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Memories - The Social Impact of Computers - One Man's Story

This article was contributed by 'LVS' or 'Aleph One'.


I first met a computer when I was thirteen years old, at the Festival of Britain in 1951.  The Science Museum, which I already knew and enjoyed, had a large machine playing a game called Nim, in which each player tries to take the last of a number of objects from a set.  The simplicity of the rule and the existence of an algorithm for winning made it a good simple example for programming.  A demonstrator worked with passers-by, such as me, to show what it could do and explain how.

The next time I came close to a computer it was part of the Department of Mathematics at Cambridge when I was studying Natural Science in 1958.  I was interested in getting closer to it, but the only courses available were in Numerical Analysis, and my tutor quite correctly advised me against taking that course, as my mathematical strength was not enough.

After Cambridge I moved to the USA, and in the mid-1960s my employers in Massachusetts bought for the Research Department a small Wang computer capable of running a stored program (from an 80-column IBM  punched card).  Its functionality was like that of a 1980s pocket calculator.  I was Treasurer of the Concord Players at the time, and was grateful to be able to use it in lunch breaks to add figures; it had four memories.

We also had remote access to a mainframe computer at MIT which we used for serious calculating.  This could also run a simple interactive program which reacted to text input as a psychotherapist or counsellor might, by picking up on words typed in and framing questions about them in response.  At that time a lot of hope and effort was being invested in machine translation, especially from Russian to English, and so Natural Language Processing was an active area and the program I played with was a light-hearted example of it.

Mainframe computers were extensively used in batch programming mode in the 1960s for payroll administration, and one's payslip at the end of the month was a punched card with amounts printed onto it.  There were NO Integrated Circuits so computers used multitudes of vacuum tubes (valves)  and a great deal of electric power.  They were housed in sealed rooms and approached only by suitably clothed acolytes who carried offerings of punched cards to and from the computer.

In the early 1970s Clive Sinclair in Cambridge, UK created a true Pocket Calculator. I first saw one at Asprey's, the expensive jeweller on Bond Street, because they were expensive enough to be sold there, and otherwise rare.  Sinclair developed an ingenious business model in which he sold kits by mail order; when he had enough prepaid orders he bought the parts to make up the kits. (Note: even Credit Cards were rare in the 1970s so one paid by cheque.)

I was interested in these because I was running a small business which had to account for VAT regularly and I was tired of adding columns on paper.  (Note: I started the company just after the introduction of decimal currency in May 1971.  Had I started sooner I would have had to add three units of currency, £ s and d, earlier.  Machines  for that were VERY expensive.)


I had been aware of Analog computers at University, and wondered why they were less popular than digital ones, since so many calculations in physics deal with real continuous variables.  I believe the answers have to do with the need to rewire the components to change the program, and the difficulty of maintaining accuracy in analog computing.  In contrast digital systems are universal in the kinds of application they can perform, and re-programming is made easy.   Greater precision can be obtained by specifying suitable longer variables.


Through the 1970s integrated circuits, ICs, began to spread and their performance began to rise in accordance with improved speed and complexity of ICs in the manner later recognised as Moore's Law.  Texas Instruments sold programmable calculators at diminishing prices with increasing functionality, and they came to be able to execute programs created by the user for his own purposes.  Other firms joined in and the digital revolution really gathered speed.  In 1980 when my younger son won a scholarship to boarding school for five years he asked for and I gave him a TI Programmable Calculator.


In the 1970s my sons were at school in Cambridge, and if they walked back to the Bus Station they passed Cambridge Computer Store, run by Claude Cowan.  They got into the habit of dropping in to see what was new there, and so began their long engagement with computers and the digital world.  They led me deeper into this world, beyond my use of a (mains-powered) calculator for adding figures for the business. 

Acorn Computers Ltd was founded in 1978 by Herman Hauser and Chris Curry, and had premises on the Market Place in Cambridge, where the boys also hung out.  They got one of the very first Atom computers from Acorn.  They would go to computer exhibitions in London and hang out on the Acorn stand, and be left in charge when the Acorn staff went to lunch.  When I have been asked subsequently how thay managed to achieve so much I explain that they were bought up in the right place at the right time.  One son left school at 17 on a Friday and went to work for Acorn Computers on the Monday, staying a number of years before moving to London to work freelance in the IT industry.  The other followed the more conventional career of going to University for first and second degrees before moving into the industry.

