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June 7, 2010

Bletchley Park – Enough Already

Sorry – it's time to stop droning on about Colossus, Alan Turing, Bletchley Park and all the rest of it, says Gary Flood

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I say this fully aware that there is a whole fanatical community of Bletchley-ites out there, who will doubtless be in ecstasy on the news that the secret Brit codebreaking base’s archives are to be digitised and put online.

‘Lost secrets of World War II to be finally revealed’ and all that jazz is the theme on press on all this from the BBC on down, which can’t resist the opportunity to parade the whole ‘we saved the world and invented computers at the same time’ stuff.

Time to let all that go, folks. A few home truths: we didn’t ‘save the world’. Our good friends in the Red and US Armies did that. Intelligence gathered by Enigma was useful, yes, but even the Battle of the Atlantic itself was won by advances in radar, sonar, basic sensible convoy sailing and longer range bombers blowing U-boats up. Enigma itself was broken, remember, not even mainly by dons sucking on pencils in Bucks but sailors (Brits, not Yanks, unlike what you ‘learned’ in that charmingly daft movie ‘U-571’) getting devices and codebooks out of sinking subs.

But why go on? Every counter-Bletchley myth will be answered by hordes of acolytes who will correct my ‘facts’ with their ‘facts’. So, OK, let’s grant them their wishes; Bletchley Park made a bigger contribution to the destruction of the Wehrmacht than anything else we did, etc etc. Colossus was the first electronic computer. Alan Turing was a better computer scientist than John Von Neumann. The third goal in the 1966 World Cup Final definitely, definitely crossed the line. And so on.

But – enough already. Our country has a very unhealthy interest in both World War II and us plucky Brit pioneers… who never seem to have had the proper place in the Sun they deserve.

Neither attitude is helpful in 2010. A time when we as a nation have a government telling us they are about to inaugurate the biggest cuts in public spending since, hmm, 1945 itself; when a double-dip recession seems increasingly likely; when old ways of working and producing economic product (such as the City) seem very flakey.

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That’s why Bletchley-itis and all the underlying suspicion it seems to be attached to that we were cheated out of the IT industry as we ‘invented’ it is just not needed right now. I have also suspected that the Bletchley Park industry is mainly kept alive by Arts graduate computer journalists, who like a romantic story that involves a human tragedy in the shape of Turing rather than dealing with the more mundane realities of IT, e.g. like the fact that storage is both very, very boring but also very important and that Corporate America and its agenda drives progress in computers.

Harping on about achievements of coming up for 70 years ago is nice but irrelevant to the real challenges facing our industry and economy.

For the record, I am myself a World War II bore, patriot and admirer of Turing and his work in both philosophy, AI and to the War effort. He was a cool dude and they did some great things. Now let’s give it a rest and spend some energy on building a new Green manufacturing base or something, please.

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