2² DecadesThu 20 April 2017 by Jim Purbrick
Several years ago when we were in 100 robots together, Max was celebrating his 40th birthday. When I said that mine would be in 2017, it felt like an impossibly far future date, but, after what feels like the blink of an eye, here we are.
Along with many other lovely gifts I received this morning was a book with the subtitle Whatever happened to Generation X? by Tiffanie Darke complete with a bright yellow acid house cover and a quote by Douglas Coupland on the cover.
I’ll read the book when I go to Simon and Pinar’s wedding next month, but I’ll share my immediate reaction now. Despite the term being popularised by Coupland’s book, whatever did happen to generation X we won’t read it in a book. We’ll read and write about it on the web we built.
While I remember my parents freaking out when I wanted to wear a bright yellow acid house badge to school, at the time I was more in to loud guitar music like Nirvana and Blur. From the perspective of loud guitars it felt like I’d missed the party: Metalica’s Master of Puppets was already receading in to the rear view mirror and Led Zeppelin firmly in my parents era. While we didn’t have The Beatles though, I did have computers.
There are plenty of people who would argue that I missed the boat there too: Boolean algebra was developed in 1848; the Halting Problem proved to be undecidable over Turing machines in 1936 and Quicksort was developed in 1959. While the Infer team refused to give up at the halting problem and are now producing amazing real world results using static analysis, a lot of computer science was finished before I was born.
My kind of computers weren’t huge machines crunching numbers and doing maths though, they were small pieces loosely joined. Connecting to things and each other they didn’t operate on maths, but changed the world or built new ones. They automated my physics experiments so that I could spend more time kissing Ali in the common room, helped reverse engineer Grand Theft Auto maps and automated synthesiser parameters when I didn’t have real controls for them.
They let me record hours of music and made writing books, making films and recording music accessible to everyone. While that made lives harder for those trying to make a living from their art it helped many more lives flourish. Napster may have made Metallica pretty upset, but the french horn player from my school could plunder the past for funk loops to accompany his synthesisers.
The DIY explosion gave us hip-hop and a million flavours of dance music and the networks to share it. Eventually it also gave us digital versions of the Beatles and, now I have been able to download and listen to it all, I’m convinced they have nothing to top the Aphex Twin.
The same democratization of tools meant that as a software engineer I could scratch an itch and choose to build my own service on top of world class open source software or work for one of the companies that became huge making the web easier to use. I’ve seen enough of how the startup sausage is made to know that a lot of the glitter is not gold, but owning the means of production means I at least have the choice to strike out on my own.
Climate change may mean that our real world horizons are closer and the piles of stuff we collect smaller, but the virtual vistas we can explore are ever growing.
When I watch my children grow up with YouTube it’s amazing to think about what they will accomplish in the future. If they want to do something, they watch it, learn it and do it. Nothing is unknown and nothing is impossible. They’re incredible, which is lucky, as together we’re going to have to save the world.
These thoughts are my own. They don’t represent my employer. They don’t attempt to speak for my generation. I write them and share them because I can and because I want to. Someone might read them and comment on them or link to them to build a web. Thats how my generation works and that’s what we built. We may not have had the Beatles, but I’m OK with that.