Electronic Dreams: a review

Tom Lean
Electronic Dreams. How 1980s Britain learned to love the computer
London, Bloomsbury, 2016
978-1-4729-1833-8

[This review first appeared in the LSE Review of Books in December. As the Review’s terms of reuse are admirably free, I republish the review here.]

A character in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys observed that ‘there is no period so remote as the recent past’. Contemporary historians will recognise the force of Bennett’s observation, and it is perhaps particularly apt in the history of computing. Historians and theorists of the Internet and the World Wide Web have always to reckon with the common view that these systems are as they are inevitably; that they could have come about in no other way and in no other form. In a time when the personal computing industry is to all intents and purposes divided between PCs running Microsoft software on the one hand, and the products of the Apple Corporation on the other, all popular consciousness of any pre-history to that state of affairs has been lost.

Into that gap comes Tom Lean’s study of personal computing in 1980s Britain. Based on a University of Manchester Ph.D. thesis from 2008, it is produced and priced in order to reach a readership wider than simply historians of technology. The appeal of the book will be seductive to those (like this reviewer) who learnt IT at school on a BBC Micro, and played games on a ZX Spectrum. Although it flirts occasionally with the danger, the book avoids being merely an exercise in nostalgia by the crispness of the writing, and a deft interweaving of users, technologies, makers, and the wider context of government thinking and media history.

Lean vividly evokes the very earliest stages of the development of kit computers for home assembly in the late 1970s, as innovators working in spare bedrooms provided other enthusiasts with new toys with which to experiment. The story is a British one to set alongside the more familiar founding myths of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in their garages. Striking also is the degree to which the personal computer was a tool without a use. No particular market existed for the earliest machines, apart from as a tool with which to learn about computing itself. Lean goes on to show that the uses to which these machines were put were often not those the makers had anticipated. Many were disappointed that machines that might have been put to educational or commercial use ended up used only for games, even though the games industry was to become highly significant for the British economy. But Lean shows that this very open-endedness was the most significant legacy of the time. Without a graphical user interface behind which the workings of the machine were hidden, a generation of computer scientists and engineers were able to learn the fundamentals of computing and what it might enable.

Lean’s narrative includes the development of a market, which was by and large mature by 1983, and which collapsed within a few years. In a very short space of time, market leaders had emerged – the ZX Spectrum, the BBC Micro and the Commodore 64 – and with them a panoply of books, specialist magazines, and companies that produced software. Lean’s account is detailed on the relative technical capabilities of the several machines, including those that lost out in the race for market share, but also surefooted and informative on the wider context. There is an international element, as British machines competed in a global market, against competition from the USA and Japan in particular. For a time, British innovation was a success story which the Thatcher government was very ready to tell. 1982 was declared IT Year, and saw the appointment of the first government minister of IT, Kenneth Baker. For a moment, British entrepreneurship and innovation could be set rhetorically against the supposedly bloated and inefficient traditional industries that Mrs Thatcher had set out to reform.

Particularly intriguing is the role of the BBC. In line with its threefold role to educate, inform and entertain, the BBC had in the 1970s paid attention to the coming world of computerisation, and its likely effect on employment, to set alongside early utopian and dystopian visions of the future. The Computer Programme (1982) was part of a broader Computer Literacy Project, involving television and radio, books, a programming course using BASIC, and (most unusually), its own computer, the BBC Micro. Developed inside a week by Acorn of Cambridge, as their engineers slept under the laboratory benches, it was technically outstanding and soon secured a dominant position in schools, despite protests from other firms that to patronise one machine should not be the role of the BBC as a national broadcaster.

Historians of the Internet will find much in the section on Prestel, the system for receiving centrally held data on specially adapted televisions via a home telephone line. Launched in 1979 but more or less defunct by the early 1990s, it was administered by British Telecom, building on the previous Post Office monopoly in telephone services. Although the number of users was small, those that did adopt Prestel were using it for many tasks now common on the Web: buying tickets, finding travel information, banking. Prestel failed where the French equivalent Minitel succeeded, reaching some 9 million users at its height. That failure illustrates the haphazard and serendipitous nature of success and failure in the history of technology. While the system was technically advanced, Prestel’s charging model was wrong for the time; simple organisational inertia prevented a more widespread connection of the new home computers to the system, and it lacked the wholehearted support of government, which was forthcoming in the French case.

