Saturday, 3 February 2007

In Praise of Silver Surfers

Today's perennially resurrected shock-horror reports that pensioners are using the Internet are as patronising as ever. Admittedly I'm not a pensioner yet, but nor do I wear a beanie and spout urban patois.

In the mid 1970's, when computers occupied entire basement floors, I worked with a fellow student on testing and developing the practical application of a computer model named DOT...the Decision Optimising Technique. I can't pretend we were exactly fundamental to the project, but at least it involved a need for creative lateral thinking and the ability to write routines in FORTRAN and dabble with machine code. And who knows, maybe our work fed back a little into the development of the model.

We were steered in this by the model's creator, a post-grad named Stan Openshaw. Stan was cheerful, self-effacing, and came over as an ordinary, very nice guy with an unusual amount of logical insight. It wasn't until about two decades later that I happened to mention Stan to a computer tweak; his jaw dropped, and he exclaimed, "Not the Stan Openshaw?" When he'd finished kissing my feet, it turned out that in the meantime Professor Stan Openshaw had become a world expert in artificial intelligence, author of 11 books and umpteen papers, and a god in the world of computer modelling and data analysis.

My point is that Stan is now retired, and that it was people like him and his contemporaries who, in an explosion of creativity that consistently outran the development of hardware to support it, created the foundations for the use of computers today. Even the people who cut their teeth on the Sinclair ZX81 had more experience of programming than the average IT employee now, who is practised at lubricating our use of operating systems and software packages, but probably has very limited understanding about what is actually going on within them. When everyone was worrying about the millennium bug, you may recall, it was the greying programmers of the 1960s and 70s who were called back to sort it.

So next time you come across someone chuckling about 'silver surfers' managing to send emails, pause and pay homage to the "innovative and iconoclastic" minds of Stan and the generations which paved the way for the rest of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment