Tag Archives: 1980s

A picture of the future

old cameraDiary date: 8th April, 1986

On this day back in 1986 I was excitedly on my way to the chemists to pick up some photos I’d taken on a weekend away with the university squash team. They featured a lovely girl that I was fairly sure I had just started going out with – I was never very good at reading the signs – so I was looking forward to seeing them even more than usual.

I told this story to my teenage children the other day, and they literally didn’t believe it – least of all the part about the prospective girlfriend. However, it also didn’t escape their attention that I was describing paying someone at the chemists to create and print out photographs for me.

When you think about it, the whole process really was rather unwieldy.

In those days, you bought a one-time-use roll of light-sensitive film which you put carefully into your camera, snaking it round a spool before you closed the case and hoped everything was attached where it should be. You then went about your business taking photos – rather inexplicably in multiples of 12 depending on which film you’d bought – after which you needed to open your camera, pray that everything had worked, and insert another roll. You took your finished film to the nearest chemist or photography shop, and you waited a few days. Then you went back, handed over a fee, and were given a sealed envelope containing your photos. You had no idea if any of them were any good, but you bought them all anyway, sight unseen. As soon as you were out of the shop, you tore open the envelope to find out what you’d just bought, hoping against hope that they weren’t someone else’s pictures. Finally, you selected the ones you wanted to keep (the bar was set very low in those days), put them in a pile with all the rest (or – if you were very organised – in an album), and off you went again.

In comparison, taking photos in 2014 is undeniably sci-fi-like:

1. You take a photo. You could have taken a video just as easily, but hey, you’re old-fashioned like that. And by the way, you probably used your telephone to do it, not your camera: (a) because you can, and, (b) because your phone never, ever leaves your side.

2. You look at your photo on your phone as soon as you’ve taken it and decide if you like it. Maybe you edit it a bit if it isn’t quite what you were after – unless you’re aiming for something like a #nomakeupselfie, that is.

3. Once you’re happy (and regardless of where you happen to be at the time), you probably share your photo immediately with your entire circle of friends and family, using the handy global computer network to which you are almost constantly connected.

4. Within a few minutes, people from all over the world start telling you what they think of your snap – and if they like it too, they might even share it right away with their own friends.

I know we don’t have flying cars yet (come on people, let’s get that sorted!), but photography really has done everything it can to make up for that particular disappointment.

Now all we have to do is find a way to guarantee that all the pictures I take this year will be stored and accessible somewhere in 28 years time – just like that picture of my squash-playing girlfriend, which is still tucked away safely upstairs in my student photo album.

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The death of a time and a place for everything

Diary date: 12th May, 1985

Amazon LockerI did two utterly unremarkable things this week in 1985, but they were exactly the kind of things I started followthehumming to help me spot.

First off, I went to the university library twice to do some research on Swedish canals (sounds odd I know, but don’t be alarmed, I’ve written before about how this forms part of my secret superpower). The library itself was about three miles away, so going there wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, eating as it did into valuable drinking time.

Secondly, I waited at home all evening for a phone call that never came (don’t worry, I’m over her now – or at least I was until I started re-reading my diaries!).

What on earth was I thinking? Why didn’t I just turn on my tablet, connect to the nearest wi-fi and do my research sitting in Starbucks? Or just put my mobile on vibrate and head to the nearest bar to drown my sorrows in anticipation of what was about to happen?

Clearly the fact that the technology involved was a distant dream at the time didn’t help, but what these stories really bring to life is the very different relationship we had with ‘place’ in the 80’s.

Back then, place sat high on the list of stuff you needed to keep an eye on. If you agreed to meet someone somewhere at a certain time, the arrangement was locked and loaded. Once things were under way, you couldn’t alter your plans without leaving someone stranded. Today, we don’t even agree to meet up, we just agree to agree to meet up later, details to be confirmed – with at least the one consequent benefit of it now being very hard to be late for anything.

