Why did Derek kick the cards across the computer centre?

Newsletter – August 2022

As well as anticipating at least one of my future ‘careers’, my final year undergraduate degree project with the promising title ‘Computer Programming for Flow over Side Weirs’ granted me access to the university Computer Centre. I remember it as a circular building, though perhaps it was octagonal. More importantly, it was home to the university’s computers and terminals. The only ones!

As undergraduates, we weren’t allowed to use the terminals. My friend and project partner Derek and I didn’t even use the computers (which I think were ICL and DEC minicomputers). To run the program at the heart of our project, we had to send the code down the telephone lines to the Manchester Fortran Compiler and wait for the results to come back: a printout on the once familiar endless concertina of perforated paper. And the program itself was held on cards, one card for each line, with a machine to read them something like those they still have in banks for counting money. When the machine had finished, we took the stack of punched cards – 355 of them – and put an elastic band around it. That was our only copy of the program (apart from the printout). It was a frustrating process, especially when a silly error meant that the program wouldn’t even compile. I guess that was what had happened the day Derek took the complete pack of cards and drop-kicked it across the room. Either that or England had beaten Wales at Cardiff Arms Park the day before.

Just over ten years later, as I was studying for my master’s degree, we all had terminals – of course – and my colleagues and I were encouraged to worship the bright dawn of the era of UNIX and ‘open systems’ in general, the IBM model of forcing customers to buy both hardware and software from the same supplier having been pronounced dead. Funnily enough, despite the best efforts of people like Linus Torvalds, it didn’t last long at all (unless you count Android?). Apple certainly didn’t like the idea. They seemed to say to themselves, ‘Open good, closed better!’ And is it unfair to suggest that the success of Microsoft was based on being in the right place at the right time (thanks, ironically, to IBM) and then quickly establishing a monopoly? Later, when Bill Gates said that he didn’t think the Internet would amount to anything, rather than weighing up its potential importance to the world at large, he seemed more interested in whether there would be any money in it for companies like Microsoft. But the clearest sign that we have reached the dead end of what has surely turned out to be a false turn off the road to progress has to be Zuckerberg’s – alleged! – philosophy of ‘better to buy than compete’.

What’s my point? Well, I’m not saying that even social media platforms like Facebook/Instagram don’t represent improvements of a sort for people who can’t get to see each other much (or for publicising your band!), but at the risk of sounding like I’m succumbing to the kind of nostalgia that seems to come with advancing years, I would argue that it’s now some time since we reached a point where ‘progress’ became a case of convincing us that we want the latest products the big players happened to have come up with – ‘tech solutions looking for a social problem to “solve”’, as someone recently put it – when they don’t actually provide us with things that are better than before or vaguely necessary. In other words, it’s about money and nothing else, and as the forest fires rage and we wait for the next wave of floods, the giant corporations will just be checking that they’re looking good to hit the sales targets for the quarter. Doesn’t that make anyone else feel like kicking something across the room?

1 thought on “Why did Derek kick the cards across the computer centre?”

  1. The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me just as much as this one. After all, I know it was my choice to read through, however I truly thought you would have something useful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of moaning about something that you could possibly fix if you were not too busy searching for attention.

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