When My World Changed: Forty Years of Cambridge

St Catharine's College in darkness

I had just turned 19 when arrived in Cambridge in October 1979, with a full grant and a maintenance payment which meant it didn’t cost me or my parents anything.

I’d been brought up by my mum in a council house on one of the tougher council estates in Corby, Northants, and we weren’t in a position to pay fees or well-disposed to taking out loans and if it hadn’t been for the implementation of the Robbins Report I doubt I’d have gone to any university.

Find out about the Robbins Report 

Corby was a thriving new town with a massive steelworks when we moved there in 1965, moving down from Tyneside with my mum and sister. One of my earliest memories is arriving in Brixham Walk, parking near a lamppost and walking from the road to the house in the dark. We lived there for the next fourteen years.

I wrote something about Corby library 

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Ten years at the BBC

Starbucks Media Centre

On September 21 2009 I sat with Roly Keating, at the time the Director of Archive Content for the BBC, outside this Starbucks in what was the BBC’s Media Centre, and talked to him about taking on a six month role to work in his team as the Head of Partnership Development. It was a quick job, sorting out a partnership strategy for the recently formed BBC Archive Development team run by Tony Ageh and setting up a couple of key agreements.

I’d been asked to go for the job by Tony as he and I had worked together back in 1994 when he ran The Guardian’s innovation group, the PDU, and I’d come over from PIPEX to run the New Media Lab and build the first iteration of The Guardian’s online presence. We’d stayed in touch since, and I’d been involved after he had arrived at the BBC in 2001. After working to develop the website and iPlayer, Tony was currently trying to make the archive more accessible, especially to other cultural institutions.

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Over the last few weeks the degree of complicity between the technology community and the financier Jeffrey Epstein has started to become apparent, and it makes difficult reading for all of us in that community, because it shows that many of the people we believed were sincere in their attempts to develop technologies that could sustain humanity were happy to have a convicted paedophile in their midst and listen to his ill-formed ideas, take his money, burnish his reputation and even lie about his involvement in their work.

It’s hard to believe we’re all working to enhance the human condition when that’s the case, and the awareness of our involvement should be the occasion for some serious reflection and changes to our assumptions and behaviour.

My awareness of Epstein came from news coverage of his crime, especially the reporting of Julie Brown in the Miami Herald. He appeared to be another man who used his power – in his case derived from wealth rather than celebrity – to exploit and abuse children, another predator whose behaviour was odious and yet tolerated by those around him, and who used his influence to gain immunity.

Julie Brown: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/article220097825.html

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Learning from Apollo

Lego model of the Lunar Excursion Module

Apollo 11 is more than nostalgia for me, it’s a way to think about tomorrow’s challenges

If you’re interested in the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar mission then you’re probably already completely entranced by the BBC World Service podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon, in which Kevin Fong dissects the landing and puts every aspect into a broader technical, political, social and profoundly human context.

13 Minutes to the Moon

It’s an outstanding series in every respect, combining archive footage from the mission and old and new interviews with many of those involved, with an intelligent script and beautiful sound design, and I can’t recommend it enough. Produced by  Andrew Luck-Baker and with Rami Tzabar as Executive Producer, it’s brilliantly made and one of the best audio documentaries you can find online.

If you work in computing or engineering then it’s worth it just for the insight into the complexities of the hardware and software involved, as it doesn’t hold back from going into technical details about the engineering and coding challenges, giving you all the background you need to be fully present as the lunar excursion module separates from the command module and begins to descend. Knowing how it ends doesn’t diminish the power of the story, or the emotional investment you make as a listener.

It’s worth listening to every episode – each is around 45 minutes – but if you don’t have time the whole thing then I urge you to listen to Episodes 8 and 9, which take you from the separation of the two spacecraft in lunar orbit – the Command Module and the Lunar Excursion Module –  to the final ’stay’ decision after landing. And that detail is what makes it so good – it doesn’t stop at the moment of touchdown, but covers the three points in the next two hours when Mission Control had to decide to stay or go.  They stay.

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The Day the Music Dies

Points of light

A long long time ago…

I was at the Janelle Monáe gig at Wembley Arena on Tuesday, and it was as magnificent as you’d expect from this brilliant performer. We stood close enough to see properly, and far enough back to dance properly.

Between songs she said something that resonated with me, and it has prompted me to finish a piece I’d been noodling around with for some weeks. Speaking with some emotion, she said that the reason she performed was to create memories, to pass something to each of us in the audience, and she expressed a hope that we’d pass the memories we were making tonight on to others.

In one way this echoes the grand concept of her songs, which reflect the world of an android named Cindi Mayweather, an alter-ego through whom Monáe explores ideas of technology and otherness. After all, the memories of androids can be stored and transferred – or wiped as in the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture [see https://www.jmonae.com/] that accompanies the album which links the songs together with a story in which defective androids – ‘dirty’ computers – have their memories erased to make them ’normal’.

