Micro Live: Tales of Future Past

March 28 1987

Earlier today, I happened to catch this tweet from the estimable Tim Worthington (@outonbluesix):

What could I do? I had to go and check this little nugget out, didn’t I? As it happens, there were two episodes. The first episode of the series contains an interview with Clive Sinclair just after his home computer business was bought out by Amstrad. It also has a short section about computer animation, which is very much of its time. Many of the images now are easily generated in real time, even on a mobile phone, which is something that never even made the radar in these shows.

But I was far more interested by the second episode in that archive, which (as it happens) is the very last episode of Micro Live. It came from March 1987. Even the opening theme, with its Radiophonic knock-off of Kraftwerk’s Computer World (rather good, and presumably necessary because the licensing cost would have knocked a hole in their already small budget), is redolent of the mid-80s. There’s Fred Harris, Mac, and a far more serious-minded Lesley Judd, going all Valerie Singleton on us. And then there’s the pastel-dressed set, not to mention Fred’s oh so pink jumper.

The headline story is interesting enough, because Turing is now a much more well-known name in the popular culture, partly due to the work he did being more widely expored and taught about, but also because of Benedict Cumberbatch’s go at the role in The Imitiation Game. From this remove it is interesting to see Jacobi again dusting off his Claudius stammer to such great effect. It’s also fascinating to see the clips of the stage performance using the transcripts of some of Turing’s actual presentations, and to hear that audiences wanted more science. They got it too.

But the real meat in this show comes from the analyisis of the (relatively short) history of computing. Remember we’re now nearly as far from this programme as it was from Turing’s death. Indeed, the Turing Institute, visited in the programme, has been extinct for over 20 years now. The discussions about the lineage of computing thesmelsves are interesting, including illustrations of Fortran (looking suspiciously like F77) as a third generation programming languages. Informix is still with us, though it is now a part of IBM’s product portfolio.

The discussion then moves to the so-called “Fifth generation” and future technology. At that point, the formative ideas of Xerox PARC and the nascent Apple Macintosh line were still very much in their infancy. But other companies, like Acorn (with the Archimedes), Atari (ST) and Commodore (Amiga) were starting to adopt the windowing paradigm as a central part of their offering. It’s telling that 30 years later, I’m writing these words on an Apple Macintosh, still using the same basic WIMP philosophy and interface metaphor.

Bill Spencer of Xerox PARC seems both of his time and very contemporary, talking about the multi-skilled mix of the work they were doing, though it’s interesting he was very careful not to namecheck Doug Englebart for some reason. The tools his staff were using in PARC were, very clearly, the kinds of collaboration tools we’d recognise using now, particularly if you are accustomed to using mindmapping. And that idea of “enjoying the work” most definitely has percolated through to modern knowledge-based industries. It’s also interesting to hear how there was still some debate about how “successful” PARC had been until that point (though the definition of success is, of course, a tricky one).

But it’s the interviews with the research directors that are most illuminating. The world of 1987 was, in many ways, very diffferent to now. Very different indeed.

The fact remains that there is still a shortage of home-produced skilled engineers and technologists (we import a lot); there is still a squeeze on R&D spend that stifles companies and people. But it was a jolt to hear the phrase “brain drain” dropped into the conversation by Donald Michie, and the casualness with which it was done. In the 70s and 80s it was a common problem. The best couldn’t flourish here: they had to go elsewhere (mostly the US) . Universities had, in the early 80s, to bear the austerity of early Thacherism. Money was tight, as Ian Page confirmed was still the case with his struggles to get funding from research councils, and to keep talented staff, in his later chat with Fred Harris.

This was the time before the Single Market. Maastricht was five long years away. This was a time before our HE system was not as heavily internationalised as it is now (an smaller), and a time before out institutions had access to the funding pots held within the EU. We haven’t really had to think about the idea of losing talent abroad for a generation or so; we’ve been in the business of attracting the best, from wherever that might be. It has made the British economy much stronger as a result. But already, UK insitutiuons are reporting EU staff either already leaving or actively considering it, not to mention massive decreases in nursing applications when the NHS is already running a very large shortfall (Guardian, Telegraph). Such falls are likely not to be restricted to nursing as time passes. It’s likely to become the new normal, which means we’re going to have to start getting used to this now. The Brain Drain might be making a very (unwelcome) comeback.

Beware of what you wish for: you might actually get it.