile telephone. The LEO series, a British invention, was groundbreaking.

I remember my first fax machine bought in 1978 (although it had been around for twenty years). Man’s greatest invention since the wheel, so I thought. I fed it sheets of typewritten data and miraculously they appeared virtually simultaneously in an office in Melbourne. The process was, of course, the conversion of a low resolution photograph into bits of data that were transmitted as electrical pulses down the telephone line. Like all births, it was inelegant but greatly appreciated. It’s still around but clatters and creeks like an old-age pensioner.

This reminds me of my first attempt at e-mail in 1983 – except it was not called email until it was properly developed ten years later. I bought something called an acoustic converter modem (ACM) and plugged it into my Mac. To try this out, a friend sat at the other corner of my office and talked me through the process. He phoned me from his corner to say he was going to send a message from his computer to my computer. We exchanged passwords and simultaneously placed our receivers on to the ACM. During the transmission you heard a series of pulses like the distant hiss from another universe. Eureka! It worked. The downside was it could not transmit pictures and, talking all things into account, took longer than sending a fax. The upside was progress of a sort but its complicated protocol got in the way of workflow.

To replace this clunky piece of kit, I bought a US Robotics 14,400 Fax Modem. But within a couple of years it, too, was consigned to an ever growing pile of outdated hardware as the next generation of computers had built-in modems.

The email and the internet not only became the imperatives of communication between all segments of the social and business communities of the world, they changed the way we kept in touch with each other. Writing letters was a disappearing art. Now, email, texting and the social media have made us avid writers and communicators. Mobile phones matched the developing communications technologies bit for digital bit. The power of the written word had never been so potent. The revolutions across North Africa in 2011 were fuelled by the social media. The availability of information was, and still is, a serious threat to China’s furtive regime.

My first computer was an Amstrad, bought in1984 and I remember the agony of trying to make the thing do as it was told. It came with a pathetic dot-matrix printer which I threw out at once  replacing it with a Brother. The trouble was, the two seem incompatible. It took time and four times the expense of the computer to work and even then they tested my patience to the limits of sanity. History was repeating itself: there’s a wonderful letter to Mark Twain from his editor who was having similar problems with his typewriter. It’s dated November 5, 1875: “ If I can persuade the letters to get up against the ribbon, they won’t go down again without digital assistance … in the meantime, it wastes my time like an old friend.”

Behind such phenomena lie a quiver of technologies that are becoming too complex for us ordinary mortals to comprehend. It has bred super specialists who I will call “Ubergurus” who increasingly inhabit worlds of their own that communicate in tongues we do not understand. In 1959, C P Snow (physical chemist 1905 – 1980) spoke of two cultures.

Steve Jobs, creator of the Apple Macintosh, was different. He was a renaissance man, lucid both as a technocrat and a humanist. His name is engraved on the chassis of that iconic little Mac released in 1984 but his later achievements dwarfed this genre of personal computers. I bought my first Apple Mac in 1989 (25 years ago). It cost (mono screen, CPU and a printer) £10,000. That’s £26,500 in today’s money – or 13 times the cost of a state-of-the-art personal computer today. It boasted a memory of 8 megabites, massive for its day and, for a day or so, I was way ahead of the game but things were moving so fast!

As we know, Steve Jobs diversified Apple into pods, pads and phones. I have bought all of them at one time or another. As I type, my iMac sets off a chain of commands in a complex layer of software; the instructions, protocols and suppositions enable everything to function properly. I take it all for granted; I work away without a thought for how it happens and that’s how it should be. My Mac installation, and the software that goes with it, is there to help my workflow. I don’t care how it works. Over time we, my Mac, its family and I, have established a mutual understanding, a respect and even a love for each other. Now everything is connected: my computer, my iPad, my iPhone and, very soon, my iWatch. They talk to each other in cryptic shorthand, their functions smoothly in sync as they obey my commands …

… until something goes wrong. This is Murphy’s Law at work. The dysfunction is perfectly timed to create maximum inconvenience and dismay. 

Suddenly, I am reminded that such rapid progress can be frail: work overload, clashing protocols, software incompatibilities, aging peripherals, physical malfunctions (your coffee just spilled onto your keyboard), viral infestations … the list goes on. And I should mention my own technological ignorance for thinking something is amiss when it isn’t. I conclude: the greater the sophistication, the greater the propensity for the system to fail.

What do we do about this? I am not alone in this high speed, man-made universe. The answer lies in finding the right Uberguru referred to earlier. Someone you can trust as a friend and not a highwayman who is exploiting his mastery over your ignorance. There is also another kind of quasi-specialist, the one that takes your money leaving the job half completed or fixes one problem and creates another that you only discover the next day.

Ask yourself: would you accept the claimed qualifications of a stranger just because he or she is available? Or let him or her botch something so critical to your livelihood? Or give unqualified access to your most confidential information? At the time you may think you have no options. Think ahead. Be prepared and you have!

Common sense dictates building a long term relationship with someone who you can learn to trust and build a rapport; someone who is bilingual in technology and English; someone who will step in at once when the moment critique strikes; someone loyal to your needs, keeps in touch with the speed of technology. Someone who can advise you on the expansion of your enterprise or pre-empt the crash that invades your nightmares.

With fibre optic connectivity, you live in an era based on the speed of light. And it’s one hell of a ride. Just look out of the window at the passing technical landscape and see how fast you are travelling. Think of the advances since LEO III and project that kind of innovation another fifty years … what do you foresee? How will you prepare for it?


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