But for me, as I looked around an auditorium filled with points of light from thousands of mobile phones – twenty years ago it would have been cigarette lighters but few people carry them any more and there are probably sprinklers in the roof now- it made me think of the real organic memories that were being made in this place, at this time, with these people, making this music. Memories that can’t be downloaded or moved around on the quantum equivalent of USB sticks. It made me wonder what happens to Janelle Monáe’s music when the last person in this room, the last person to have been in the same space as her as she performs, dies.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, mostly because of Chopin and Buddy Holly, and because it’s forty years since I saw The Who play at Wembley, without Keith Moon.

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First they came for the numberplates

A surveillance camera on the Cambridge-London train

I don’t like being watched, especially when I don’t know who the watchers are, and the rapid growth in cameras in streets, shops, trains, buses, public spaces and private buildings has troubled me for many years.

Until recently the watchers were, at least, human – delightfully limited in their perceptual capacity and ability to identify or discriminate, tired and distracted and even bored with their job as they sat behind banks of monitors.

And of course most of the material was never even watched, instead being held on a hard drive on a neglected server in a dank office awaiting some incident that would require it to be reviewed, but more likely to be overwritten to make disk space for today’s similarly neglected footage.

This is no longer the case. More and more of the cameras that capture us as we go about our lives – like the one in this rail carriage watching me as I write – are not intended for human viewing at all, but are input sensors for an increasingly sophisticated surveillance machine. It used to be misleading to say that a camera was ‘watching’ you as it was just an image capture device – at some point a human being needed to do the actual watching.

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AI at the Barbican: not so bright after all

MakrShakr cocktail robots: AI More than Human

AI: More Than Human is a new exhibition at the Barbican which promises an unprecedented survey of creative and scientific developments in artificial intelligence, and if we’re prepared to stretch our understanding of the term AI to encompass sculpture and images generated by neural networks, mythical creatures made of animated clay, geared mechanisms that encrypt messages. and anthropmorphic cooking tools then it certainly delivers.

The Curve exhibition space is so packed with artefacts, artworks and artificiality that it begins to overwhelm the visitor. It’s not surprising that one of the exhibits, programmed to tune in to faces in front of its camera, was apparently distracted by the images on the screens of other exhibits, as they are only partially hidden by the gauze screens that separate this rich and complex collection of thematically and chronologically ordered artefacts.

Alter 3 Robot: AI More than HUman

Alter 3 Robot: AI More than HUman

The Alter 3 robot is not alone in being not knowing where to look. As I walked through the space I was constantly distracted and diverted, turning from screen to object to interactive exhibit as I wondered exactly what story was being told here.

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Self-Sabotage and Self-Care

Holding my laptop

Towards the end of Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters there’s a confrontation on top of Spook Central, and after the ghostbusters have all been blasted away by Gozer/Janine, Winston turns to Ray and says in an exasperated tone: ‘Ray…when someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes!’

Ray…when someone asks you if you are a god, you say yes!

It’s the same with your subconscious. When you ask yourself if you’ve had enough, it’s a good idea to say ‘yes’ and do something about it. A clear message from the bits of your mind that don’t get to hold the attention baton very often should be attended to, because they have to work hard to get through to the systems that get most of the limelight, and so it is probably important.

And so it was for me this week.

I’ve just spent three days trying so hard to sabotage my work pattern that I would be a fool to disregard it, and yet it was only in the middle of a WhatsApp chat with Ira Bolychevsky that I realised what I’d done. I thought I was being careless, but in fact I was sending myself a very clear message.

And the message is: you can’t carry on juggling like this.

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Slouching Towards the Silicon Foundry


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

WB Yeats, The Second Coming

It’s sixty years since CP Snow gave the Rede Lecture at Cambridge University (May 7 1959) and talked of the Two Cultures, and ten years since I gave a fiftieth anniversary commemorative lecture at the Computer Lab in which I discussed my own model of the new 10(base 2) cultures that define modern world.

I argued then that today’s fundamental division is not between science and humanities but betwen those who understand computational thinking and those who don’t.

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I Declare a Data Emergency. #DataEmergency

Cables on the Underground

Because we need usable data to help us address our global crises.

We’ve had the climate emergency and the biodiversity emergency. We know that the planet is changing as a result of human activity over the past two centuries and that the resulting conditions are unlikely to be amenable to the continuation of human civilisation or – in extremis – our species, along with several million others.

The earth will be fine, of course. We’re not going to topple into the sun or kill the magnetic field or do anything that will stop our planet circling the sun without us for a million or billion years. It’s just the fragile biosphere that seems likely to change rather significantly for the worse, at least from our perspective.

In the space where I spent most of my time, the space in which we tend to assume a future in a hand-waving automagical sort of way, where we speculate about the impact of low-latency ultrafast 5G networks and ML systems sophisticated enough to emulate certain features of biological intelligence, we have our own emergency, but so far we’ve been reticent about naming it or calling for unified action. Perhaps it’s time.

So I’ve decided to declare a data emergency, alerting us to a state of affairs that could end up doing significant damage to our chances of retaining a viable biosphere with enough species to sustain the food web we rely on, as well as turning our dreams of online utopia into a surveillance nightmare of social control, societal breakdown and individual misery.

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