Our Friend the Computer

Prestel (Pre-Internet Networks)

March 29, 2022 Our Friend the Computer Season 1 Episode 5
Our Friend the Computer
Prestel (Pre-Internet Networks)
Show Notes Transcript

Ana chats to Camila about Prestel, a nationwide information network developed by the UK Post Office. The videotex system was developed during the 1970s and for a brief time, the UK was at the forefront of intending to migrate its society online. However, the Conservative’s acts halted the development by privatising Telecommunication in 1979 and 1981 by Thatcher. The girls discuss policy loopholes, Prestel’s neglect in correlation to the UK’s political failures, as well as its significant impact in the global technical blossoming of online communication.

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Main research for the episode was done by Ana who also edited.
Music by Nelson Guay (SoundCloud: fluxlinkages)

“Prestel: The British Internet That Never Was”, Tom Lean, History Today, 2016, - https://www.historytoday.com/history-matters/prestel-british-internet-never-was

Hello, everyone. Welcome to our friend, the computer. I'm Ana I am a web developer and I work in online education. And I also create art pieces such as Camila's a long time ago, which is how we met and. Yeah. Camila, how are you? I'm good. Yeah, I'm kinda. I'm a research based visual artist. I made a work that Ana commissioned curator created. That's how we met. I'm good, I. I'm in snow storm in New York, but, you know, it's my first New York winter, and. Scary. I was unprepared and prepared. I guess. Prepared via pop culture. I'm prepared for reality, but not. It took me a long time to get. It was a whole process. They went missing. It was it was horrible. But, you know, I feel like I've got I've got a cart, I've got boots, gloves, I've got a thing to go over my ears. But it's like so nice gone this weekend. And I do not want to go out. So that means you can like focus on just staying in and like writing your book and writing my book, right. Writing this, this podcast is a distraction. Writing episode after episode of this podcast is a distraction for me because I am writing a book and have been writing a book for a while and, you know, like a lot of my projects, this book is a couple of different topics that I wish together for fun. And, you know, I got to a moment this week where I was like, maybe this maybe this is like two different books. Maybe it doesn't go together. So I'm not in a great place, but it's better than like not having enough information for a book, right? Like, you don't want to have writer's block. You're having like the opposite of writer's block where there's just like, too much, too much inspiration coming in in you. That's me. That's me in my book. What are you. What are you up to these days? I am kind of just like, looking forward to my ballet sessions every Monday session. Yeah, I have a class, Like I go to regular classes. A class? Okay. Yeah, I just kind of like looking forward to that. Really. I don't know. Have you seen the movie center stage? No, I haven't. It's amazing. It's set at the like. I think it's not a real thing. It's like the New York Ballet Academy, and it's this, like, ragtag group of friends, and they're dealing with, like, bureaucracy of the ballet academy and the ballet world and trying to navigate having it, because most of them have, like, grown up doing ballet and and they've been on this pathway to where they are now and maybe not even considering if that is what they want. Yeah, there's a really great Jamie Maguire dance sequence. It's the cheesiest movie in the world, but it brings me a lot of choice or, Oh my God, I'm going to watch it. I'm going to watch it when I. That sounds amazing. Any kind of like story about trying to challenge the institution just so that you can express yourself? Yeah, the institution and your parents. Yes. So big recommend everyone out there. Center stage, very old movie theater like movie club for the. I don't think there's any tech in center stage. That's what I want. I don't I don't think they have phones. Good. Just dance. Just dancing. Amazing opposing to ballet and expressing yourself through your body. We're going to talk about the personal system, which is expressing yourself through digital communication, but not even that really, because it wasn't even used for individuals. It was never brought to the public. But yeah, today I'm talking about presto, which was a an interactive video tech system basically developed by the U.K. post office and the telecommunications for data technology during the late 1970s and launched in 79. So very different, very different to ballet, very different to our hobbies. I think it's cool to look at. Yeah, all these other versions of video text that were coming up and existing in the sort of eighties nineties and how they failed. Yeah, because essentially Presto was a system that like dovetailed switchboard operation to dialing local codes just like Beneteau. But you could do it yourself at home and in the U.K. that really revolutionized like telecommunication and switchboards weren't really needed and messaging was provided as well through Presto. So kind of like what's really interesting is that our current Internet protocol suite, which again, I did mention in minute to the way that we like transmit data on a connected network is very reminiscent of Press Dell system because it used a request and receive transmission and it also operated via a display screen. So again, very similar to how we use the Internet now. Yeah, it wasn't really used by the public, so it never really got the chance to like evolve in terms of its hardware. But the kind of history around it is is quite interesting. So the post Office telecommunications was set up as like a separate department of the U.K. post office, and that was happening in October 1969 and the UK post office. That's like part of the government, right? Yeah, Yeah. Okay. But