We’ve been here before!

Faithwriters’ Challenge – 26th May 2016 – Topic: Computer

I remember my first encounter with computers — a teletype terminal tucked in a cupboard-like room at the end of a school corridor. Characters thumped out from the white cylindrical keys were sent down a telephone line to the nearby sixth form college, to be stored in the transistorised memory of an electronic brain the size of a room. Responses came back at an amazing 30 characters per second, impressed with great force and much noise on the roll of paper, and optionally punched on 1 inch wide paper tape.

That same year, I had the privilege of attending a weekly Computer Club at the college, where we could use the new video terminals – 80×25 character green display tubes that let you move the cursor around the screen to edit text. Once in the sixth form myself, I had access to a TRS 80 “personal computer” with 64 kilobytes of RAM.

In the succeeding years, I used a Sinclair ZX Spectrum,  an early IBM PC and Apple Macintosh (both before Microsoft brought out Windows). Since then, the pace of development has accelerated, so that I now have more power on the phone in my pocket than there was in the whole room at school, and more memory on my tablet than the mainframe computer at my university.

Ironically, with all this expansion of power and storage, we seem to be going backwards. At work, I have a “thin client”, a windows PC with many megabytes of memory, a screen resolution of 1024×768 pixels, and communication capacity down the phone line of around 200,000 characters per second. Yet its only task is to reproduce in my office an image of the desktop from a “virtual machine” running on a massive computer 400 miles away.  The fancy gadget in my pocket or briefcase with Gigabytes of memory and 4G mobile data communication is as likely to be running an “app” in the cloud or on the web as it is to be using its huge resources to design tools or edit videos.

One of the arguments for developments in cloud computing is that mobile devices are easily dropped, perhaps causing irreparable damage; or they are lost or stolen, potentially losing valuable data or allowing them to fall into hostile hands. Storing everything in a central, secure location provides safety, security and the possibility of rapid recovery. Just get a new phone or tablet, synchronise with the cloud, and you’re back in business.

I think we’ve been here before, both with the technology but also life in general. Our circumstances can swing like a pendulum from success to failure, vibrant health to serious illness and a host of other extremes. Most people look for ways to limit the arc of the pendulum, to ensure safety and security, peace and prosperity; and if we can get someone else to solve those problems, that’s even better.

But maybe we are missing something here. If inventors played it safe, we wouldn’t have all these gadgets that we love. Every device represents a risk taken, and probably years of failure along the way. Even the successful corporations have to keep innovating to stay in business. We too need to take risks if we want to do more than survive. So perhaps the sense of deja vu I have in the computer field is a wake-up call to go and do something different, to make something of my life and hopefully add to other people’s along the way.


About prophetable

My wife Elizabeth and I were commissioned as Officers (ministers) in The Salvation Army in 1997, and have served in appointments in England and Scotland. Since July 2016 I have been working in The Salvation Army's Scotland Office as combined parliamentary and ecumenical representative.
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