Tag Archives: history

At the edge of history

On Saturday, I attended the Unite for Europe March in London.

Together, for now

It was the first time I’ve ever taken part in an organised protest or march, and it was probably also the first time I’ve ever felt strongly enough about an issue to feel motivated to do so.

As I walked from the Tube to the meeting point at the start of the route, I was thinking about all we’ll lose as we head into this coming week, towards Mrs May’s intended date for triggering Article 50 and starting the two years of exit negotiations.

My father was born into a world that within weeks, was plunged into the Second World War. My grandparents must have spent some time hiding in shelters with their children, my father and uncle, the fear and uncertainty something I cannot imagine. My mother was born into the hesitant peace that came immediately after that conflict, and the years of austerity, rationing and rebuilding that followed, as borders closed and dangers loomed in the east.

And then came the Treaty of Rome, and the start of 60 years of peace, cooperation and (relative) economic stability, in a continent previously torn by wars and economic rivalries.

By contrast to my parents, I was born into a nation that was by then already a member of the EU. I’ve held the rights of an EU citizen since 1993 when those rights were established by treaty. So, for my entire working life I’ve enjoyed the benefits of freedom of movement, freedom from discrimination based on my nationality within the EU, and rights to consular protection abroad (among others). It makes me incredibly sad that the rising tides of nationalism in individual member states are starting to dilute these feelings of freedom and partnership that have been hard-won through (initially) post-war negotiation, and then expanded through the end of the Cold War to our neighbours further across the continent.

(hint: we never lost it)

It’s fairly clear that in the nine months since the referendum took place, every one of the main planks of the groups advocating that Britain should leave the EU have been thoroughly dismantled or proven as falsehoods — most famously the £350 million per week we’d get back to put into the NHS, which was a claim withdrawn on day 1 after the result. Given that many of the staff of the NHS choose to live and work in the UK but come from outside, we can also guess that things will become even further strained as the Government refuses to guarantee the rights of existing EU citizens. There may be a large fee of billions to pay to get out, but we just don’t know yet, and probably will not through the coming (doubtless even more uncertain) two years ahead. Some of the UK regions and industries significantly dependent on EU grants and funding have started to realise the austerity they face in the future. Immigration has yet to be proven a failed policy, and our terrorists have consistently been home-grown.

Not only that, but those in favour of the exit appear intent on trampling on genuinely useful rules agreed across the EU, such as protecting wildlife habitats and regulating drug trials. My mind boggles as to what comes after our EU rights are stripped and businesses are given free reign to profit in any ways they choose… there’s nothing to fear in the past, but a leap into the dark unknown ahead.

I’m appalled that a minority voting outcome for an advisory process to Parliament has led us down this sad path, and it is largely those under 40 who will pay the price for this in the coming decades.

The march on Saturday was glorious, with a far larger turnout than the organisers expected, and with people coming to London from across the country to join together to speak for Europe. A source of joy and love.

Bad ideas should always be challenged — it is our democratic duty to speak out and persuade

For the moment, I’m proud to be a European citizen. I celebrate all of my friends and colleagues who decided to come to the UK to work and live here, and long (I hope) may they do so. The EU is far from perfect, and could do with many structural reforms and revisions, but I applaud what it has brought to this continent of ours for the past 60 years — peace, freedom, friendship, greater understanding, opportunity, and prosperity.

Happy birthday, EU!

(originally posted on Medium)

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Reflections on IBM

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about the company I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life with – IBM. A few months ago I wrote about the company’s centennial. As an historian this has had me extremely engaged, excited, and interested.

In the last week I’ve had a couple of interesting experiences related to IBM.

First of all, I visited the Oxford University Careers in Computing Event.  I’d been up to Oxford in November for the wider University careers event, but I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with science students about what the company is all about. IBM helped to invent modern computing; to put man on the moon; it invented the PC, the floppy disk, various storage advances; it helped decode the human genome; it built the machines that defeated humans at chess and at Jeopardy; it is helping to build a Smarter Planet. It’s a great place to be.

Secondly, I helped to host some US colleagues in our UK lab at Hursley. I love Hursley and I’ve been enormously privileged to work there for the past few years. I remember my first experience of visiting IBM there as a customer in ~2000 – seeing the wonderful Wedgewood Room, the IBM consultant I was working with dropped the thought that one day I could work there into my head, and I’ve spent a long time wanting to work there, getting to work there, and then learning the history and showing it to others. Wonderful place.

