IT peeps, be warned: You'll soon be a museum exhibit

Rolling out (and scraping) the barrel of computing history

By Alistair Dabbs


Something for the Weekend, Sir? Telephone operator, please put me through to… What's that? You want me to address you by your first name? Well, that's jolly friendly. I'm (thinks quickly, decides to use Starbucks name) "Alex". And how should I call you? Right.

Alexa, please put me through to… Yes, I said "put me though". You don't understand the question? It means I want to make a phone call. Yes, I do know who I want to call. No I don't have the number. If I had the number, I would have dialled it already.

Yes, I said "dialled". That's right, like a dial. A round thing, yes. With round holes in it for your finger, that's the one.

No, I don't have a dial on my phone. It's a figure of speech. No, Alexa, I'm not 90 years old, but your sarcasm is refreshing, bless you. I meant to say that if I had the phone number of the person I want to call, I would have er… pressed the buttons to make the call myself.

Yes, I said "pressed". Yes, like those big wobbly buttons on an old plastic telephone. Thank you for your concern, Alexa, but I do have a smartphone. Yes, I'm certain it is. No, it's not cased in Bakelite. No, of course I'm not really trying to press the on-screen buttons down into the phone handset. It's another figure of speech, you see? No, I'm not 80 years old, either, but feel free to keep adjusting your estimate down.

Look, I've had a better idea, could you put me through to Siri? I might have better luck with a slightly duller witted robot. Thanks, I'll hold.

Siri, could you put me through to… What's that? You're not Siri? Who? Is that a Swedish name? OK, will do.

Heig Ugel, could you put me through to any human being whose job hasn't been replaced by a digitised moron? You don't understand the question? That figures.


I have reached an age at which I spend weekends roaming castles, ancient stately homes and local town museums instead of going out clubbing and getting laid with the first willing participant I can find not to be subject to pet care insurance conditions. While the rest of the world sleeps off the previous night's excesses on Sunday morning, I'm browsing bird feeders and bottles of mead in the gift shop.

A common feature of all these places is one or more historical exhibits concerning lost skills and bygone trades. Sure, some of these involved enslaving the poor in cotton mills and stuffing children up chimneys, but there were less reprehensible occupations that must have seemed invaluable to civilisation at the time but no longer exist today.

Milkmaid. Wheeltapper. Rag and bone man (no, not him). Letterpress inker. Typist. Armourer. Carriageworks carpenter. Signwriter. Fax machine repair engineer. All these jobs were necessary at one point, then deemed not so very necessary in a new age, and merely a handful of people remain doing them now, usually for old times' sake.

Nothing symbolises the misery of lost skill more acutely than the plight of the cooper – the barrel-maker. For thousands of years, you're at the top of the trade tree with the richest guilds and most powerful collective bargaining muscle. Then one day some bugger invents barrel-sized containers made from plastic and stainless steel, and the entire cooperage trade is laid waste within half a generation.

At this point, I was going to insert a video of archetypal pre-hipsters Chas and Dave performing Roll Out The Barrel but it's a bit too Dick Van Dyke for my liking. So here they are singing some other bollocks instead. Make sure you shout out the catchline at each chorus, especially loudly if you're watching this at your office desk.

As I peruse yet another History of the Cooper exhibit, my brain whispers: "That's you, that is."

My means of earning a living has changed dramatically in recent years, even more so compared with the early noughties, and bears almost no relationship with what I was up to when I started full-time work after leaving university. It's not that I can't keep down a regular job – it's not only that – so much as any specific job I had in the past has long since evaporated.

The computer magazines I worked on no longer exist, not a single one, not even as websites. My once in-demand artwork skills, armed with depth scale (for measuring text columns) and circular slide rule (for resizing photos), barely attract amused curiosity today, let alone demand.

I can use a PMT (photo-mechanical transfer) camera! I can produce Cromalin proofs from film separations, and have an official Dupont training certificate to prove it! I can personally project-manage the monthly production of 1,200 pages and feed them down to the presses over the course of eight days!

Oh yes, all those memories lost like tears in rain, boo-hoo. But I don't see depth scales selling very well in the visitor centre of Little Shaggingham Town Museum. Rather, in a few years' time, I envisage the cooperage artefacts being shunted to one side to make space for a new exhibit entitled "The Lost IT Trades".

There will be photos of people from the old days sitting at a desk to use a computer. There will be interactive diagrams to explain how file sharing was achieved using Sneakernet. Visitors will nod and sympathise with those born into the bad old days. Then they will laugh at the comedy of the mobile computing section, watching archive film of people using portable computers that were so big they were as big as a lap!

And those funny old salaried occupations that IT people had in those days! Switching laser printers off and back on again? Unbelievable! Having to reset users' passwords every morning? Hilarious. Project sprint manager? Talk about a made-up job title! Scrum master? Sounds like a load of arse to me! UX designer? What the flying fuck was that all about?

Make no mistake, every one of us will feature in the exhibit as it traces though the history of data communications and its Dead Sea Roles. Semaphore operator. Telegraph operator. Telex operator. Telephone operator. Systems operator…

With that in mind, I think I'm going to book myself onto some more courses as whatever I'm doing today will be obsolete soon enough. I'm ready to learn afresh and embrace the new. Bring on the future!

Oh look, there's a hipster distillery down the road looking for someone to supply cask barrels.

Telephone operator, could you put me through to Cooperage Training Dot Com?

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. His favourite part of the stage play Ink, which dramatises the first year of The Sun newspaper after Rupert Murdoch purchased it in 1969, is the bit where they demonstrate how hot metal printing plates were made. Picture lots of hammering, sparks and molten lead. PDF/X it was not.

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