If the book is let down by anything, it is by some slack proofreading, as errors abound. Scholars wishing to follow up any of the matters raised will need to resort to Lean’s thesis, available via the British Library’s Ethos service, as the referencing and bibliography here are very light, perhaps as a concession to a more general readership. These cavils aside, Electronic Dreams will be essential reading for those interested in how Britain came to love the personal computer.

Slow scholarship and fast blogging revisited

In 2014 I had a look back at two years of blogging to see whether there was a tension between slow scholarship and fast blogging : that is, does the blog medium tempt scholars into the publication of immature work and hastily formed opinions? I concluded not, but more than two years on, has that changed? Of the seventy posts I’ve published since then, are there any I wished I had shelved?

As usual, there were several posts which were the republications of book reviews and other pieces from elsewhere, and various pieces in the way of reportage: new books from others, exhibitions and so on. There were also a good deal of posts in the way of advertising: new articles appearing, abstracts of forthcoming ones, and so on. But there were some twenty-five pieces which were more discursive in character: essays on everything from social media archiving to clergy in fiction, from user requirements for web archives, to the purpose of religious history. I also broke the habit of a lifetime and wrote an explicitly political piece on the EU referendum, the kind of writing I usually keep for another blog. And by and large, my impression of these remains as it was in 2014, even thought the subject matter has varied. As I concluded then:

There are areas in which my thinking has deepened since the first time I posted about them. But (crucially) that growth in thought has not been away from the initial post, but deeper and wider in the same soil. This is indeed what one would hope would happen – the act of first essaying something here is the stimulus to further thought …. I don’t think there are any posts here which I now wish were not here, and not in the archived version in the UK Web Archive. From the evidence of this blog, at least, there is no contradiction between slow scholarship and fast blogging.

John Fowles’ country parson

Most of the fictional Anglican clergymen in my little mini-series so far have been contemporary; that is, they are characters in stories set notionally in the present in which they were published. Daniel Martin, written by John Fowles and first published in 1977, has an extended vignette on the character of Daniel’s father, a parish priest in rural Devon in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Reverend Mr Martin owes something to Trollope, but bears a much greater symbolic weight. There is the enthusiasm for his garden, and for his collection of controversial religious writings of the seventeenth century, with which he regales his young son. He might have been a collector of butterflies or fossils or the detritus of dead languages: fictional clergy seem often to be antiquarians of one sort or another.

Not unlike Orwell’s Suffolk vicar in A Clergyman’s Daughter, he also disdains what earlier would have been known as ‘enthusiasm’, which he terms ‘demonstration’. ‘If only the good man would rely less on the demonstrative’ he would say of a visiting preacher; a visiting African-American preacher from the nearby US airbase was ‘over-enthusiastic’. In the Reverend Martin’s ‘Platonic notion of the perfect human soul’, any manifestation whatever of strong feeling was wholly absent. This was in part to do with where his real belief lies. Not uncommonly at a time when a clerical career was a predictably secure option for one of the right social stamp, the Reverend Mr Martin was ‘not truly religious’ but a good parish man. ‘His real faith was in order; and his mildly privileged place in it.’

Punch (1841) (14780579884)

A country parson and a pauper (Punch, 1841, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fowles’ portrait of a rural parson bears some similarities with Orwell’s, but its fictive function is quite different. Orwell’s clergyman is a contemporary; Fowles’ Mr Martin is part of a world, the dramatic loss of which is the subject of the whole novel. ‘I disowned all this world for so long simply because I saw it as freakishly abnormal’ Daniel tells us, as narrator:

But I see it now as no more than an extreme example of the general case. My contemporaries were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin until 1945. That is why we are on the rack, forced into one of the longest and most abrupt cultural stretches in the history of mankind.  Already what I was before the Second World War seems far more than four decades away; much more like the same number of centuries.

If as historians we are to see the 1939-45 conflict and the period afterwards until the early 1970s as the key period in the secularisation of Britain (and the 1950s as an Indian summer of Christian observance) then the Reverend Mr Martin is to be read across that divide, a fictive emblem of a lost world.

[‘The umbrella’, in Fowles, Daniel Martin (London: Triad, 1978), pp.82-98.]