Acorn won the contract from the BBC to provide the Acorn BBC Microcomputers for the BBC series which introduced computing to the British public.  The debugging of this splendid new 8-bit machine's operating system became a matter of great urgency.  Both boys worked on debugging, first in exchange for T-shirts, and then, as the deadline for release came close, for bottles of port.  After the machines went into production they were each given one as a reward for their work. 


The Acorn BBC Microcomputer had large and lasting effects in Britain.  Its CPU and electronic and mechanical design were very well thought out; it was reliable and its documentation was excellent.  It was an open design, in a sense which Apple's machines were not, and so an entire industry sector grew up to support the Acorn machines.  The machines had a wide range of input, expansion and output facilities, all documented.  A program was not compiled and loaded into the operating system but interpreted at run-time.  A comprehensive programming language, BBC Basic, was developed which really allowed even young and semi-skilled users to write, debug and run useful programs with an ease and immediacy that has not been matched since.  The rapid interactive debugging was particularly important in its difference from the batch processing model which had applied.  The discipline of getting the program entered correctly on punch cards was very valuable, but took a lot of practice to perfect.  In contrast very little training was needed to start using BBC Basic, and plenty of monthly magazines sprang up to teach 'How to Use . . .'  These magazines were a powerful educational influence on me.


This is not the place to detail all their features, but they used a TV for display, had a  four-channel eight-bit A-to-D converter and a fairly complex I/O interface quite capable of controlling external switching.  The first were programmed from audio tape.  A program was composed of ASCII characters rendered into sound, since good technology had already been developed and mass-produced for recording and playback of audio cassettes.  The unintelligble series of tones audible on a cassette was understood by the BBC Micro as a Program, capable of being modified and copied in quantity and even broadcast by the BBC!


More ambitious programmers could write machine code to accelerate critical CPU tasks; this was also well documented and so eager (especially young) students could advance through a high-level language into writing machine code.    Their more experimentally-minded peers could play with Analog-to-Digital conversion (four channels) on a connector to, say, a thermistor.

In the next-generation BBC Master, Programmable Read-Only Memories (PROMs) could be plugged into an expansion slot, which might contain, for example, a word processor for Arabic and Hebrew (working from right to left on the page) or a Database, and auxiliaries like a second CPU and an external disk drive connector were provided.

The central factors influencing the rapid growth of the Acorn Computer industry were its open nature, the availability of the well-documented and interpreted (not compiled) programming language, BBC Basic, with simple constructs and good quick debugging facilities, and the availability for serious users of documentation of the machine code, which allowed them to overcome the critical delays in repeated functions by writing, and then polishing, efficient machine code routines

These technical factors were of course closely coupled to less central factors involving advances in chip design and manufacture, and rapid widespread adoption of computers in many areas of work and of home and school life.  No-one who has used a typewriter ever willingly reverts to it after enjoying a word processor.  Formerly one was trained to use a typewriter, and then went on to use it.  In the 1980s that changed, and more and more people adopted keyboards, first for typewriters and then for computers.  The benefits far outweighed the burden  of learning to use the keyboard.  The pace accelerated when  erasing one's errors became easy.  (This first happened with second generation electric typewriters with correction tape built in to the keyboard, and then leapt forward with DTP systems which allowed you to see and edit on the screen what you would only later print out.)

The associated introduction of layout tools and scaleable fonts meant everyone could become a publisher - and most of us did.   In the mid-1970s when I wanted a Price List for the company I took the details to a photo-typesetter, who set and printed it smartly.  By the later 1980s I could type it myself and print it on a dot-matrix printer in constant-width characters, which brought it under my control.  Then came 24-pin printers with proportional spacing.  Within a few more years I could use DTP and a laser printer to do what the photo-typesetter used to do.  The capital cost had fallen enormously and the standard of production had risen even more.

