What’s past is prologue

The queue pushed and swayed, a dozen or more excited school kids chattering about what lay behind the door. It was early September 1980 – the first or second week of term, my first term of secondary school. I queued with a friend from many years before who I’d bumped in to again a few weeks earlier. He’d told me then that he’d been learning about computers. I’d never used one; they sounded interesting. The queue was for Computer Club.

Behind the door, eventually, we found two computers: a Research Machines 380Z plugged into a large black-and-white TV on a trolley and with a keyboard seemingly made of wrought iron; and a Tandy TRS-80 with a green-screen monitor, an altogether sexier beast. Model I, Level II BASIC, 16K RAM. Pixel resolution of 128×48. Tape storage. No lower case characters. Awesome. The potential! The thrill!

We sat on the playing field afterwards, the school dozing into silence for the evening but the two of us buzzing.

“I want to learn how to program,” I said.

“I’ll lend you a book. I’ve written some programs already. Easy really.”

“What do they do?”

“One does hangman. In theory. It’s only on paper, but it looks right.” He didn’t have a computer yet.

“You going to sell it?”

“Not this one. I have plans though.”

“Breakout? Space Invaders?” The TRS-80 wasn’t capable enough for Defender, that much was obvious.

He paused, and rubbed his face all over in that way that he had. “Tell me about the future.”

“The Space Shuttle!” Columbia’s maiden flight was due in a few months. It had already been delayed several times. I was a little obsessed.

“An evolutionary dead end.” A wave of the hand, dismissed.

“A flight a week, NASA says, and–”

“Not gonna happen. They have to say that to get the money. But I’m talking about computers. What will they be like in five years, ten years? Thirty?”

I was eleven. Five months was a long time. Five years? ‘O’ Levels, I guess. I’d probably have a girlfriend. Ten years? Thirty? No idea. Oh – I’d have a family, and a moustache. That’s all I knew. A thought struck. “Positronic brains. The Three Laws of Robotics. ” Asimov was another obsession. “C-3PO, human-cyborg relations.” And Star Wars.

“So compared to the TRS-80?”

“Much more powerful: smaller, faster, intelligent.”

“Smaller, faster, but not intelligent. And add ‘cheaper’.”

“Smaller, faster, cheaper. Is that it? No robots?”

He paused again, longer this time. It was getting chilly. The tall trees bordering the playing field caught the breeze and danced. He turned towards me, pivoting his whole body on the grass. “Let’s talk about evolution.” I hated it when he changed the subject like that. “What happened when the first life evolved to survive on the land?”

“They took over. They had the place to themselves. Plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, rarrrrgh!, birds, mammals, Thatcher.”

“Wave after wave. More sophisticated species replacing or dominating or eating less sophisticated species. More or less. A food chain. Symbiosis. Co-evolution.” I barely understood the words he was using. I realised he’d been learning about more than just computers. “Bees and flowers, hunter and hunted, even humans and dogs.” He was excited and gesticulating now, eyes bright in the gathering gloom. “All it took – all it took – was a foothold. A trailblazer. A simple species making an adventurous leap.”

“I see.” I didn’t see.

“That TRS-80, that 380Z.” Back onto computers again! Christ! “They are the trailblazers. The algal scum clinging to life at the edge of a Paleozoic pool.”

“Oh, I see!” I saw. And I wished I could talk like that.

“They are the… the quantum leap. In five years much more sophisticated species of computer will exist. An explosion of architectures, of forms.” He spoke too fast for his mouth, flecks of spittle leaping free. “Faster, smaller, cheaper. Colonising homes like lichen, moss, plants, flowers. And where you have plants, you have pollination – and eventually pollinators, like–”

“Bees!”

“Which in computer terms, means…”

“Taking pollen from one computer to another. Moving stuff around. Computers that talk to each other!”

“Exactly. Exactly. And we already have those. Heard of Prestel? And at airports, they type your name into a terminal that’s connected to a central computer. Universities have these networks too, linked all over the world.”

This was news to me. “The bees are already here.” Buzzing indeed.

“Simple bees, yes. Wait a few years – ten at most – and they’ll be faster, more agile. Then eventually birds, swooping and soaring, the networks going faster even as the plant computers grow more powerful.” That glint again. “Ever more connected, through wires and radio waves, and located by satellites. Millions of times more powerful, millions of times faster, everywhere in the world. And they all merge – the bees and the birds and the mammals including us humans are all computers too.”

The analogy exploded in my head. “But what do you mean, humans? Bees and pollen, networks, yes. Humans?”

“Simple designs but complex, cascading, unpredictable effects. Bees do a couple of things well, birds more, humans much much more. You reach a point where it all grows exponentially, the sophistication of huge brains interconnecting over what is really a very simple system. At its core, deep down, we’re all just hyper-mega-intelligent cylinders of flesh.”

“Ah, right! Of course! So this global network of the future, then, is really just an enormous, interconnected… series of tubes?”

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