So, as of tomorrow, I will no longer be thirtysomething. It’s the big four-zero with, I think, the accent on the zero.*
As every blogger knows, events are good things to hang blog posts off (or ‘off of’ if you’re American – although, as an ex-copywriter, I really shouldn’t end any sentence with a preposition, let alone two).
I’ve just been watching a slightly feeble programme featuring James May of Top Gear marvelling at a robot being able to recognise a chair. It reminded me of how I once seriously considered studying artificial intelligence for my degree, and then I got to thinking about the tech timeline of my life up to now.
So, as tomorrow is going to be a special day for a special boy (according to my mum), I thought I’d detail the things that have made me go ‘wow’ over the past few (comparatively) years I’ve been on this beautiful blue-green planet:
Digital watches. Douglas Adams pretty much summed it up. I remember reading the first few pages of Hitchhikers when I was too young really to understand what it was trying to say, and I remember taking issue with them. “But digital watches really are cool”, I thought. “Especially the ones that glow in the dark.” Eventually I got one that played a tune, and we all thought it was so cool that you could swing it around your head really fast and get a phasing effect. My best friend had one that played Scotland the Brave. Wave it around, and it sounded like bagpipes. Outstanding.
Calculators. How did they do that? No matter what you threw at them, they calculated it perfectly, every time. I loved that you could type 07734 into it, turn it upside down, and spell ‘HELLO’ – the precursor, albeit inverted, of leetspeak. I graduated from 07734 to 58008.
ZX81. It all started here. I still think that computer science students should be given one, just to understand how to code incredibly efficiently given scarce resources. I loved the feeling that my brain was programming another brain. I’m still unclear as to which was the more intelligent or capacious.
ZX Spectrum. Colour! High res! Sound! (ok, buzzing). This is where I lay claim to having discovered some basic tenets of computing that wouldn’t be around for a while. I developed a modular system to help me with maths: you loaded them up independently and they would pass data between them. So, my equation interpreter would convert human-readable equations into machine-readable, such that x2 would be turned into x*x, etc. In turn that could be fed into a chart module, all separated apart from messages between them. I developed a flowchart designer program and tried to turn that into an interpreter – a theoretical precursor to Computer Aided Software Engineering which I was to be exposed to in the IT degree at Salford University some years later. I also had in mind a scheme to connect my Speccie to a friend’s down the road by physically hooking them up through the line in/out sockets, and having a programme that allowed simple messages to be ‘saved’ down the line, while my friend’s ‘loaded’ it, and vice versa. I was even going to introduce encryption based on key sharing. We never got around to it: we figured it was only possible by stringing cables along the telephone wires, and that the council might have a thing or two to say about it.
Hard drives. I still remember my father coming home from DuPont telling me about how they’d installed a 20MB hard drive. 20 entire megabytes. It was an inconceivable amount of storage. Today I listened to a song on my iPod which is over 21MB in size.
The Salford University IT course. My first exposure to IBM PCs. 640K, CGA graphics, cannot remember the size of the hard drive. Actually, this was a bit of a low point. It was when we didn’t really push any envelopes, we learned how to do things ‘properly’, and so I tended not to go wow very much. On looking back I did, however, develop my own version of tagging after a fashion: I used Dataease, a 4GL database system, to help me write my dissertation. I typed in the titles of every (printed) source I had available to me, and tagged each one thematically. Then, when I wanted to know which one to draw on for a particular section, I typed in the themes, and got a list of relevant articles. I got a Desmond – a 2:2. The drinking man’s degree. Still, I did after all spend most of my time making a fool of myself on stage in the drama society, including at the Edinburgh Fringe, so I did spend my time profitably away from the degree.
VideoLogic/Imagination Technologies. This began as a fairly small company churning out graphics and sound cards, and I wrote the documentation for them. By the time I left it had won the Sega Dreamcast account and hasn’t looked back since. It is now part of the tech group that produces the Pure Digital range of digital radios, and my understanding is that its technology could theoretically be incorporated into every mobile phone in the world, if it isn’t already. I should qualify this statement by saying I don’t know whether or not it is. But it could/should be.