Certainly on the first-generation 8-bit machines, such as the Acorn machines, early DTP programs struggled to keep up with keyboard input.  However one Acorn software house, Computer Concepts, made a point of polishing machine code sub-routines for intensively-used tasks and combined this with much-needed DTP features to create the application called IMPRESSION.  Soon this was being used in serious publishing in a range of applications which before could only be contemplated by serious Design and Print houses.

Firms were set up to design Fonts, and soon the range available far outstripped the number anyone actually needed.  The process of font development occurred on Acorn machines well before it did on PCs, which remained thoroughly text-based well into the 1990s. 

One notable example of the use of custom-developed fonts was in the application SIBELIUS developed in Cambridge by the twin Finn brothers while still at school.  It was at root a music notation program, but its software embodied a great deal of musical knowledge.  Then someone with or without musical skills could create tunes, edit them (again, very quickly) and learn to accompany, write parts and even orchestrate them, and then >print out< their work on plain paper!   Music industry people bought Acorn machines simply to have access to Sibelius - a Killer App!

Input and output via a Midi Interface followed, and Sibelius was successful enough to generate the significant funding required to rewrite the whole application for PCs when they became more numerous and cheaper than Acorn machines and could handle font management. The company thrived and opened offices worldwide (Los Angeles was among the first), and generated many user groups around the world.  In 2006 the founders sold their remaining shares for £M12.2.


There are many other areas in which computers allowed ordinary individuals to do work that had opreviously been carried out by specially-trained people.  I mentioned typewriting of letters already, with DTP following that.  But as spreadsheets became commonplace people could handle domestic accounts on their computers, and then software for business accounting spread widely in small and then in medium-sized businesses.  I got an Invoice in May 2009 from a firm which I can tell is using SAGE accounting software, because we used it too from 1990 to 2007.  Now they use a laser printer, where we used dot-matrix printers to make an original and a copy on continuous printed forms.  So the bookkeeping and accounting operations of a company could be brought in-house. 

And that is before considering the use of databases on small computers!  Nowadays they are commonplace for complex tasks like Customer Relationship Management, but that consolidation of functions took time.  It began with spreadsheets, then developed into databases, bringing a surge of new types of users, and no doubt the process continues beyond my horizon even now.  Features like mailmerging to generate a set of labels, or distinct letters for each addresee, became possible.  The boundary between large-company styles and procedures and those of a small company shifted drastically, empowering the small company with strengths it had lacked. (Similar changes have occurred in communications, so that small companies now may only have a mobile phone number and no land line.)


And then there is the Internet and the World-Wide Web, WWW.  These are the most significant changes in broadcast information since the invention of printing.  Now I can get a detailed Data Sheet for a product I had never heard of until ten minutes ago, from a source on the other side of the world, at once, in colour, and know it is up to date.  I remember a generation ago, working in Massachusetts, I wanted information urgently from a company in Ohio. I telephoned and they put papers in the post, and I got them two days later, and was impressed!

Just as notable is that I don't have to know exactly what I am looking for before I start.  The creations of Yahoo and then of Google allow me to track down information via general questions and astonishing indexing and searching powers.  And it is just as well the indexing exists!  There are now so many pages on the WWW that even very good search questions would not find all the pages I might want.

My main use of this has been in product information retrieval and in understanding what a company I have never heard of in another country actually does; it works equally well for studying passenger manifests for ocean liners in 1880, finding a hotel in Buenos Aires that can deal with a physically handicapped visitor, learning just how a planimeter works, and providing the census details for 1901 for Eltham. 

I have used Cambridge University Library.  It has a good paper catalog and an excellent on-line one but they cannot possibly match the WWW search engines for speed of search or of retrieval.  The UL does excel at printed books from the (long) pre-WWW eras, and for journals for which I would have to buy articles in order to read them.  [A privileged member of the University would be able to access those from home via the University network too.] 

The extensive use of WWW in teaching, at many levels, is pointing everyone towards a very information-rich world at their fingertips, and we have scarcely begun to see its impacts.  It is interesting that the growth of plagiarism has led in turn to the development of tools for finding it when it is suspected.