Activities happened in predictable places. Phone calls were taken wherever the phone was  plugged in – a draughty hall in my case. Watching TV happened in the living-room with everyone crowded round, rather than in isolated pockets of the house and on lots of different devices. Books were browsed and bought in a bookshop. ‘Computing’ happened three feet in front of the television into which you’d plugged your ZX-81. Video games were played in a seedy arcade. Listening to your music library happened wherever your parents had set up their ‘Music Centre’ – the enormous record-and-cassette-tape-playing monster that has now been replaced by the ubiquitous iPod. Even living itself was location-specific, and took place either in the kitchen or the living-room, probably the only two rooms where your mum and dad thought it was acceptable to turn on the central heating.

Place continues to evolve. With Amazon Locker, the world’s largest online retailer has decided that even the home is not sacrosanct. The items you’ve bought from them can now simply be delivered to you as an individual – wherever you are.

As technology changes, so the idea of place is gradually becoming more fluid and more personal.

Place feels less and less like something external with which we interact.

Instead, it has started travelling with us.

Life among the Elite

Elite BBC micro screenshot Diary date: 11th April, 1985

The more I look back and forward between the years that bookend followthehumming – currently 1985 and 2013 – the more I find stories that run satisfyingly parallel to mine. Seminal 1980s computer game Elite is a case in point.

My 1985 diary for this week raves about a happy afternoon spent with a friend marvelling at everything about Elite – from  graphics to gameplay to storyline. I’d never seen anything like it.

The premise was simple. You started the game as a novice pilot in a basic ‘Cobra’ spaceship which you flew between far-flung galaxies, trading a variety of commodities as you went and avoiding – or joining – bands of trigger-happy pirates. There were a total of eight galaxies in the game – each with 256 planets in them – and each planet had its own economy, political system, market pricing and lots more. You flew, fought and navigated your ship using a three-dimensional radar and traded or blasted your way up a series of levels in the hope of gaining elusive elite status.

All told, Elite required about 22k of memory on my friend’s BBC microcomputer. These days, that’s less than most of the emails people send me, and about 400 times smaller than a single still image taken on my digital camera.

Even then, I knew I was looking at something very special, and I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. In 1980s terms, Elite sold in massive numbers. With its wireframe 3D, open-ended gameplay and a host of other innovations, it was widely regarded as breaking new ground, and its role in the history of video games was quickly assured.

Engage your Cobra’s hyperdrive to jump forward to 2013, and it turns out that the Elite story is about to enter a new phase. Original co-creator David Braben has been financing an updated version using crowdsourced funding website kickstarter – which allows people to pledge money to support creative projects. When the proposal for an updated Elite reached its funding goal on the 4th January this year, 25,681 fans and potential investors had raised a total of £1,587,316 – with individual contributions of anywhere between £5 and £5,000.  Braben promises a new version of the game – Elite: Dangerous – in 2014.

Who knows, after following the whole thing this far, I might just treat myself to a copy 🙂

Is this on now or are you just watching it?

Diary date: 7th March, 1985

In between playing an awful lot of squash and revising fairly fruitlessly for a Swedish exam this week, my nineteen year old self seems to have spent a significant amount of time watching what might now be considered classic 80’s TV. Neighbours, Bullseye and Countdown all get a mention in my diary at one point or another.

TV options on a typical Virgin Media screen

Back then I had a small, portable black and white TV set in my room at university capable of getting BBC1 and ITV (or rather ITV1, as we have to say these days) on a good day, and BBC2 on a very good day. Channel 4 had been launched two or three years previously, but actually receiving it was still a distant dream. My remote control was a bamboo pole that just about reached the TV from my bed.

These days, we’ve got more channels than we have time to watch, and more ways of consuming them than we have time to understand. We’ve even got new ways of talking about what we’re doing. If you’d told me in 1985 that you were going to watch something on catch-up, or via live streaming, or that you’d been browsing online movies through your games console, I’d have thought you’d been reading too much William Gibson.

My favourite example of the way language adapts to new technology like this came the other day. I was sitting in front of the living room television and one of my children asked me, “Is this on now or are you just watching it?” Without me realising it, ‘watching’ something in our house has become a short-cut for viewing anything that is not currently being broadcast on a specific channel.