English cathedral music and liturgy in the 20th century: a short review

[A short book notice, destined for the Journal of Ecclesiastical History]

Martin Thomas
English Cathedral Music and Liturgy in the Twentieth Century
Ashgate 2015, xvii +265
978-1-4724-2630-7

The musical history of the English cathedrals has long wanted for a single treatment, being hitherto treated only briefly in histories of individual cathedrals, or as part of the history of religious music as a whole. Martin Thomas’ welcome new study fills that gap in the literature. Based on extensive research both in printed primary sources and in cathedral archives, it documents in detail the shifts in cathedral musical practice and repertoire between 1900 and 2005. Its principal argument, which is effectively made, is that the period saw a divorce between church music composition and the wider musical world. This led to the emergence and indeed ossification of a ‘cathedral style’: consciously archaic in compositional technique and conforming to extraneous criteria of ‘fittingness’ with the work of the liturgy.

Speaking theologically, Thomas is very clear that this was a wrong turn for the cathedrals to have taken. However, the study does not engage to any great extent with the now voluminous literature on secularisation and culture in the UK. As such, opportunities are missed to engage historically with many of the arguments that the study seeks to refute. What was it in the changing understandings of the relationship of cathedrals with their dioceses, city communities and (crucially) with the tourist that disposed them towards the preservation of a particular style? Thomas is sure that the argument that sacred music should be consciously archaic is false, but why was it put forward, at the times in which it was put forward? What view of the relationship between culture and theology did such arguments embody, and whose interests were they designed to serve? Why should critics have tended to value utility in church music over compositional innovation?

There are many such questions of motivation and context that are left unasked. The book provides much welcome material for historians, but there remains much to be done in integrating cathedral music into the story of twentieth century English Christianity as a whole.

Michael Ramsey for the contemporary church: a bishop’s view

I blogged recently about the limits of the responsibility of the historian to work out the theological and ethical implications of recent history for the contemporary church. It was inspired by a disagreement between reviewers of my book on archbishop Michael Ramsey over what contemporary history should be for, and whose purposes it should serve.Ramsey - cover

Now there appears a review of the book from a bishop of the Anglican church (although not the first) which does some of just that work – of applying the book’s conclusions to the contemporary church in the USA and worldwide. It is from R. William Franklin, bishop of Western New York, published in the fall 2016 issue of the Anglican Theological Review. I have little to quibble with over Bishop Franklin’s gloss on the book, and so I quote some of it here. It is also pleasing that he thinks the book a ‘welcome contribution to scholarship …. a valued alternative interpretation’ and the account of the Anglican-Methodist unity scheme ‘masterful’.

For Franklin, Ramsey achieved a synthesis of the sacramentalism of Pusey, the scripturalism of Barth and the socialism of F.D. Maurice in order to ‘define the fundamental shape of the Church as an institution that exists solely to proclaim Christ, and in doing so, to bring about human reconciliation.’ Only a few reviewers so far have focussed on this insight, which (in my mind, at least) was the burden of the whole book. Franklin then goes on to draw out a practical programme:

(i) ‘in mission, to focus on a re-evangelization of the nation;

(ii) ‘in preaching, to give people hope by focussing on the great shape of things to come;

(iii) ‘in ecumenism, to focus on local achievement’

(iv) ‘in liturgical reform, to focus on accessible communication’.

Bishop Franklin connects this programme very directly with the Jesus Movement, outlined by the present presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, which is an intriguing thought. For Franklin, the Anglican church in the USA is in the same process as Ramsey’s Church of England: as I put it, ‘redefining itself, and being redefined, as an increasingly gathered body, learning to act prophetically, to sing the Lord’s song in an increasingly strange land (p.139)

Evangelicals and sex on the Internet: a book review

Kelsy Burke
Christians Under Covers. Evangelicals and sexual pleasure on the Internet
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016
978-0-520-28633-7

[This review first appeared at Reading Religion. What follows is a shortened version]

Evangelicals, we are led to believe, have a problem with sex. On both sides of the Atlantic, if the mainstream media knows anything about Christians and their views on sex, it is that Christians cannot agree, and particularly on the status of gay relationships and the nature of marriage. These debates are complex, but the stereotype of the Puritan, whose conservatism covers not only the contexts in which sexual intercourse is permissible but also which forms it may take, has tended to color all evangelical thinking on sex a single shade of grey.ch-under-covers

