Monday, May 09, 2011

How we used to live

My grandad lived in a time where cars were rare.  He didn’t see one until he was an adolescent.  It’s an astonishing thought.  But then I was born in an age where there were three TV channels and no such thing as VCRs. Computers were exotic things nobody could really justify or afford and phones were monoliths of polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride chained to a wall.  In fact, when I grew up, we shared the phone line with our neighbours.  We had to press a button on the top of the phone to reserve the line for us, otherwise the neighbours could just pick up their phone and participate in our calls.  Periodically, the phone would stop working and the BT engineer would come round and with great ceremony pour a bucket of water over an earthing spike outside, which really did seem to fix it for reasons I’m still unable to explain.  Our phone number was THREE DIGITS.  THREE.  It was quite exotic when we moved to a larger village and had to have a four digit phone number.  We were worried that we’d never be able to remember it.

It’s hard to imagine growing up without an Internet.  The Internet is as much a part of me as my knees or my kidleys and I’m immensely proud to have played a small part in its development over the years.  But even someone like me, who was there when it happened, already finds it difficult to imagine how things ever got done without it.

I’m kind of on a computer science kick at the moment.  I think we as computer scientists are regarded as less than scientists by scientists and less than engineers by engineers.  And yet we’ve changed the world in a few short years more profoundly than any other group in history.  We’ve stripped away all sorts of human limitations and redefined what’s possible. 

I have the greatest possible respect for the classical sciences.  Understanding how the universe works is our greatest priority.  But increasingly, computer science is redefining what it means to live in a universe and what it means to be human.  Physics, chemistry and biology tell us what we are, but only computer science will help us reach our potential.

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