My first self-build PC. This was only about eight years ago so there is quite a gap there I guess. Thing is, I spent time living in Madrid then had to get back into the world of tech quite slowly, and I didn’t have much cash to splash so I bought a Time PC when I could afford one, but then broke it. I have this combination of curiosity and incompetence which is a fairly bad mix. Not to be discouraged, I realised that if I could break a pre-built PC, perhaps I could build my own. Which I did. And in fact, that’s the one I’m typing at right now. Part of me hates the fact that occasionally I have to get on my hands and knees and re-plug the case fan, or swap hard drives when one fails (yes, they fail). Part of me loves it. Apple users will never know such guilty pleasures of the silicon.
Computer-based music. “Give me a day in a studio,” I used to say, “And I’ll be happy.” I realised quite quickly that my Time PC was capable of recording audio, and one Creative SoundBlaster and Cubasis later, I put together my first composition. My self-built PC took me even further (well, it had to, I broke the Time PC didn’t I?), and eventually I got published twice in the Computer Music magazine, among literally thousands of entries. Am I boasting? A bit. Maybe. You can still hear what I got up to on Last.FM (click the button top left of this blog).
Sharepages. I still say that the first two years I spent in this dotcom start-up were, professionally, the best. There was a tangible feeling that we were doing something special, and anything seemed possible. We were so naive. We thought we would become millionaires without a business plan. Sharepages begat KTS, KTS exists still but under the aegis of Archontech, and our flagship product, MarketTerminal, as far as I can tell, exists no more. It was a great product, but too soon. We never crossed the chasm. Isn’t that often the way?
Social media. Not the web. The web didn’t do much for me at the time because it seemed so one-way and slow. I wanted a system whereby I could type, and publish instantly, and all the links would be looked after automatically. I envisioned a brain online, even an interface of a brain, with a ‘left hemisphere stuff (science, raionality) and right-hemisphere (arts, intuition)’ graphic so you could dive into different bits. Perhaps I still should do that. But social media – and blogging especially for me – seemed to change everything. I remember making my list two Christmasses ago – to learn about RSS, Google Reader and blogging – and that brings me to where I am now.
So, if anyone asks, now you know how to cook a Brendan Cooper. You need to start with someone who has a facility for arts, but an interest more in the things he can’t do – maths and science – and an irrational curiosity that he only realises much later on was probably significant in some way. Then you wind him up and set him off, and he follows a slighly strange path that veers between creativity – computer-based music, writing – and technology. I mean, you only have to look at the A Levels that I took – English, History and Maths – to realise that I’m a bit of an oddball.
Where next? Well I do think I’ve found my niche in PR and social media. It seems that the skills I’ve developed, coupled with a fairly deep knowledge of tech, desire to understand ‘issues’ and my general frustration with the current world and desire to look forward to how things could or should be, has found a place here. In fact, I do believe that my job didn’t – and couldn’t – have existed more than two or three years ago. Perhaps the geek really will inherit the earth.
I’m not even going to start giving predictions about the future. As I’ve said, I often only realise that things I thought in the past were of any relevance when they came to be. Technology-wise it’s probably safe to say that things will go faster and have more capacity. Behaviour-wise, who knows how people will use this? I mean, who could have predicted that Brits would love texting so?
But to get back to where I really started out, it’s the configuration that counts. Brains are not circuits. They’re analogue, and therein lies their infinite capacity to confound and delight us.
So never forget: however complex the world seems; however many websites there are in cyberspace (remember that term?), or however quickly the blogosphere (when will that become quaint?) expands; however many stars you see in sky tonight; your brain contains many more possible connections. There are many more possibilities in your head. You can comprehend it all. You just have to realise it.
Right. I just finished that Guinness I was drinking, and I have one more cigarette left. Tomorrow, I turn 40, and I stop smoking. I don’t know what I’m doing for my birthday – all I do know is that it involves a train. And not smoking.
So, I realise this has been a rather mega-post, but it is after all a rather significant age for me. I’ll be back in the blogosphere next week, and I’ll be tweeting and bookmarking and writing new business pitches and engaging in blogosphere outreach and figuring out new ways to use Yahoo Pipes. I think I’ll also try to grow up a little. Sooner or later I know I’m going to have to stop liking films that involve CGI (ooh, forgot to mention that – my jaw dropped at Jurassic Park) and space (Star Wars before it became crap, and Star Trek – a bit).