Thursday, 21 April 2011


I was a child in the eighties, when computers started infiltrating the home for the first time, and I think that's probably when my interest in the field first arose.

I was a precocious reader, and I vividly remember the first time my parents took me to a proper bookstore and let me choose a book. I was already reading pretty well, but most of the books I had had been chosen for me or acquired second hand at school fetes. I knew the work of a small handful of authors very well, but I wanted something new and different. Even in the combined Children's/Young Adult  section there was a lot to choose from. What was I most interested in? I asked myself.

Science Fiction, I decided, was the way to go. There was nothing more interesting than the future. The book I chose was Granville Wilson's WAR OF THE COMPUTERS, which was not only science fiction, but it had green gun  toting robots on the cover.

In a dystopian England, a young boy spearheads a revolution against the tyrannical computers than run the government. At least, that's what I think the book was about; I no longer recall it. I'm pretty sure I read the book twice, and I don't remember struggling with it, but I expect that it was a bit  politically complex for a 7 year-old. 

The book did, however teach me a bit about the difference between a computer and a robot, and I left with an abiding fascination for both of these things, and the interface between them. At the time I don't think I ever expected that I would one day have the opportunity to program a robot... and if I had, I certainly had no conception of how unglamorous it would be.

A few more years into the 80s we started to hear the words 'computer whiz kid' applied to children who displayed an aptitude for information technology. Whiz kids seemed to feature in early science fiction movies, some of which I saw, but most of which I absorbed through the novelizations. There was Wargames, in which  teenaged Mathew Broderick hacks into a military simulation computer, and whose subsequent interference almost provokes World War 3 (in seems far fetched that a simulator might have access to a realworld nuclear arsenal, unless you have actually worked in IT). I didn't see TRON until much later (and I was disappointed when I did), but I did own some of the toys.

There were others, but my personal favourite was D.A.R.Y.L., featuring an amnesiac nerdboy with a preternatural gift for hacking (but also for anything else he set his hand to, including baseball). Daryl, it turns out, is actually an artificial life form developed by the US military. He is recaptured, but he escapes by stealing an SR71 Blackbird. This, I think, not only encouraged my interest in computers, but it also kindled my childhood love of fighter aircraft. If you had asked me then what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a fighter pilot. (Or, some days, a SCUBA diver.)

I desperately wanted to be a whiz kid, but I never connected that with an actual occupation. I even knew a whiz kid; a neighbour who lived around the corner from us who happened to share the same first name as me. I liked Jared Jones, and my parents used to take me around to play with him quite often (sometimes he even let me use his computer), but he was not a popular kid in school. In fact, looking back on it, he was an archetypical computer geek, a mama's boy who was constantly tormented by a gang of bullies.

But despite that  I was jealous of JJ, and I suspected, deep in my heart, that the only reason he got to be called a whiz kid and I didn't was that he had a PC and I didn't.

I don't know what happened to JJ because my family moved away a couple of years later and I lost touch with him, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he was now in the IT business. Technology being what it is I suppose I could find out, if I really cared to, but that's all a little bit War of the Computers for me.

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