The other extension of WWW into business practice is our routine use of Internet Banking, so that our suppliers get paid directly to their bank rather than by cheque.  We have almost ceased writing cheques, and deposit only a few each month.  The systems we use have proved their accuracy, reliability and efficiency.

I very much appreciate the use of WWW for booking tickets, both for travel and entertainments.  The systems are now reasonably easy to use, accurate and reliable.


The remaining exploitation of the Internet by computers that has impacted on me is of course email.  Thirty and twenty years ago (when we had two postal deliveries each day, one of them by 0830) my working day started with opening the letters; ones containing cheques got priority.

Now my day starts about the same time (but before the post has arrived) with attending to my email.   If I see the characteristic pairs of emails, one from our web shop and one from PayPal saying they have received the customer's payment, then these get priority.  Once the goods ordered are in the post we always email the customer to say the goods are on their way (by First Class Post).  The goods won't reach the customer faster than they would have 20 or 30 years ago, but they arrive with less administrative burden and with a more rapid response from us than if the customer had had to send a cheque before we knew of the order. 

Email is rapid, accurate and efficient for point-to-point and point-to-few distribution of messages, Minutes, Agenda, invoices or discussions about what to do next or when and where to meet. The ease of a Reply to All is especially significant, and whether the meeting is face-to-face or a conference phone call it can be set up confidently even when the parties are widely separated by time and distance.  Before and after it is a powerful tool for distributing preliminary and subsequent material; we who use it may have forgotten how much slower this routine administration was before email.


Nearly-free fairly-rapid encryption of datastreams using public key cryptography is available now, and a firm can buy, for a price, systems for managing access to the keys used within the company....

I think the need to encryption is going to grow.  The changes in the last decade have led the British Government to want to know eveything about everybody, and so they are creating a national Identity Database, including DNA, but they also want to know about all our communcation, whether email to others or extracting data from web sites, or making bookings for tickets.


There is a sinister aspect of improved communication via computers.   The government (govt.) wants to know everything about us.  It already keeps very detailed records of some  movements by public transport - the Oyster Card and Passport are our ways of wearing an RFID tag.  It knows when we enter, move within or leave a Congestion Charge zone.  It has extensive powers to track traffic in phone calls (fixed or mobile) and all our WWW accesses in both directions.  It is 'consulting' about increasing the scope of this coverage by way of the paper PROTECTING THE PUBLIC IN A CHANGING COMMUNICATIONS ENVIRONMENT, April 2009, Cmd 7586, so that it can acquire information about traffic abroad as well as in the UK.   It is also planning a National Identity Database and expects to issue cards to show we exist.  Without these cards we shall NOT exist, as far at the govt. is concerned.  It collects details for a DNA database, from children too young to object and innocent others unfortuante enough to be near the scene of a crime.  It is very grudging about relinquishing its grip on collected data, and has just been pushed into saying it will release some after six years, and some more after 12 years.

This is the govt. that has shown it is incompetent to look after the data it already has; civil servants lose CDs and laptops or sell tasty bits of data to the newspapers.  It wants to share this data with lots of other organisations and agencies, whether we like it or not.  A million or so people will have access to it.  The govt. does not care how many of them are corruptible, or simply casual.

I object to this.  I object to the change in the relationship of a person to the state.  So far the state has existed as the sum of the people who live in it.  Now each of us will only exist to the extent that we conform to the requirements of the state to provide the data they want (whether they need it or not).  If we don't fill in the form just right we shall not be able to buy a ticket, collect a pension, see the doctor, get married, and probably not even borrow a library book. We shall also have to pay to exist, by buying an ID Card.  This is a categorical change for the worse. 

We may have a future govt. which is less benign than this one, that is asking to track our every moment and phone call and so on and on but cannot answer for the actions of future govts.  They are acting not for the greatest good of the greatest number but in what they perceive as their own interests, cleverly dressed up as our interests.  I do not accept this.


I have not become at all involved in any social networking activities, because I am not interested.  I note only that they were inconceivable ten years ago and popular and powerful in 2009.  I believe they depend for their success of the ignorance of the users about what >might< happen to the infomation they post;  they assume the process is simply social and don't care about the malicious or thieving reader.



Memories - The Social Impact of Computers - One Man's Story

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