Happy Birthday, Internet!

Yesterday, 29 October 2009, marked forty years since the first pieces of data travelled via a computer connection between the University of California in Los Angeles and the Stanford Research Institute. The BBC published an insightful account of the fascinating early years of the internet, which by 1971 was already connecting universities on the East and the West Coast of USA. Looking at the two solitary lines on the map illustrating the early net I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the speed of the change which has thrown us into the super-connected super-fast world of today. And I wonder if in 2050 there might be someone, writing a blog or whatever the communication channel of the day is, reviewing technology from 2010 and thinking “If they only knew what was coming at them…”

Following the links on the BBC website I listened to the oldest computer music recording – Baa Baa Black Sheep – played on a Ferranti Mark 1 computer at the University of Manchester in 1951. Below is a photo of the “Player” followed by a photo of a music player of today. Can you spot the 7 differences?

 Manchester's Baby


In coverage of the other astonishing talents of the machine, a BBC reporter breathless with excitement revealed that “the electronic brain” could tell you whether 2 to the power of 127 is a prime number in 25 minutes, compared to the 6 months it would take for the human brain to make the calculation.

Every time that I get reminded of the amazing progress that has been achieved since these early days of computer technology, I ask myself – what could possibly come next? Can a music player become even smaller? Or bigger? Or disappear completely and leave the music streaming through the air? Sometimes I discover I sympathise more than I would have liked with Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of the US Office of Patents who said in 1899 that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

 Any trip down history lane would be wasted if one comes back without a lesson or two for the future. One of the comments in the BBC material on the early net could turn out to be just that. It is about the initial reaction to the idea for a computer network – “A horrible idea” people thought. Larry Roberts, the MIT scientist who was working on the project said that institutions were opposing the concept because they wanted to keep control of their resources. Now that objection suddenly does not come across as outdated and archaic as the Ba Ba Black Sheep music player, does it? Blackboard, anyone? Are there ground-breaking, rule-bending, mind-blowing innovations at the door step of higher education institutions today that are being shunned because people want to keep control of their resources?  What can we do about it?

Sandra Romenska





I had a ‘significant’ birthday this week (you know, one with a 0 at the end), and I’d asked for ‘rocks’ as presents. They are just wonderful: an Amethyst (apparently my ‘birth’ stone), a stone from the garden of a house I lived in the 1970s, a piece of meteorite, some lava (no longer molten) and a chip from the Berlin wall…so much history in my hand!

For example, one colleague’s dad explained some rocks from Uruguay as part of basalt ‘bubbles’. His explanation begins…”the story begins a few million years ago, at the end of the Jurassic, and beginning of the Cretaceous era”. Wow. By comparison, I’m not so old after all!

Rocks help me to consider that I’m but a moment in the great flow of history and the future.  Consequently I feel better when a piece of technology annoys me…after all the World Wide Web is but 16 years old and barely crawling. We live in such interesting and powerful times…  the systems thinker and philosopher Laszlo believes we’re at a critical point in history where the future of the world can go ‘either way’ – towards much further disruption of many kinds or towards ecological and social stability.

And who better than educators in higher education to take on creating the future? The raw material that arrives in waves on our campuses year on year will become the ripples of the 21st Century to make or break, create or respond to future trends and directions.  Which rocks will roll and which sink for millions of years?

Gilly Salmon



The Chaos Point: The World at the Crossroads

by Ervin Laszlo .  “Einstein told us that we cannot solve the significant problems we face at the same level of thinking at which we were when we created them” 

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