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Why we are all standing on the shoulders of tech's giants

Never forget your roots - they can inspire new directions and new ideas.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor

The technology world may be a young one, but in its 70 or so years, it has developed a rich and deeply influential history, complete with myths and legends. Sadly, it seems they're myths and legends we seem to be on the verge of forgetting.

I was reminded of this by the launch of Ray Ozzie's new voice and chat service, Talko. It's a fascinating project, that offers a blend of different communications modalities in one application, with the ability to switch seamlessly from one channel to another without losing the context of a conversation. You could trace back the idea all the way to a computer system that influenced much of our modern world: PLATO.

Designed to help teach, PLATO went a lot further, introducing chat rooms, shared notebooks, navigable documents, high resolution screens — even computer games. PLATO users were avid consumers of a real-time chat system that let anyone on the network talk to anyone else online: Talkomatic. Ozzie used PLATO as a student and the name of his new service, Talko, is an homage to that.

But I worry that for most people PLATO is one of those parts of our shared history that we seem to be losing. We've mostly forgotten that it was PLATO that inspired Ted Nelson to write his pair of books Computer Lib and Dream Machines that led to his work on the failed Xanadu hypertext project that helped inspire Tim Berners-Lee's work that gave us today's World Wide Web.

How can we protect that history, in an industry that seems to reinvent itself every decade or so? We can support the work of organisations such as the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, or the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park in the UK. We can also immerse ourselves in the history of UNIX, of Windows, of Apple, of the myriad companies that splintered out of Fairchild Semiconductor in a pre-Cambrian explosion of silicon and glass.

Much of that history can be found in the Jargon File, a collection of definitions and stories that go back to the birth of modern computing at MIT and Stanford — especially among the hackers that made up both organisations' artificial intelligence labs.

It's a fun read, full of laugh-out-loud anecdotes and cute stories (did you know the cover over the power switch on a rack of computers is called a Molly Guard, after the two year old daughter of an early mainframe operator who managed to shut down a major research centre with a flick of her finger?).

The stories that make up the Jargon File may or may not be true, but the language they've shaped is still the language of the internet, of the companies that are defining our world.

Facebook builds its own internal mythos around those hacker stories, turning them into a Bushido-like code for the modern world, its Hacker Way.

In the UK, there's a strand of computing history that comes out of Cambridge University, where Sinclair and Acorn shaped the computing childhoods of many UK programmers and, more importantly, company founders. While Acorn and Sinclair both faded away, the fortunes made in those heady days of the 80s became the seedcorn at the heart of influential venture capital funds.

It was one of those funds, Amadeus, which helped fund the early days of the ISP I helped build. Like many of the early UK ISPs it was set up by people who'd been part of the "tenner a month" conference on the CIX bulletin board, and who'd been among the early subscribers to Demon's pioneering dial-up internet service. It's a fund that's gone on to power much of the startup community around Cambridge, and the companies that have been born on the Silicon Fen.

Before then, still paddling my toes in the shallows of the early British internet, I had one of those tenner a month accounts on Demon, and like many of the denizens of Demon's Mac users group I went to meet-ups of those of us brave enough to hook up our PowerBooks to shrill modems. Looking back at those early meetings and who attended, they could almost have been a roster of the folk who helped build the early commercial internet in the UK: founders, architects, designers, writers.

Sat around a table in a Soho pizza restaurant sharing photocopied pages of the first US edition of Wired, none of us would have imagined where we'd end up, and how much of that myth we'd be part of; just a bunch of enthusiasts who became inspired enough to make those enthusiasms our careers.

They're roots that go back further than the birth of the Net. My first job was designing elements of massive radio transmitters, working in the very lab where Marconi and his engineers had built the first commercial radio transmitters; transmitters that powered the first BBC broadcasts, that announced the start and end of wars, the first women voters, the abdications and coronations of kings and queens.

We're all building things while standing on the shoulders of giants, only unlike many of our predecessors we have the opportunity to look down and see the PLATOs, the Computer Libs, the Jargon Files, the AT&T Labs, the SAILs, the Acorns, and the "tenner-a-months" that are our foundations.

Let's not forget where we came from, as it still shapes where we're going. And when we hack and build, we'll know why we hack and just what we're building.

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