I’m proud to have had the chance to work with an organisation that has helped to reshape and change the world. The quality of the people, the history of the organisation, and the amazing technology, has transformed my life.

Getting all philosophical about Software

A few weeks ago, my friend Paul Squires from Perini Networks contacted me wondering whether I’d be interested in taking part in Imperica’s “In Conversation With…” series. The idea was to pair me up with Dr David Berry from Swansea University to discuss some ideas on The Philosophy of Software (coincidentally, the title of David’s extremely interesting book). For some reason, Paul seemed to think I had things to say on this subject…! 🙂

We had a fascinating, hour-long discussion on the topic, which has just been published as In Conversation With… David Berry and Andy Piper. A very enjoyable exploration of the subject, which touched on my own interests in history, society, social software, the augmented human, and the evolution of the ways in which we encounter technology.

I hope you find the discussion worth a read!

Dogear Nation 200, and 250 hours of podcasting

We’re just about to record episode 200 of Dogear Nation, a regular (weekly, barring a few more recent gaps) podcast summing up opinions of what’s new online and in tech.

I actually only joined Michael Rowe and Michael Martine (the co-hosts) as a regular element of the show around January 2009, and by then they had already clocked up 80+ episodes. Either way, I reckon on around 250 hours of recording time, and a little more than that when I include the few episodes I also edited; 2 and a half years of regular podcasting.

So what have I learned from this exercise?

  • Michael Rowe and Michael Martine are extraordinarily generous, friendly, and wonderful guys – I’ve enjoyed working with them and sharing ideas and opinions. I have two amazing friends for life, built through a digital foundation.
  • It’s difficult to keep a weekly podcast going, even with the regular input from listeners. It’s also difficult to drive and expand an audience. We’ve had some great contributors and regular listeners and I’m grateful to them.
  • Preparation is (nearly) everything. Over the course of the past couple of years we’ve evolved the way that we put the show together, finally arriving at a shared Google document where we co-edit the show notes to build the structure of the show. That’s really helped us to build momentum. It’s still good to have some ad-libbing and free discussion of course.
  • Technology keeps evolving. We knew this of course – one of the premises of the show has always been about the bleeding edge of technology and where things have been moving. Well, I think it’s fair to say that over the course of the past few years on the show, we’ve seen various products go from science fiction to the beginnings of science fact.
  • Go with what you know. I’ve had a lot of fun talking about the things that fascinate me and that I’m passionate about. I know that Michael, Michael, and before me, Matt Simpson, have also made their best contributions based on the areas that they’ve known about or have been most curious about. For example, amongst other things, Michael Rowe is a space / NASA buff and a hardcore gamer; Michael Martine is very business-focused, and hates anything that threatens to go near his eyeballs 🙂

It’s been a fun couple of years.

Centennial

On June 16 2011, IBM is 100 years old – a little older if you include the companies that existed before the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (that was later renamed to International Business Machines) merged in 1911.

That’s pretty good going, for a technology company.

If you’ve listened to me speak this year, you will have heard me mention various reflections on how IBM has endured as an organisation. In amongst all the celebrations, and excitement, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection this year. I’m an historian by education and interest, but also a technologist; and perhaps I might even dare to describe myself as a futurist. The IBM 100 celebration has really set me thinking.

Personal Beginnings

Hursley My first introduction to the place where I now work, our lab at Hursley, was when I set foot in Hursley House as a customer, which I think was sometime around about 1999. I was struck by the beautiful wood-panelled (or Wedgewood-decorated) surroundings, the sense of history (IBM has had a research and development lab here in the UK for over 50 years), and the excitement at being at the location of some of the biggest technical innovations of the century.

I grew up and went to school in Portsmouth in the 1980s. IBM at the time was huge. The IBM PC was becoming commonplace, although I was always more of an Acorn lad; many of my school friends had parents who worked at the IBM UK headquarters in North Harbour. I couldn’t fail to know what IBM did, and I grew up learning about computers, how they worked, and wanting to learn and do more with technology. I was a schoolboy nerd, sure – but I knew what IBM did and how important the company was to the technology industry.

