Travel

Silicon Valley Computer Museum, California

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The Google self-driving car
My son suggested this as a trip out while I was staying with him in Woodside, California. It would appeal to both of us, a good thing to do together and time out for both our wives.
On the way there, I joked that I would probably recognise some of the exhibits, but I was genuinely shocked with how many of the artefacts were things that I had used myself, in some cases decades ago and in others quite recently. It felt like a kind of homecoming.
In some ways that shouldn’t be a surprise. I grew up through and in the computing revolution. I went to school next door to Bletchley Park (which figured prominently in the museum), though any public knowledge of its work or importance came after I had left and moved away. Mainly by accident, I was an IT pioneer in education. I was Head of one of the very first computer departments in a large school in the UK. I worked on the BBC and Open University projects to try to make the UK population computer literate. I built one of the very first computer networks outside a University or Computer company, used one of the first email systems and a minor claim to fame was having, for a few weeks, one of the very first Apple Macintosh computers in Europe (and having to sign a gigantic non-disclosure and contractual agreement before I could take it home).
All these things, and many more, featured prominently in the museum. Unlike the industry it tries to capture, it is a calm, well-ordered and disciplined place with pastel coloured walls, roomy, air-conditioned spaces and beautifully curated displays with attractive interpretation boards and a little interactivity. There’s less hi-tech in the “visitor experience” than I would have expected (There’s no Virtual or Augmented Reality to lead you round, for example). It’s very much a museum, but doesn’t have the pervading smell of old things so familiar here in Britain.
It’s very different looking at an exhibit where you have expertise and knowledge. It’s hard not to start arguing with the captions and display boards and I don’t think I was partisan in identifying a strong and uncritical story about the genius of American invention, and the picture of an unbroken line from the war-time inventions to the vast corporations that surround the place now.
It did engage me and all too soon we arrived in the last gallery, where a Google self-driving car sits proudly, and allows you to get on board, with excellent explanations of the main systems necessary for it to be able to cope as well as most humans on Californian roads. Trying this out was fascinating. I was horrified at the idea of sitting in a car where no-one has any controls except the ability to tell it where to go and to shut it down completely. Coming face to face with this icon of artificial intelligence, and symbol of IT’s impending world domination was energising. Imagining the freeways and highways of California with no human drivers is exhilarating, but you can’t help wondering what all the drivers will do instead.
We had good fun in what must be the world’s nerdiest shop, exactly right for a computer museum and then, as we pulled away, we saw, for the first time, one Google Car after another at loose on the road as we drove past the sprawling campuses of Hewlett Packard, Facebook and more, in perfect Californian sunshine.