then there were some hiccups to how it shifted between nationalization and privatization, because the Post Office Act in 1969 was passed to provide for greater efficiency in post and telephone services. Rather than run a range of services, each organization would be able to like focus on their respective service with dedicated management. And so the national telephone company controlled most of telephony in Britain before the 1880 ruling of the Telegraph Act, which happened in 1869, which mandated a national AI service, and that was kind of instated in 1911. So really, a really long time ago before telephones were even invented. I really like the word telephony. Yeah, I don't hear it enough these days has been coming up so much in these research. Yeah. Telephony as in like telephone networks. And you don't really think about telephone networks that much, right? I mean, maybe now you do because you have things like group calls that are so much more popular. But I kind of just think of it as just like a user to user one on one interaction. Yeah, shout out to my group chat always. So this like telegraph act granted this monopoly over communications and it was confirmed in 1880 that this act included telephony, even though the telephones had not even been invented. When the act was first conceived, because obviously telephones are like a by product of the telegraph. So it included telephones. But this was great news because it meant that telephony was nationalized and it was government owned and it was state funded, built by the taxpayer. And this kind of like maintained a stable technological growth throughout the nation in the seventies, which was also a huge time of like post industrialization, used a lot and like the bureaucratic and financialization boom in the UK, as it, like I said, entered a post-industrial era and eventually also led to a fun little invention called view data. So if you data is just like another word for videos. Hex is that how it works? Yeah. So view data is a video text implementation. It's a type of information retrieval service in which a subscriber can access a remote data base. It can request data and receive requested data on a video display over a separate channel from the carrier channel. So it sounds complicated, but basically it's just like two objects that are connected and work in a supplemental way via varying channels that serve different purposes. So that's like one channel is for sending and one channel is for receiving. Yeah, Yeah. I mean, like sometimes what I think about these systems, I remember how cyber sin was imagined by Allende, which is what we talked about in the first episode as like a metabolic cardiovascular body because he was a doctor. But also like you mentioned, you know, obviously the president and that is an area of Chile's digitalized plan dichotomy is something very much like the kind of circulatory system where you have veins as channels acting as different transmission services to the server or heart, and then the other organs that are like display ports or input terminals, because essentially it is just like, oh, heart. Yeah, because it is just like an input and output system at the end of the day. But yeah, so Samuel Farida, who had the idea for view data in 1968, was the inventor of the system which was developed while working for the British Post Office, which was the operator of the national telephone system and the Access request and reception transmissions usually flowed via a common carrier broadcast channel and it was different to teletext because it was able to sustain a large number of frames, each access less frequently, whereas teletext could only hold a limited amount of information frames for which there is a high demand such as, you know, news headlines, sports results and weather reports. Just like what Minato was using a lot. I think that in my research I was looking at other things. But I do think that Minato got some inspiration from Presto, right? Because they were they were the one the presto while view data was sort of the he invented it for the first time. Right? It wasn't just like this particular system. Yeah. I mean they were it was all happening at the same time. So they must have that informing each other. But again, these are different nations and they had different uses and it was a different context. So it makes sense that you would have different view data and video text depending on the nation because they had to be separate companies in a way. But I think it's important to note just how similar this operation work to our current Internet protocol suite. So HTP is like our current data communication standard on the internet and does this via a STP request because it's it's stateless. So this means that Web servers store no session information about the user agent between sequential requests. So basically, like each client request must contain all the information required to retrieve the resources requested. And this is done through entering a URL in your browser tab. So you're basically like constantly communicating to the server and asking it to do things because it doesn't really remember itself. And so you've got the HTP port, which is what we talked about briefly, is similar to minutos 3615 access codes and then it's so that's like the protocol and then the user ID or server domain, it follows that afterwards. So you've got like w, w, w dot google.com or whatever. And then after that there's there's more query information and it goes into more and more specific detail after that in the browser tab. So yeah, when you use the Internet, you usually request a resource request, a method which is the same as view data, except now with your internet, we can also send data to the server and delete a remote resource. So it's just a little bit more advanced. Anyway, enough about the technicalities and sorry about that. But yeah. So although there were similarities between