I guess we can’t complain that we weren’t warned about the pace of change when it comes to this kind of media. Back in October 2005, Bill Gates was clear that even TV technologies that seemed new at the time like Blu-ray DVDs would inevitably be the last of their kind:

Understand that this is the last physical format there will ever be. Everything’s going to be streamed directly or on a hard disk. So, in this way, it’s even unclear how much this one counts.

The reality is that everything always counts at the time it’s happening. Back in 1985 – when I was angsting about Swedish exams and changing TV channels remotely with a bamboo pole – Bill would have been a busy guy. Later that year, Microsoft launched a new operating system called Windows 1.0.

Calling places, not people

Diary date: 2nd March, 1985

Remember what it was like to make a telephone call to a place, not a person? Here’s how it was. . .

[A public payphone rings in a crowded student common room in a hall of residence. Sarah looks round and realises that no-one else is going to answer it. She picks it up.]

“Hello?”

“Oh hi, it’s Andrew’s mum here. I was wondering if he was there?”

“Hi Andrew’s mum! It’s Sarah here. Give me a second and I’ll see if I can find him for you.”

[Sarah turns to the room.]

“Anybody seen Andrew?”

[Various shakes of the head. No-one replies. Sarah goes to stand by the stairs.] 

“Tony! Are you up there? Tony! Is Kirsty with you? Andrew’s mum’s on the phone and I was wondering if she knew if he was in? Tony? Oh, for goodness sake!”

[Sarah returns to the phone.]

“Andrew’s mum? Hi, it’s Sarah here again. Really sorry, but I’m going to have to go and have a look. Can you hang on?”

“Yes of course.”

“OK. I won’t be a minute.”

[Sarah runs up three flights of stairs to Andrew’s room and knocks on his door.]

“Andrew? It’s Sarah. Your mum’s on the phone. Andrew?”

[Andrew appears at the door, looking hung over.]

“Thanks, Sarah. Can you tell her I’ll be down in a minute?”

[Andrew pulls his clothes on and drags himself downstairs five minutes later. He picks up the phone, trying to ignore everyone else in the room.]

“Hi Mum.”

2nd March, 2013

. . . and here’s how it is now:

[Andrew is asleep in bed. His mobile rings. He is slightly hung over and winces at the ringtone. He reaches over, picks it up and looks at the screen. It’s his mum. He groans, presses reject, rolls over, and tries to get back to sleep.]

Life as a child of 2000 AD

2000AD Prog 1 coverDiary date: 26th February, 1985

My diary entry for this date briefly laments the fact that I was no longer buying my favourite childhood comic, 2000 AD. I distinctly remember the excitement of the very first edition on the same date in 1977 (which was why I was writing about it). It had a free mini-frisbee taped to the cover and promised space-age dinosaurs, an all-new Dan Dare, and a kind of bionic man called M.A.C.H-1. Interestingly, there was no mention of the comic’s most famous and long-lasting son, Judge Dredd, who didn’t appear until issue two, and even then didn’t make the cover.

2000 AD tapped perfectly into the 70’s feeling that the end of the century was one of those watershed moments before which anything was possible and at which everything would have changed. Knowing it was coming was like having your own personal and predictable singularity, constantly on the horizon.

Everyone used to work out how old they’d be in the year 2000, and wondered  about things like whether they’d be married and have children, or what job they might be doing. Anything and everything seemed possible. In the end – married and with two children at the time – I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 rather mundanely at work, watching  the office survive the much-hyped Millennium Bug.

The year 2000 gave everyone a kind of collective and optimistic milestone (the Millennium Bug aside) – something we were building towards together and which we shared. Now it’s done and dusted, the emphasis has moved quietly back to individual, cultural, sporting or national milestones. Perhaps the lack of a year 2000 equivalent accounted for at least a little of last year’s  buzz about the end of the world supposedly predicted by the Mayan Calendar on 21-12-12.

Meanwhile – and rather wonderfully and reassuringly – 2000 AD comic is still called 2000 AD, having managed to come to stand for an entire millennium rather than a single year.

And perhaps without even acknowledging it, the rest of the world has made exactly the same shift.