Sunday, March 26, 2006

More on alternate geek history

Not so long ago I posted regarding the LEO computer and the question of what a British-dominated geek culture would look like. This post was picked up by a certain high-traffic blog, with the result that it saw shack rocking levels of page requests all week.

Some answers from readers included a recommendation of Francis Spufford's book Backroom Boys, which by chance I'd already read - and which I recommend unhesitatingly - a reference to the film The Dish, and the useful point that in the alternate future Java would be called Tetley.

Oddly enough I had an opportunity to make some observations of a similar culture on Thursday, when I was at the BT Martlesham Heath Research Centre. This organisation (think Bell Labs without money) is, I think, as close to a real-life test as you're likely to get; it is located in the deep English countryside, in fact the area described in the book Akenfield, out of which the huge brutalist structure looms in a gratifyingly sci-fi fashion.

That satisfies a key feature of boffin-ness - there has to be a suitably medieval pub nearby to discuss time travel, nuclear weapons or whatever over a pint of cloudy. The site is an interwar RAF station, of which the road plan and a few distinctive psuedo-Lutyens Ministry of Works barracks survive - just down the road is a Second World War Chain Home radar site, itself a defining boffin achievement. Martlesham Heath was also the organisation that forgot it invented the hyperlink, before rather cluelessly trying to patent them in about 1998. Which is both geeky and horribly British.

The site is also a big operational facility - BT's satellite teleport is there, as is their Internet NOC and a 650 terabyte database. According to local information, the aircraft warning lights atop the microwave tower were put out at the beginning of the first Gulf War under some sort of risible mobilisation warbook security measure.

Finally, the people. I had already had the pleasure of meeting BT's futurologist, Professor Graham Whitehead, so I was ready for the performance he unleashes on audiences, but the rest of the party were less hardened. Whitehead is a huge, bearded chap with a Lancashire accent who talks as if he was carrying out an experiment to increase the bit-rate of speech, gesturing frantically as he expounded on "the internet of things", BT's 21st Century Network plans, wave power, and robotics. "Robots are COMING!" he yelled memorably at one point, in tones that suggested they were about to leap through the windows and gather around him like dogs.

By weird synchronicity, on the train back to London I read an obituary of a BT (indeed GPO) type who kept dowsing rods in his office and professed to use them to diagnose faults on the first pulse code modulation exchanges. My conclusions? A British geekworld would have been both more science-oriented, and more eccentric, although perhaps rather older and more hierarchical.

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