More power to your fingertips

20 September 1999

Reference books are not necessarily the volumes that you fly to for entertainment but they can surprise you quite agreeably at times. Take the Farmers' Almanac, for instance. You may not think it a likely sourcebook for power systematists, yet its 1978 edition contained this brilliant observation by an anonymous contributor: 'To err is human but to really foul things up requires a computer'. And that was written before most of us realized that programmers were scattering millennium bugs in secret hollows all over the place.

Please do not think that I have some barmy sentimental yearning for the lost innocence of life as it was before computers. I quite like them, really. And they promise such a fantastic future, too. Even calm and sober-minded people are saying so.

CODATA, or, fully spelt out, the Committee on Data for Science and Technology, a limb of the International Science and Technology Data Organization, sounds like a staid body of establishment folk, don't you think? Yet it can bubble as excitedly as any gaggle of politicians. Here is what its senior officers, with stars in their eyes, have declaimed in an issue of the journal of the International Council for Science.

'Imagine a world in which computers are everywhere, where the Internet has been replaced by networking systems that keep us connected to whomever we want all the time, where all information, whether we want it or not, is available with a few keystrokes. JUST IMAGINE 2010!'

All that, in a mere decade from now, does sound imaginative.

Knowledge warehousemen of various kinds dreamt, even before the great library of Alexandria flourished in classical times, of fixing every scrap of learning and information accessibly on recording media. The computer has brought that dream nearer to reality than it has ever been. I hope that you and CODATA will forgive me if I stay sceptical about it.

Of course I prize good reference sources, and not just for quotable gems like that Farmers' Almanac observation, but I do not believe that a complete repository of all data and information is possible. So much that is known, or becoming known, is a flux of mental and physical activity, in part ephemeral. 'Information' and 'knowledge' are anyway not synonymous. There is much more to know about the provision of electric power, for example, than has ever been – or can ever be – put into books, data banks, expert systems or any information storage media you can think of – except human beings.

“Forgive me if I stay sceptical”

I am struck by a possibly inadvertent or unconscious threat in that CODATA prediction. The world of 2010, it warns us, is one where 'all information, whether we want it or not, is available with a few keystrokes'. If we do not want it all, kind friends may reassure me, then we merely keep our fingers off the keys. But the CODATA seers have not actually spelt out whose the keystrokes will be. Could the fingertips be those of busybodies, charlatans, advertisers, politicians . . . ?

Just imagine!

2k has two characters

I know a computer fiend who works at a Euroland power station on practical things not noticeably connected with digital electronic arts and crafts. He laughs merrily at people who are anxious about the so-called Y2k problem – the threat of computer system breakdown when the year changes from 1999 to 2000.

As well as being a horny-handed engineer, my fiendish friend is a keen student of Mediterranean antiquity, more particularly the life and times of the Roman Empire. He is so infatuated with classical Latins that he always states the year in Roman style, and he claims that he has programmed his home computer successfully for this purpose. The years that his software can handle range from 10000 BC to 5000 AD, all without trouble from bugs bred in cheesepared date-storage space.

He is scrupulously ancient-Roman, declaring 1999 to be MDCCCCLXXXXVIIII and not, as later traditions would have put it, MCMXCIX, or, as more radical innovators might dare, MIM. So you can see how Y2k will actually reduce the burden on his apparatus and stationery. In Roman calendrics, ancient or modern, the long chain of letters for the current millennium's last year is chopped down to simple MM.


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