Kelsy Burke’s new study of evangelical sexuality websites tells a new, finely nuanced and wholly convincing story. Her raw material is close readings of a group of websites — message boards, blogs, and, yes, sex toy stores — supplemented by extensive survey and interview evidence. In them Burke uncovers a “new evangelical sexual logic”, in line with an older principle: that sex is to be between married, monogamous heterosexuals. Within those bounds, however, the Christians Burke observes find spaces online in which they are available to work out, individually and in dialogue with others, the most pleasurable and fulfilling ways to enjoy their relationship with their spouse. Here is there no Manichaean duality of body and spirit, no ascetic mortification of the flesh. Users present their own prayer, personal testimonies, and interpretations of scripture in an iterative form of “lived religion,” that fills in the empty spaces within the bounds of official interpretation on matters that are rarely broached face-to-face in local churches.

For scholars of the Web and of the Internet (Burke rarely distinguishes between the two), there are many suggestive and intriguing lines of enquiry here. Acting anonymously might, on the face of it, be expected to present difficulties to the Christian. Burke’s subjects short-circuit any unease by means of a stress on the omniscience of God. One might be acting anonymously, but God is one’s witness as to the integrity with which one conducts oneself. Evangelicals have often attempted to create safe spaces and alternatives to the cultural products of a corrupt world—Christian film, Christian holidays, Christian heavy metal. Here, we see Christians creating safer stores for sex aids, in which they may be purchased without the unacceptable messaging that would surround such a sale in a secular store. Also interesting are the ways in which authority is constructed. Evangelicalism has historically been amongst the least clerical among Christian traditions in its control of which voices are heard and which may be trusted. Here, even that relatively loose emphasis on external validation by an institution is unpicked; those who create and maintain these sites do so on the basis of their marriedness, their personal piety, and their sense that they are under the gaze of an omniscient God.

If there is one area in which I would have wished to see more, it is on the nature of the Web itself. One of the governing myths of the Web is that it is a boundless space of infinite possibility, free from control, in which users and site owners may create their own reality. But each website is in fact an amalgam of conscious and unconscious design choices made by site owners, embedded in the software applications they develop themselves or license from others. These choices are made both in anticipation of and in response to the needs of users, insofar as they are known. How a website looks, and the things it allows users to do and not to do, are part of this story, into which the author might have gone further. It would have made an already fascinating and suggestive study even richer.

Further reviews of Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church

The reviews of my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey are now appearing thick and fast in the journals, following the usual gap after the initial notices in the press. Mark Dorsett in Modern Believing thought it a ‘fair-minded and judicious book’, while Peter Waddell in Reviews in Religion and Theology thought its central point was ‘developed carefully and persuasively throughout the book, and in the end it is difficult to dissent sharply from’. My thanks are due to both of them. Ramsey - cover

Waddell ends his review by saying:

This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of the Church of England in the second half of the twentieth century, and in Michael Ramsey especially. It reminds us what a tremendous figure he was.

Waddell also makes what I accept as a fair point, in that while discussing the 1967 reform of the law on abortion, I suggest that no-one foresaw the later rapid rise in the number of terminations in the UK.

A few pages earlier, he notes the Church’s pre-legislation working group acknowledging the concern of ‘traditional moralists’ that the slippery slope towards abortion on demand loomed, before breezily dismissing it with confidence that safeguards would be devised. Had they been heeded, the Church of England’s approach towards the initial 1967 legislation and the subsequent abortion tsunami might have been very different. Might this illumine a wider issue, wherein Ramsey appears a little too ready to accept wider cultural assumptions, especially those shared by the liberal elite which Webster shows was in many ways his natural hinterland? […] Webster is excellent at showing the constraints on an Archbishop of Canterbury, but perhaps we need more theological and ethical reflection on whether the acceptance of those restraints have cost too much.

I draw this out because it raises once again, as several of the other reviews have, the proper role of historical writing. I would certainly want there to be more ethical and theological reflection on the legacy of the long Sixties, but doubt my own capability to produce it – or at least, to produce it as well as a theologian or ethicist would.  There are moments in the book where I allowed myself to flirt with just this kind of editorialising, which were pointed out by one of the historian reviewers. The issue was the subject of this post, on Who is religious history for?