Katrina Porteous

the inspiration behind Katrina Porteous’ poem, ‘What I Recall’

‘What I Recall’ relates only loosely to the spirit of Alan Turing’s life and inventions. The poem is set in the city of Turing’s alma mater, Cambridge, in the 1990s. Rapidly shrinking microprocessors, vastly expanding computer memory, and the commercialization of the internet mid-decade, changed our lives forever, enabling at a stroke electronic mail, web discussions, downloading, online shopping, instant messaging and video communication, and social networking – media we now take entirely for granted. This revolution in how we communicate and interact with information is often compared to the invention of the printing press, but seems to me far more profound. While bumping the human race from one technological era to another, it appears to be changing the physical structure of our brains. It is as if we had jumped in one generation out of the stone age into the bronze age, a disjuncture of unparalleled speed and suddenness. It was of course Turing’s work in computing half a century earlier which helped to bring this about. More immediately, the poem was inspired by an old friend who, having bought a PDP-8 DEC computer in 1964, has a strong claim to have owned the first computer in a private house in the world. Behind the poem lies a question about the stories that we tell about ourselves, and the idea that a technological leap, real at the time, might be so ahead of its time that it becomes subsumed in history and its initiators forgotten. The poem uses a loosely-rhymed three-line stanza structure, its title standing as its first line. It is one of a series  in which I use language or concepts associated with computing – ‘memory’ and ‘intelligence’, the ‘virtual’ in contrast to the ‘actual’, the pure ‘idea’ and its relation to the analogue, the physical – to consider the ways we perceive, remember and construct our personal narratives and communal histories. The reference at the end to fruit is to an actual tree, and also to the tree of knowledge and experience; it relates only accidentally to the report that Turing died after eating an apple poisoned by cyanide.

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