I was 9 in 1969 and a child of the Apollo moon-landings, the film 2001 A Space Odyssey (more of which later), and TV. The time is significant because between then and my early teenage years my TV viewing was filled with the sci-fi fantasies (and re-runs) of Star Trek, the Gerry Anderson productions Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlett, Joe 90, UFO, and Space 1999, and the Irwin Allen productions The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. In the background, lights blinking in seemingly meaningful patterns, were the computers, banked in serried rows behind the human actors. (I recently found out that all the computers in the Allen films were the same ex-US Air Force air-defence computer).
These images also found their echo in my brief flirtation with the electronic-prog-rock group Tangerine Dream: when I saw them live I gazed, not at the performers, but at the rhythmic lights of the Moog sequencers.
Such was my fascination that I remember asking my bewildered dad, who was a wood-carver and joiner by trade, for help in building a computer (I don’t remember if we ever did build a replica, although I do remember us building a satellite out of wood and tin foil).
It is perhaps telling that the most magnificent and startling computer did not have tapes or blinking lights. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke wrote the novel at the same time), the single camera eye of the initially benevolent computer HAL came to symbolize its terrifying implacability when it murders most of the space crew. The film has, in all sorts of ways, left its mark on me. But it is striking that HAL was not left as a homicidal nemesis. In a scene of considerable poignancy, the surviving crew-member, Dave Bowman, pulls out HAL’s circuit boards. As more and more boards are pulled out, HAL says “Dave. Stop. … I’m afraid. … My mind is going. I can feel it’ and when it slowly sings a song it had been taught, it regresses to a kind of childhood.
Unlike the more recent films and a TV series about artificial intelligence and consciousness – Artificial Intelligence, I, Robot, Her, Ex_Machina, Humans) – this scene does not depend upon humanoid features to enable a leap of empathy. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, generating that connection for a machine that is both terrifying and awe-inspiring (and just look at my own anthropomorphic language). There is also an uneasy feeling that we are being pulled ever-so-slightly off-centre – but it is a hallmark of Clark’s fictions, and Kubrick’s film, that such human decentring is accompanied by feelings of the sublime.
After becoming a radio amateur and working as a telecommunications engineer the arc of my life swung away from electronica to embrace acting, punk, forming a band, going to University, becoming a lecturer in English literature. Now embedded in the humanities and fascinated by the impact of the digital humanities, and almost permanently glued to my very own computer, I find the old interests coming back, the arc re-connecting my fascination with humans and technology. I’m not sure, even now, where it will lead, but I feel again that peculiar off-centred-ness and excitement.