1984. I’m well into my fourth ‘gap year’ (in fact, I’m redefining the term ‘gap’). I’m working at a telesales place in Queen’s Park. This telesales place is different from the other dumps I worked at during the slack years, though – it’s run by a Californian cult whose working practices involve shouty ritual humiliation, enforced separation from family and the loud singing of Mustang Sally at 8am. One of my tasks during my few months in North West London – which included cleaning the cult toilets, walking the cult dogs and photocopying cult ‘training’ materials – involved cold-calling organisations of every kind and grilling them about their IT. Later in life computers became my thing – look, I’m using one now! – but I hadn’t encountered one then (isn’t that a crazy thought? 21 years old and never met a computer!). I might as well have been asking questions about, you know, particle accelerators.
Some other important things happened in that year: William Gibson invented Cyberspace. The Mac was introduced. ‘How Soon is Now?’ topped John Peel’s Festive Fifty. Everybody watched The Living Planet and Spitting Image. The miners’ strike tore up Britain.
I had a script. My goal was to acquire ‘qualified leads’ for my client to contact later. “Do you use computers in your business?” “What kind of computers do you own?” “How many?” “Do they run MS-DOS, CP-M, GEM, DR-DOS or [long list of defunct operating systems]…” One of the organisations I phoned was called CERN. Yes, CERN – essentially the coolest place on earth. Of course, in 1984 I knew even less about CERN than I did about computers.
My list said CERN was in Switzerland, though, which made it a more interesting call than the others I’d make that day so I was going to enjoy it. The cult had taught me that persistence was vital, so, after ten minutes bothering various receptionists, supervisors and under-managers, I was put through to ‘someone in IT’. He was impatient, seemed a bit absent-minded and spoke very quickly – but he spoke English and, at some point, he obviously resolved to help the clueless drone from London on the phone. He told me he was a developer, in information systems. He didn’t buy computers for CERN and and he didn’t know who did. He was obviously a million miles from being a lead, qualified or otherwise.
The cult I brushed with (they never bothered to try to recruit me) was called ‘Exegesis‘ and the telesales firm, which was called ‘Programmes’ emerged after Exegesis was investigated by police. They were a pretty scary bunch – intense, contemptuous of the unconverted, messianic.
But I had a form to complete and knew that a miserable stand-up humiliation awaited me if I didn’t finish it after spending so long on the phone, so I pushed on, obtaining a list of computer technology so exotic, so science fiction, as to render the whole call pointless. I don’t remember the detail but by the time I’d finished I’d used three extra sheets of paper and pretty much the whole of my new friend’s Geneva lunch hour. The cheer from the other telesales drones when I hung up raised the roof. I was ecstatic: on my entirely useless list there were PCs and workstations, minicomputers, embedded systems, mainframes and supercomputers… hundreds of them.
It was many years before it occurred to me that this harried developer with a rather posh voice might just have been the inventor of the World Wide Web. It’s difficult, of course, to know exactly how much influence I had on the final shape of the world-changing technology that was even then forming in that patient man’s head but it’s gratifying to know that I was there at the beginning. Something to tell my grandchildren.