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Journey: Introduction

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 28 Oct 2013, 13:41

It was a glorious September day; a day that echoed many of the best summer days that made the London Olympics so special for Londoners.  It was a day that I knew was going to change my life in a small but significant way - it was the day that I finally got around to changing my old fashioned (or 'classic') mobile telephone into one of those new fangled Smartphones.

'Why did it take you so long?  You work in technology?!', I could hear some of my friends and colleagues exclaiming. 'I was expecting you to be one of those who would jump at a chance to play with new stuff...'  The most obvious reason I can give as to why it took me so long is one that is immediately the most cynical: I've been around long enough to appreciate that early stuff doesn't always work as intended.   I decided to 'hang back' to see how the technology environment changes.  Plus, I was perfectly happy to muddle through with my simple yet elegant mobile phone which efficiently supported its primary purpose, which was to make and receive telephone calls.

I jumped on a red London bus and checked my text messages on my classic phone for the last time (there were none), and settled down to enjoy the ride of around four stops to Lewisham town centre, a bustling part of South East London.  I knew exactly where I was going -  to a shop entitled 'The Carphone Warehouse' (which sounds a bit anomalous, since it was neither a warehouse and I don't know anyone who has a dedicated car phone any more).

Stepping off the bus, I immediately found myself amidst a busy crowd.  One of the things that I love about Lewisham is its fabulous market.  I made my way past the fishmongers and hardware stall, and then past the numerous fruit and veg stalls, all of which seemed to be doing a roaring trade.  I then stepped into an air conditioned shopping centre and into the side entrance of the phone shop.  It was like I had entered another world.

After looking at a couple of 'device exhibits', I decided I needed to chat to someone.  It suddenly struck me how busy the shop was.  I joined an orderly queue had formed in front of the cash desk.  I could see that employees were deep in conversation with customers who had expressions that conveyed concentration.  In the background I could hear a woman speaking in what I understood to be a Nigerian accent expressing unhappiness.  'You can ring the shop...', said the shop assistant.  'But I don't have a phone!' came the flabbergasted reply. 'I want to speak to your manager!'

After about ten or fifteen minutes, it was my turn.  I explained to the harassed shop assistant what model of phone I wanted (I had done a bit of research) told her something about my current contract and mobile telecoms provider, and had a couple of questions.  These were about the costs, whether I could keep my telephone number and how long it would take to move from my old phone to the new phone.  I was told that my phone could have a choice of colours, that the sky is (approximately) the limit in terms of how much I wanted to spend on the contract, and that they can't help me today because the 'genius bar' guy who migrates telephone numbers from one phone system to another had fainted and had to go home.

It was at that point that I decided to leave the shop and theoretically return another day when the 'genius man' was around.  When I was about to go, I was given a really useful nugget of information, which was, 'just go around the corner to that other shop - they can change contracts for you, you don't even have to call up, which you would have to do if you came into the shop later'.

The second telephone shop I went into was a lot quieter and less frantic.  I asked my same questions about model, price and time and was given impeccably clear answers.  Everything was straight forward (if not slightly more expensive).  The helpful assistant cancelled my existing phone by pressing a few buttons, seemed unperturbed that my contract address was about two years out of date, and gave me a new contract to sign.  Plus, there were no (visibly) angry customers.

Within twenty minutes, I was in possession of one of the most powerful computing devices I have ever possessed.  I was sent on my merry way whilst carrying my new mobile friend in a branded bag.  It was as if I had just bought a very expensive shirt from an upmarket fashion boutique - this was a world away from the time when I bought my first ever mobile phone in the mid 1990s.

Heading home, I passed three different mobile telephone shops.  Each shop represented a different mobile phone provider.  I always knew that competition between mobile providers was fierce, but the act of walking past so many very similar shops (which can be found pretty much in every big high street) emphasised the vibrancy and visibility of the mobile telecommunications industry.

As I caught the bus back home, I started to think about the device I had just bought.  The short journey to and from Lewisham made me consider the different forces that all contributed towards making a tiny computing device through which you can almost live your entire life.  Through your phone, you can discover your current location and learn about your onward journey, search for businesses that are close by and explore the depths of human knowledge whilst you stand in the street.  You can even hold up your smartphone and the sights that you see annotated with information.  Your smartphone can become (or, so I've heard!) an extension of yourself; like an additional limb or a sense.  The smartphone is, fundamentally, a technological miracle.  These devices make the internet pervasive and information phenomenally accessible.

Whilst considering magic that has emerged from decades of development and continual technological creativity, I asked myself a fundamental question.  This was, 'where has all this come from?'  We can consider a smartphone to be an emergent application of physics, chemistry, electronics, industrial design, engineering and computing and a whole host of other disciplines and subjects too!  My question, however, was a bit more specific.  Since a smartphone is ultimately a very portable and powerful computer. My question is, 'where does the computer come from?'

Such a question doesn't have an easy answer.  In fact, there are many stories which are closely intertwined and interconnected.  The story of the networking is intrinsically connected with the history of computing and computer science.  Just as today's modern smartphones will be carrying out many different tasks (or threads of operation) running at the same time, there are many different threads of innovation that have happened at different times and at different places throughout the world. 

The development of a technology and its application is situated.  By this, I mean, physically situated within a particular place, but also within a particular societal context or environment.  Devices and technologies don't just magically spring into existence.  There is always a rich and complex back story, and this is often one that is fascinating.

Like so many Londoners, I consider myself to be an immigrant to the city.  Whilst wandering its streets I can easily become aware of a richness and a depth of history that can be connected to the simplest and smallest of streets and intersections.  Just scratching the surface of a geographical location can reveal a rich tapestry of stories and characters.  Some of those stories can be connected to the seemingly simple question of, 'where does the computer come from?'

If I consider my new fangled smartphone, I can immediately ask myself a number of corollary questions.  These are: where do the chips that power it come from?  Where are they designed?  Where do they get manufactured?  Where does the software come from?   But before we begin to answer these questions there is a higher level, almost philosophical question which needs to be answered.  This is: 'where does the idea for the modern computer come from?'

This blog post is hopefully one of many which hope to unpick this precise question.  I hope to (gradually) take a series of journeys in space and time, asking seemingly obvious questions which may not have obvious answers.  This may well take me to different parts of the United Kingdom, but there is also an adventurous part of me that wishes to make a number of journeys to different parts of the world.

But before I even consider travelling anywhere outside of London, there are places in London that are really important in the history of the development of the computer, and a good number of them are only a few miles from my house.  Although the next journey will only be a short distance geographically, we will also go back in time to the nineteenth century.  This is a time when computers were people and machines were powered by steam.

My first journey (whilst carrying my smartphone) will be to an ancient part of London called Elephant and Castle.  It's a part of London that is not known for its glamour and culture of innovation and seems a long way from the conception of a modern computer.  Instead, it is a part of the city that is known for its large concrete tower blocks that were considered to be a symbol for modern urban decay.  In fact, the only times I've spent there was riding through the district on my motorbike on the way to somewhere else.

'What has this area got to do with the development of the computer?', I hear you ask.  I'm going to explain all in my next blog post.  And when I've been to Elephant and Castle, we're going to begin to travel further afield.

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