It was called At the End of the Line, and its opening shots showed a man who worked in San Francisco striding down a street in London. He wanted to keep in touch with his office. How was this possible, questioned the voiceover? Well, he simply connected his computer to his phone line, picked up his electronic mail, and acted on it.
So far, so pedestrian, but what made At the End of the Line such an astonishing watch was its transmission date: Monday 14th March, 1983. The computer in question was a pre-Macintosh Apple II, and it was attached to the phone via two sucky cups and a box described by the voiceover as a ‘modulator-demodulator’. It was all very slow. You could see the electronic mail appearing block by block on the screen. But it worked.
I first watched that programme’s series, Making the Most of the Micro, at the age of nine, when I was the proud owner of a Sinclair ZX81. (I’m still the proud owner of one, but it doesn’t see much use these days). The programme’s description of bulletin boards, worldwide libraries searchable from your home computer, and personal electronic mail must have seemed inevitable to me. Computers would all be connected together one day, wouldn’t they. Wouldn’t they?
Almost ten years to the day later, I managed to send my first inter-city email. It’s fair to say I never looked back from there. Fourteen more years down the line, I sat watching At the End of the Line again, for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. Only this time, I was watching it via a link to a trial service on the BBC’s computers, on a connection running ten thousand times faster than the one shown in the programme. And taking all the computer wizardry for granted.
Predicting future technology’s a tough job. Futurologists such as Ian Pearson and Peter Cochrane are paid well because they appear to have very finely tuned crystal balls. If you want to join their success, just hit on the right, rich seam of technology and extrapolate it into the future.
It sounds easy, but only as long as you know where to look for the right seam to start with.