Monday 21 October 2013

Tales Of Old Times Past

Around fifty years ago, the village postman would deliver the plain brown envelopes marked "Do Not Bend".  A few days later at the village post office the contents would be returned in other brown envelopes, with the same words and sent by registered mail because they were confidential.

People in the know would mutter as we passed and be guarded when they talked to us and sometimes we would be pointed out as people who were different.  Yes, I was the only computer person in the village, and district, dealing with punch cards for the type of computer above, the ICT 1301.

This was state of the art work.  When talking about it people assumed that I was a fantasist and the idea that computers might become normal parts of ordinary life something strictly for the century after next unless aliens took over the planet.

A dozen years later the local authority had a computer system, to the anguish of the local government unions.  It was in a large separate building staffed with a number of high paid persons and admission was only by special permission.

The council had taken the step at the urging of the Treasurer who was having trouble getting reliable accounts clerks, the local Grammar School having been closed. 

After high level meetings with a company in London, which involved hotel stays, a great deal of wining and dining plus entertainments, councillors opted for an "established", that is out of date system with a huge annual maintenance bill.  They proudly claimed it would last for a generation or two.

Five years later visiting an organisation on the continent they were happy to show me how their office systems worked.  It was a shock to see how few people were needed compared to numbers dealing with basic office work where I lived.  More to the point they were interacting with local schools.

In our own area, the Labour majority were arguing that all local computer facilities should be licensed and controlled from the Town Hall.  Also, that anything to do with learning about them should be confined to the local Technical Colleges or places of higher education, including keyboard skills.

They were urged on by members of the Labour Party who happened to be staff at the local Tech' together with their Principal, out to be the local IT Gauleiter.  They were joined by many Heads of schools and the teachers unions wanted no truck with computers as alternative forms of information.

While this was going on at home we had one of the first BBC Micros, linked to BT Prestel, with a printer and telephone connections.  Absurdly primitive by today's standards but working with many uses.  A breakthrough was when a contact passed me one of the first word processor programmes.

Any attempt to explain the potential implications had little effect.  But whether all these public sector boss types liked it or not elsewhere things were picking up speed.  The revolution was on the way only it wasn't political, it was digital.

Little seems to have changed  in some respects.  The public sector is still largely a disaster area in IT.  Huge ill conceived schemes botched at vast expense.  There is an utter lack of awareness for much of what is actual let alone potential.

So as an ultimate old fogey what is happening here?  In the last few days there has been a great deal of "business" dealt with quickly and effectively.  A live performance of a play in Coventry was watched free of charge streamed online.  There is a host of choice of first class cultural material to watch, never mind films of choice for small costs.

There have been video events with the family, no long journeys and at minimal cost.  On top of that a contact who had connection problems brought in their laptop and was part of international high level meetings on a world wide basis while I watched a saved 1964 film on TV in the next room.

There has been a lot of research in varied matters resulting in documents, extensive pictures and backup material that has been widely circulated with little worry about how long it might take to get there, if it did.  Additionally, it is possible to watch events available on video of all sorts.  And so on and so on.

All done on tiny devices and occupying a corner of a small room without added overheads or all the other "office" costs, never mind travel.  It is all a lot easier that the office methods and procedures etc. of the olden times with all that typing, paper, filing and endless trailing distances to meetings etc.

This seems to be the way that much of the private and related sector is beginning to do business.  Inevitably, our politicians and other public sector people who do not have to worry about cost are still engaging in the same way as in the past. 

Add to that they are telling us that the "big projects" are the only way forward.  It might be that these, by the time they were built, would really be used only by the public sector.  We seem to be governed and have allowed ourselves to be governed by the technically ignorant and those determined to avoid the present never mind the future.

In 1834 the Houses of Parliament caught fire and were burned out because of what was in the basements.  One heap of combustible material were the old tally sticks that had been used by the Exchequer from Medieval times to just a few years before.

Apparently, our government IT systems are so bad that some at the new, well 1850's, buildings are making their own Wi Fi arrangements.  This time the problem may be that whole of central government IT crashes or is crashed.

So I look forward to hosting one Secretary of State or another to do their work from the spare room while I catch up with the rugger results and saved games on screen.

1 comment:

  1. I cut my programming teeth on an ICL 2900, it can trace its lineage back to the ICT days, and occupied a large air-conditioned room and had less useable memory than my 8" tablet. But it could be programmed (on a deck of punched cards) in Cobol and had a solid operating system. I regret throwing away a set of punched card when we last moved house.