the internet and Presto, Presnell was also launched during the 1970s, which was a period of great expansion for the post office. But progress came at a price. Investment was stifled by public spending limits, and the Conservatives came into power, decided that telecommunications should be fully separated from the post office. In 1979, literally the year Thatcher was voted in as Prime Minister. So it was like her first thing on the list. But thankfully Presto had already been invented by then. It was also with great luck that the Telegraph act from all the way back in 1869 confirmed the nationalization of telephony, even though the telephone had not been invented yet at the time. It's it's funny, looking at the connection between phones and Internet or, you know, these precursors to Internet because, you know, like, of course they're connected. You know, my memories of early Internet, of the sort of dial up going through the phone line, you know, someone in the family wants to use the phone. So you have to get off the Internet. Oh, but I hadn't really thought about what that meant for like further in the past in history where we're looking at like telegraph, telephone and then I guess this like viewed data, video, text, teletext stuff that uses fine lines. So it's all about at this point, it's still thinking of communication like smart phones are like they need the internet right to be smart. I mean, they're smart in their own right, but I use Internet services on my phone more than I use like my telephone, but it's still like the phone company that I'm going through. It's the phone company that does that, like 4G, 5G. And yeah, they're still so integrated with each other, but we've actually moved on so much from get a phone meant you know in the past that yeah like I wonder if there was a point or a world where like they could have been separated. I think they definitely did splice off like especially when you started paying for those services. Separate. Lee So you were paying for your credit Bill but then you're also paying for your data Bill. But I mean, you definitely can't really have one without the other when you think about the development of these services because, you know, without the post office telecommunications technology, we wouldn't have had presto. I think most countries also have a shift of nationalization to privatization of the phone companies. I know that we had that in Australia with Telstra. Yeah, and, you know, judging by the similarities and timeline of Presto, also, and the kind of like starting points of hypertext transfer protocol like press done may have inspired a request and received standard of data communication that informed the design of HTP. And you know, while it may have been a commercial failure, technically at least presto worked and so it never actually launched into public. Unfortunately, it was halted by the Conservatives and the basic concept was demonstrated by sound giving, you know, thousands of people a glimpse of like an online world that would later become very commonplace, very much part of the everyday like we have now on our phones. Even if it's funny, I while I was doing research for this and kind of writing up the plan for this episode, I kept confusing presto with Preston like presto sounds suspiciously similar to Preston, and Preston is like a city in Lancashire, but also like refers to the to the term the Preston model, which is very well known here in the UK because it's applied to this like socialist building community building model. It's applied to how the like council, it's anchor institutions and other partners are implementing the principles of community wealth building in its area. So it's just like very left wing and focuses on local community building. Yeah, I just, I thought that was quite funny. I like to think that maybe there's a link in the like nomenclature, but I know it's only because I was writing this podcast up very late at night and the words were glaring together. Preston's also a suburb in Melbourne, I'm sure named after some someone that we don't want to give airtime to, but it's kind of a sort of outer in a suburb that a lot of the a lot of artists and a lot of arts organizations and galleries are kind of moving out there. Isn't there A song by Courtney Barnett, something to do with Preston and her like depressed and depressed, depressed and model. That's me. If I would say that to someone here, they'd be like, Shut up. It's not. The Preston model is amazing. But anyway, back to the bad news. Unlike the Preston model by 1981, I think Thatcher's British Telecommunications Act was passed and the service became British Telecom. So it became privatized and it became under, you know, private company ownership. And, you know, I've heard about the miners and everything, but I had no idea that the conservative privatized these services is as well. At the exact same times. They must have been really busy. And all the acts that were passed, imagine like the amount of meetings and the motivation got privatized as much as possible, as fast as possible. Yeah, it's it's really it's really crazy how how much damage they did at the time. And now, you know BT is run on a profit model and allows for competitors to join in. Vodafone was founded in 1982, which was actually suspiciously close to the passing of the policy because it was only one year later. So they must have known before the act was passed that they must have been building at O2, started in 2000, TalkTalk and three in 2003, Virgin Media in 2007. You have a company called TalkTalk. Yeah, that's great. E In 2012. So like all of these companies were really sprouting up very, very, very quickly. The I mean, it's been 30 years and unfortunately it would still be impossible even with all these companies, it would be impossible to imagine any of these companies inventing anything that would remotely come close to a thing like presto at that time, a system that