When I was in primary school, in the early nineties, Tesco ran a scheme called Computers for Schools. Shopping at Tesco earned paper vouchers which were collected by local schools. When a school had collected enough vouchers, they could spend them on computer equipment.
The window of time when I was in love with technology began when I was five or six years old. My primary school employed the father of one of the kids to teach us the basics on the suite of Acorn computers my school had bought using Tesco vouchers.
The IT teacher taught us two maxims:
- It is very difficult to break a computer, aside from using a hammer. This teaching was designed to encourage us, as we learned the rudiments of BBC Basic or word processing, to experiment, to wonder what this button does.
- Computers are stupid. They do what humans tell them, and nothing else. If someone’s machine did something unexpected and the teacher was called to investigate, the whole class would carry out a call-and-response exercise:
Mr IT: Computers are…?
I progressed from Acorn computers to Windows. At home we always had a modern PC, cast off from my father’s place of work. Their tech was being upgraded annually to keep up with the demand of that field. I remember vividly the day dad came home and told us kids solemnly that this new computer had a gigabyte of memory.
What’s a gigabyte?
In preparation for my undergraduate studies, I pored over PC World magazine before picking out a Dell desktop, a gift from my father. I took immense care of it, and used to open up the case to add RAM, virus-check it often, and back up my work to a series of DVDs every month(!). At the start of my MSc I won a MacBook in the essay escapade and became a Mac convert; I worked primarily across UNIX and Mac for the next four years. As well as the trusty MacBook I was furnished with a beautiful 27-inch iMac and a UNIX box with NVIDIA GPUs for my PhD, with thanks to the Wellcome Trust for their generous funding. Further I had access to Imperial’s incredible High Performance Computing service for anything my own tech could not handle – quite the privilege.
On my first day in my first job post-PhD, the hiring manger handed me a laptop with the apology that it ran Windows 7, meaning that the company’s Windows 8 upgrade was still in progress. I replied dryly that I was sorry that it was Windows at all, perhaps the first indication that corporate Erika was not going to be an authentic edition of the self. I installed emacs to do my work in R, and got hauled up by IT whose virus-scanner had picked up one of the extensions I had installed, which makes emacs keybindings work in Microsoft applications and reads to a virus scanner as a keylogger. Oops.
Working with corporate IT is different to working with academic tech, where I had been largely left to my own devices. As the years passed I came to learn that it was in my best interests to get on with the job in hand, and that it was not my job to try to understand what was going on under the IT hood. Outside of work, I had a succession of iGadgets and was aware that I was becoming less and less au fait with how the whole thing chained together.
But it’s not just me. Richard once told me “you have tech chops” and that is probably still true to an extent, but I don’t think Maxim Two holds anymore. iGadgets and their ilk now hoover data up furiously. Behind your back they mine email, social media, calendar, text messages and photos. Your friends end up tagged, your geography monitored, memories and suggestions are supplied to you unbidden. If you have had a turbulent few years involving the loss of the husband, marriage, home, career and worldview that you once treasured, this is a cruel system, worse than human memory that can blindside you with a once-familiar perfume or train station, say. No, I do not want to see a photograph of my honeymoon today, thank you very much.
That window of time has closed, then. Yet another important aspect of my life that my perspective has changed on. Weird.