The Computing Universe: A Journey through a Revolution, by Tony Hey and Gyuri Pápay

John Gilbey on an ambitious and comprehensive look at the changing world of computers

January 1, 2015

For an undergraduate in the 1970s, computing was clunky, restricted and arcane. Networking was in its infancy and very limited, interaction was by Teletype or monochrome video display unit, and resources were hugely expensive.

We already knew what we really wanted to achieve through computing, thanks to the vibrant science fiction pouring from the minds of authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Douglas Adams. Forty years later, technology is close to delivering the computing environment of their imagination through global networking, constant connectivity, wearable technology and spoken commands.

For the 1970s generation, the path between the two points has been a voyage of discovery – punctuated by dead ends, confusion between potential standards, false dawns and overzealous marketing. For today’s undergraduate – the digital native – computing is just a set of tools that supports a technologically sophisticated lifestyle; for many of them, I suspect, the journey that took us to where we are is largely unknown.

Here, Tony Hey and Gyuri Pápay provide an enjoyable guided tour of how the pervasive computing environment, which we now take so much for granted, developed. Eloquently presented in a style that assumes little in the way of technical background, the text covers a wide range of topics that are the building blocks of computing. The key familiar names of Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, John von Neumann and Alan Turing naturally get the appropriate coverage as historical characters in this multi-threaded world, but weight is also given to some of the lesser known but critically important characters who have contributed and in many cases continue to do so.

That the book names so many contributors to the development of computing is illustrative of the complex ecosystem that has been achieved. While the basic structures of logic gate and algorithm are based on relatively few key insights, the technical and operational legwork required to build these components into a working, effective, reliable global infrastructure has involved many thousands of creative minds. It is a welcome facet of this book that it celebrates so many of these (often unsung) heroes and heroines.

The scope of the book is ambitious, the field broad and multi-layered, yet the authors manage to weave a path that balances the need for clarity with the degree of complexity required to give a full and accurate picture of the computing world – from the earliest development of logic theory to the latest wearable devices. Both the breadth and depth of coverage are impressive, which makes the book suitable for a wide range of readers – anyone, in fact, who wants to know a bit more about what happens on the other side of the screen and how it has developed.

Illustrations are a key component, ranging from some excellent cartoons and technical drawings to product marketing images and screen shots of key software products. For me, however, the best photos are the agreeably nerdy images of those involved in the development of today’s computing. In many cases, hairstyles have dated as fast as the technology.

Over the past 50 years or so, the computing industry has had time to develop its own folklore regarding key events, chance encounters and shadowy deals – some of which have been circulated and tweaked over time to the extent that they have reached the level of urban myth. In building this text, Hey and Pápay have included a number of these elements of lore – but, usefully, they have provided appropriate referencing so that readers can delve into and debate the origins of the initial tales. This extends to their quoting Monty Python’s “Spam” sketch in its entirety – so that future generations will have some chance of understanding the social relevance of the term.

This is a celebration of an astonishingly prolific period of technological development, and a book that could act as a gateway for a new generation of innovators and game-changers – giving, as it does, suggestions for further reading as well as a significant collection of valuable references. Even hardened nerds will find new information here that will either reinforce or cause them to question their picture of the computing universe we inhabit.

The Computing Universe: A Journey Through a Revolution

By Tony Hey and Gyuri Pápay
Cambridge University Press, 424pp, £50.00 and £24.99
ISBN 9780521766456 and 1150187
Published 1 December 2014

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