When I was a troublesome schoolboy (I still have the cap, and it might be worth something now the school has been flattened), I used to play a game in Maths class with my pal Piggy. Aside from trying to see up the Maths teacher’s very short skirt, we’d devise codes and pass each other notes in those codes. The one who was left with an unsolved code at the end of the lesson was the loser. We both passed Maths quite nicely, by the way. It’s a sort of digression but also something of a prologue…
I’ve been trying to find a story I read as a teenager. I’m almost certain it was in one of Brian Aldiss’s collections, either ‘Comic Inferno’ or ‘Space, Time and Nathaniel’ but I’m not 100%. What’s really infuriating is that I know I have both those books but they are small paperbacks among big stacks of books, and might be in one of the attic boxes.
It told of two young boys in the future. One of them had a storybook. The future storybook was, naturally, a computer that spoke the stories since the archaic art of reading and writing had long fallen into disuse. The main thrust of the story was the children’s ultimate rejection of the toy and its ominous final tale to itself, ending with it repeating ‘Someday…’ over and over. In fact, I think that was the title of the story. ‘Someday’.
The other aspect of that story, the part that led to the boys kicking away the talking book, was their discovery of an ancient thing called ‘writing’ which involved making marks on a slate with a chalk (might not have been slate and chalk, but that was the general idea).
I would have read this around 1973-76, I think. It must therefore have been written earlier. So the author could not have known that his prediction would one day begin to come true.
Back in nineteen-seventy-something it would have seemed like a good idea. There was no home internet and ‘surveillance’ meant having a policeman shine his torch into a dark alley once per shift. So the idea that one day it wouldn’t matter if your handwriting looked like you’d replaced a spider’s legs with unequal wooden ones, plied it with vodka and dipped it in ink was a great relief. Everything would be spoken. You’d just speak a story and a machine would record it and anyone who wanted to hear the story would press ‘play’. Computers would hold conversations rather than having to punch holes in little cards and hope they were in the right order (Keyboards came later, as did computers that didn’t require a whole room of their own).
Now, however, the replacement of teaching handwriting with the teaching of ‘keyboard fluency’ sounds a little sinister.
Why? Well, if you can scribble a note on a plain pack and pass it to someone else, nobody else can possibly know what that message said. If you can’t do that, but can type the message in a few seconds and hit ‘send’, then it is easy to intercept and monitor. We don’t yet have computers we can converse with, apart from that Siri thing on the rabid antismoking Apple phones, and nothing so far that we can have a real, sensible conversation with.
However, when I started university in 1978 they had taken delivery of a new (second hand, I think) computer. A vast thing that used punched cards and did statistics. I never used it. By the time I had learned how, punched the cards, ran the program and worked out what the hell it was telling me, I could have done the stats on paper and written up the report. It seemd a huge waste of time.
When I was halfway through a PhD I bought a second hand Sinclair ZX-81 with a massive 16 kilobytes of memory and programs in BASIC.
In my first job, I experienced the BBC Master and the first MS-DOS PC. With daisywheel printers. Couldn’t afford those myself, so set the work BBC to plot the Mandelbrot set. It took three days. And there was no way to print it. Sigh.
About 1990, I had an Amstrad PCW with WYSIWYG word processing (Locosript, and it was a good one) that used CP/M. This had a dot matrix printer – it could do graphs! Amazing. No more graph paper.
The ‘no more graph paper’ turned out to be a bad thing. The best, quickest and easiest way to work out bacterial specific growth rates is still a plot on semi-logarithmic graph paper. Can’t get that anywhere now.
Early 1990s and I had a home-made 386 running an early Windows that was connected to the internet via Compuserve. There didn’t seem to be much to the internet at that time, mostly chatrooms and grainy porn (on an early dialup modem, you’d lose interest before the image arrived).
That’s just 25 years ago. Look at it now – the internet is fast, you can stream an entire movie, there’s been a program called Dragon Dictate around for ages that lets you just talk into a microphone and words appear on a screen. OCR was around before that. Scanners that can take every detail of a document or image. I have a scanner that is designed to scan old photo negatives and convert them into positives. I have a camera on a flexi arm that can look under and behind things to find that thing I dropped. I have a (not very powerful in microbiology terms) USB microscope.
I can talk to someone on the other side of the world for free if I ever figure out Skype. I can chat in real time on Farcebok or Twitter – and there are other options I have not explored.
I have a little Acer Aspire that doesn’t look like much but can do a hell of a lot more than that old 386 I once was so proud of. The ZX81 I used to think was the ultimate in computing power is now laughed at by my cheap phone.
On my desk is a computer that, really, is capable of running the entire affairs of a small country. I use it to make up stories, look at silly cat pictures and talk nonsense here and on Twitter. If Bloefeldt or the Penguin had had access to this kind of computing power they would have taken over the world in a week.
Conversing computers are not that far away now. Children are to be taught typing instead of writing already and when the machines talk, there will be no more need for either.
And every single word will be stored and analysed. Every transaction will be tracked and taxed. Use today’s wrong word and the Authority will know at once and you’ll be picked up for re-education and disposal within minutes.
Until those little enquiring minds rediscover the skill of making marks on something and knowing what the marks mean.
They will. Oh yes, they will. A million years from now they will still pass codes in Maths class.
When the inevitable-one-day solar flare wipes out electronics, even if only for a few days, those future Ogham-scratchers will be the survivors.
This whole ‘New World Order’ shit is not going to work in the end. Why put us through it all, when it is ultimately an utter waste of time? Rich pompous folk, I recommend you spend your money on having a good time because a hundred years from now you will be just as dead as me anyway.
Do you really think otherwise?
Memory finally kicked in. The story ‘Someday’ was in a collection called ‘The Metal Smile’ and might or might not have been written by Brian Aldiss. At least I remember which book I’m now looking for.