Moments in History

Moments in History

By Ric Parkin

Overload, 17(92):, August 2009

Technology shapes our world. Ric Parkin looks back at 40 years of change.

I start to write this on the morning of Thursday 16th July 2009, exactly 40 years after Apollo 11 was launched, and I'll be writing the rest of this over the days of the mission. The TV schedules are filled with documentaries talking about this stunning technical achievement that united the world in awe...but how did the world experience it, and what sort of world was it after all? 40 years is a long time in technology, and it was a very different place.

Some amateurs actually tracked the craft using simple optical equipment (it wasn't that hard to spot the dot of light of the craft, at least until it got too close to the glare of the moon itself) [ Keel ]. Everyone else had to follow events via the official communications channels - photo and film cameras for bringing back high definition images, and the direct feeds: radio - think of hearing 'The Eagle has landed' in the control room - and television. The thing most people seem to remember was watching it on the television, in a massive global event with a live audience of an estimated 600 million. Interestingly, the transmitted feed was in quite high definition, but was not compatible with the terrestrial networks. In order to convert and broadcast as soon as possible, they did the only thing they could do without powerful computers to do it on the fly - they showed the feed on a compatible monitor, and pointed a TV camera at it! [ parkes ] This is why the live footage we know is so poor quality. Recently, tapes of the original feed recorded at the Australian down-link have been recovered, and much better quality versions have been shown. There have even been new photographs taken of the landing sites by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, with such resolution you can actually see the landers and their shadows [ LRO ]

It wasn't the first such televisual event. In 1953 the coronation of Elizabeth II was shown in the biggest live broadcast by the BBC up until then, an event where many people bought one those newfangled televisions - which cost a lot of money in those days - and the neighbours came round to watch it live, giving an estimated audience of 20 million. And even earlier, broadcasting such a global spectacle was used for more overt propaganda purposes at the 1936 Olympics [ earlytelevision ].

But why am I mentioning such a disparate group of events? New technologies - in this case, mainly television - had enabled a huge amount of people to share in an event en masse, bringing them all together, often in ways that were unprecedented and unexpected. Such events can even change the way we think of ourselves: consider the impact of such famous photographs as that of Earthrise taken from Apollo 8 [ Nasa ] - a fragile blue ball lost in a huge dark cosmos.

The technologies in use in Apollo 11 are remarkably different to what we would expect nowadays. Mostly systems were mechanical, hydraulic, or electrical. They did use computers, but of such primitiveness that we would hardly recognise them as much beyond a giveaway calculator nowadays. [ Apollo Computer ]. Since then the power and complexity of computing technology has increaded greatly, although the same basic architectural ideas are still in use.

It's not the only time that new technologies have changed the way we interact. Even further back we have the cliche of the family sitting around the wireless, whether listening to The Archers, or to get the news during the War; the telephone and before that the telegraph, which allowed really fast communications across large distances, arguably a major influence on creating modern America. And even further back, the invention of the Penny Post (after an analysis by Charles Babbage), newspapers, the printing press, and writing itself.

At around the same time as Apollo, the first early networks were being developed at DARPA. In fact, October 29th will be the 40th anniversary of the first link in ARPANET, which would eventually become the Internet we know today. I think this too was an important moment when things changed: you no longer had to have everything on your computer locally, but could distribute your computing resources in a much more flexible way. And development continues, from the introduction of IPv6, or a new protocol designed to work with the time lags in deep space [ DTN ]

But of course the Internet is only a conduit - it's what you do with it that makes things interesting, and that tends to fall into two discrete types. The first is a distributed information storage and retrieval service. Early uses including circulating and depositing academic papers, but has grown over the years to include services like Gopher [ Gopher ] and the HTTP protocol and HTML that made the Web, which led to a proliferation of services such as Wikipedia, YouTube, photo hosting web sites, and storing documents online 'in the cloud'. I myself use the latter a lot in the role of editor - I have a status spreadsheet to keep track of what articles I have, what stage they're in, and what I need to do. Then I can access it and keep it up to date from any computer, as soon as an article or review feedback comes in.

The second is communication. Email is an obvious application. In fact it predated ARPANET, being created around 1965 as a way for multiple users of a time-sharing mainframe computer to communicate, even if there weren't around at the same time. Apparently it was used a lot when the original Internet protocols were being developed, allowing widely separated parties to collaborate much faster. It is a fantastic tool for non-immediate communication, where you want to send something even if the other party is not currently there, for them to read later. Looked at in this way it's not surprising that mobile phone SMS took off so well - it's a cheap, quick version of email.

If you wanted a real-time conversation, there are a host of chat protocols, such as IRC and the various instant messaging services, which all have the immediacy of a phone call, and of course VoIP services such as Skype reproduce a voice call itself, with added features such as sending files, and video calls.

As well as the different latencies, there are also the various multiplicities of communication. A one-to-one channel is like a phone call or personal email. A one-to-many is like a broadcast, such as publishing on the web, or services such as Twitter, or YouTube. A many-to-many mode is ideal for networks such as a social group where everyone can talk to everyone else, reminicent of a conversion in a pub with a big group of people. Email lists used like that were an early version of a social networking. Newsgroups can also have a similar function, even though they can be used like a notice board. They do look rather old-fashioned now, what with all the web-based networking sites allowing all manner of plugins and media. These are so popular and easy to do stuff, that they allow a group of people to quickly organise and affect the world, whether it was the campaign to get Wispa bars reintroduced, a speed up of word-of-mouth recommendations that can have a real effect [ BBC ], to the use of Twitter to export news of the Iranian presidential elections, despite curbs on traditional media. The effect of this on governments was acknowledged recently by the Prime Minister at an appearance at the TED Global conference in Oxford [ TED ]

With such a range of communications channels, it is now possible to organise people into teams where geographic location is much less important. This seems to be really prevalent in the IT industry, perhaps because we have to use the computers that make this work anyway, and we are more aware of the new technologies and so are the early adopters. It is not uncommon for a project to involve people in many locations and timezones, all using various communication technologies to collaborate. This really makes sense when you think of the process of developing things like software - a large amount of the time and effort is to decide what to develop by talking to the relevant people, then deciding how to split the work up so that multiple people can work on it, then having to work out how to integrate the seperate parts, and then verify that what has been produced does in fact meet the requirements. As each of these stages involves people with different skills, knowledge, and opinions, the need for communication is clear. In many failing projects (or just the ones which are horrible to be in), quite often a major issue is when the communication fails.

As for the future, what sort of changes could we look forward to? Some trends are obvious - more mobile 'always on' computers connected to a fast pervasive network, whether it be done by making phones more powerful or netbooks smaller. Location and orientation sensitive phones and software are becoming common, leading to some interesting applications as well as potential privacy concerns. The shift to mobility will highlight the problems of too-small screens and fiddly input devices. There are already systems that are trying to solve these issues, but it is too early to know which will eventually succeed. The future starts today.


[Apollo Computer]










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