The more I’ve been involved with “social” at IBM, the more I’ve come to realise an issue, which SVPs like John Iwata recognised several years ago. You don’t buy IBM-branded consumer software off the shelves now, and although we invented the personal computer, very few people realise that now – let alone care about the PC as a device, by comparison to mobile phones, tablets and game consoles (even if IBM chips do power all three of the current dominant home gaming platforms…). That’s one of the many reasons why IBM chose to trust its employees to tell the broader story of the company and its capabilities through social networking and online interaction, a situation that stretches back to 1997 when IBMers were first actively encouraged to be online and public, and that has continued as the social web has continued to develop.

IBM and history

As I look at the history of the organisation and the various world-changing innovations that we’ve catalogued and highlighted via the IBM 100 site, it makes me THINK.

Many youngsters don’t appreciate the invention of the floppy disk now. In fact, most of them will never have seen one. They are as bizarre an item today as the massive twin-tape-spinning machines I used to see on TV as a child, harking back to the 1960s and 1970s era IBM mainframes. Why should the floppy disk matter? Well, in a sense, not at all… they are a relic of a bygone technical age, before the Internet. But, of course, without the floppy disk, we wouldn’t have been able to build the amazing things we have now. Tablets, mobile phones, tiny portable wireless computers. Don’t forget where we’ve come from.

Talking of where we’ve come from, the BBC has posted a lovely video featuring my friend and mentor Dr Andy Stanford-Clark and the Hursley lab, talking about IBM’s centennial. If you listen at the start and end of the video, you’ll also hear the company anthem

Why does any of this matter? Does it, or should it, matter, that the company that I’m working for helped to put man on the moon using computing equipment less sophisticated than today’s smartphones? Or that we helped to unravel the human genome? Or that we’ve built a computer called Watson that can instantly understand highly nuanced and difficult questions? Some of these things have had clear commercial imperatives, others may have had less, but all have helped to increase the human race’s understanding of the world in which we exist, and have helped towards greater things. Big Data, mobile apps, event-driven business, and the Internet, have all built on top of these earlier advances.

I haven’t blogged for a while, because I’ve been travelling and speaking. A poor excuse, but it does at least enable me to comment that last month I toured the Nordics, and had an opportunity to see a working IBM punchcard sorting machine at our HQ in Helsinki, Finland, along with a variety of other cool things (well they were cool to me – just go with it…)

Numeric keypad Start | Stop IBM Series 82 Card Sorter  IBM Parts Catalogue  IBM Clock  System/360 and 370 Electromatic Typewriter Emergency Pull System Reset

Final thoughts

My final thought is, fundamentally, a mix of cautious optimism, and fear of a technology “generation gap”. I’ve grown up during an era straddling the pre- and post-Internet generations. I’m actually hugely grateful – it gives me perspective. I’m an enthusiastic adopter of many of the technologies that have arisen as a result of the interconnected world, and my day job is involved with enabling systems to work together, reliably. Important stuff, in my opinion.

The current/next generation is growing up in an immediately-connected world, and faced not with keyboards and mice or touchpads, but with magic pieces of glass, or indeed, gestures in the air. We’ve moved beyond the period where I hacked open my Acorn Electron and soldered in headphones and a switch to avoid bothering my parents, and indeed beyond the time where graphics and sound cards could be slotted in and out of a motherboard, to an age where everything you need is apparently contained within a magic sheet of glass which responds at a touch.

This is fantastic – glorious – magical? – Technology, as our friends at Apple like to say, just gets out of the way. But, as various commentators are observing, this progress comes at the price of the wider population understanding technology, or even having the inclination to dig beneath the surface and try to fathom how these super-duper, integrated chips and advanced operating systems, enable this advanced behaviour. I’m not saying that every child should be forced to understand programming, chip design, technology internals, etc. – but an awareness of what got us here, and how we can continue driving forward, and inquisitiveness, seems to me to be essential. That’s why I’m delighted by the emergence of Arduino and electronics prototyping; and by The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park; and why I’m proud to be an IBMer, aware of our heritage, and still helping to build a Smarter Planet. It’s a responsibility to continue to understand, explain, educate, and help others to make sense of the capabilities we have developed.

Final, final thought: how can we all work together to change the world again, tomorrow?

Book recommendation: Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, by Lou Gerstner.

Video recommendation: I’ve already blogged about IBM’s story of the first 100 years. Check out the videos 🙂