All / Technology & Society

The Colossus

It’s hard to imagine, now, a life before the internet. Of course I do in fact remember a life before the internet–I remember getting our very first home computer, setting it up out of the box. I remember the sound of the modem as we connected. Nothing like now–and that was less than 20 years ago; I must have been about nine or ten at the time.

I am continually amazed by the way that computer networking has completely overtaken every aspect of our lives, even in ways of which we are unaware, ways that happen invisibly. And equally, imagining what it must have been like before the digital divide, before these capabilities were brought into being–having the strength of mind to think of those possibilities, before they existed. This astounds me.

I got to visit a crucial site for modern computing recently, Bletchley Park. Famous for its role as the place where codebreakers were stationed in WWII, it is also (partly as a result of the informational needs of the time) the place where the first digital programmable computer first came into being. The Colossus. There is a replica at the National Computing Museum at Bletchley now. A superb and very beautiful replica of the Turing Bombes is also stored there–the Bombes were originally designed to help crack the code of an Enigma machine–but as many signs in the display for the replica pointed out, the Bombes were not technically computers because they weren’t programmable; they could only be used to solve one kind of problem.

Turing conceptually pioneered the idea of the programmable computer with his imaginary Turing machine, the theoretical principles behind which can be used to replicate any algorithmic problem. (Today’s Google doodle is a Turing machine in homage to Turing’s 100th birthday. But it’s important that the machine is hypothetical rather than real because that allows the concept to run infinitely, whereas real computers are limited by, y’know, physics and stuff.)

If you play around with the Google doodle today one thing you’ve probably noticed is that holy God it runs slow. But in reality the foundation of all modern computing is based on that one simple, elegantly illustrated concept. Think about it! Every aspect of the life of every person reading these words is suffused with technology that can be traced back to the glimmer of an infinite, imaginary machine. This is wonderful, pragmatic, bizarre, terrifying…it is everything.

I have spent the better part of my day trying to find images of belly dancing avatars from the online game Second Life. I need some pictures for a chapter I have in an upcoming academic anthology about belly dance and globalization. As I was trawling through the internet to find pictures of belly dancing avatars, I was struck by the contrast between the technology at my disposal and the early industrial machines at Bletchley.

The Colossus replica is an industrial machine. (I do not believe Turing worked on the original, but I am happy to stand corrected.) The replica is made of steel and wire and big serious looking switches. All the machines at Bletchley are like this. They are all so very evidently of the sphere of industrial things, and not of the sphere of personal things, of domesticated goods. As I was looking at them I thought not only about the contrast between then and now, but also of the contrast between industrial (in this case military) technology and personal technologies of the time. It made me wonder what secret machines, what advanced capabilities, are being built now.

As I played with the Google doodle today I wondered if Turing, who had the presence of mind to imagine the concepts upon which modern computing capabilities are founded, also imagined the social, economic and cultural changes that would ultimately take root as part of his ideas. In brief: did Turing dream of belly dancing avatars?

It would be remiss of me to end there: while the lives of all the people reading these words have been profoundly affected by computers, we happy few with easy access to information form a rather small part of the world’s population. Even in the UK, a third of homes still don’t have the internet. Of all the problems caused by internet connectivity perhaps the most profound is those who aren’t even part of the discussion. Please read more about the digital divide.

(Originally posted on