literally invented request and receive relationships of data transferring. And, you know, I understand that, yeah, things have been invented and there's only like a limit to all the things that you can invent when it comes to technology. But we all know that BT Vodafone, EE would never come close to thinking of a new way of communication or like an alternative to their communication system that would actually kind of benefit people. I suppose. Like it's always a risk to value these things and if it's a for profit company. Exactly. They obviously the chances of it failing. Yeah. Yeah. High risk. Yeah. I guess that these are all now like for profit companies and so they're not going to take that risk to like that's completely rebuild the the system and come up with something completely new because the chances of that working our way lower than them just continuing and increasing. Yeah. Which is sort of interesting that Facebook meta is doing this whole Metaverse rebrand and project push because I suppose they're doing it because they realized that Facebook was becoming a bit irrelevant. And, you know, all of these startup tech companies have to think of new ways to develop and change. Yeah, as things move on for sure. And they're basically just like, you know, working off of something that they've already invented and then seeing what works and what doesn't. And then it's, it's, it's just very like low risk and very boring and very unnecessary. And I actually like research this episode before the launch of Zuckerberg's Metaverse trailer and, you know, the VR and AR trailer and the nations economy for the UK when Preston was happening, was expanding and its communications needed to keep up. And Preston was in part a solution to this, or at least an offshoot or side project in the search for solutions. But with Metaverse, like it's weird because we're talking about the technological kind of development under capitalism here, like the historical development that was going through stages of coastal industrialization and moving into financialization in the seventies and eighties. And this technology was being used to optimize for increasingly high frequency and high risk financial interactions rather than like building out materials and infrastructure and things in the world. And it becomes very efficient at like just moving numbers and symbols on a spreadsheet rather than like building factories, jobs, roads, cars and everything else. But it's interesting that Preston was essentially an infrastructure that facilitated that shift. And now we're like in this weird era where things like metaverse are being invented and it's not even like part of financialisation anymore that much. It's not, I don't know. It's like harnessing boredom and bringing augmented reality and virtual reality because of the public's like mass gatherings of reality or like disillusioned perception of society and the world. It's like political and physical climate. Yeah, it's just like it's very dystopian because it really represents this like general decline of, like the belief in the environment. Like, why are we building a 3D air world where we can interact when like the world beneath our feet is literally like collapsing? It's just, it's basically kind of like post financialization era that technology is, it's like now the attention economy now, you know, selling our personal data as well. Exactly. So super weird. But Crystal is interesting because it provided, like I said, an infrastructure of that shift in capitalism, which was coming from industrialization to financialization. And like the growth of bureaucracy, I hadn't realized that presto hadn't really been used by the public in the UK. No, I knew that it wasn't as big as minute hell in France. But yeah, I hadn't realized that because I had noticed that there were like a couple of different video text protocols that were used throughout. Mostly it was developed in Europe, but it's expanded into Asia and parts of Latin America. And North America, I think had their own protocols, but I think presto and the Minato protocols were two of the main ones that other countries were also using. So it's interesting that Presto actually never like it was more like a research project. Yeah, but it's also extremely important to still talk about why it never came into fruition because of the Conservatives and because it went under privatization and private telecommunication companies just took over. So it's just as an important story to talk about as the ones that actually came into the public. I also found out that when you asked about the name, apparently Presto is just an abbreviation from Press Telephone. So it's kind of a bit more of a boring that's disappointing symbology. Two minute till press and tell and telephone press like newspapers. Yeah. Because it came out of the post office, right. Yeah. So yeah that is the, the history of the unfortunate little UK press model. But the that invention and even presto protocol itself continued to exist and influence other networks for quite a while after it stopped happening in the UK. Sure. Yeah that's true. It did. And formula and in terms of its research. But I think it's also good to think of it as like a motivational story that can like influencer anger towards the Tories and really like said them in a bad light. Yeah, I think it's interesting to talk about these little snippets of history and the building of technology and really analyze that. Like nationalizing these developments is just the best way of going about it, especially when you're building the foundations of an infrastructure. Yeah, What's going to be happening in the future episodes? What are we oh for? I was researching a bonus episode. I was trying to find something kind of connected with this, and I found something that is connected solely by country rather than by network. But we're going to be looking at a soap opera, a text based soap opera called Park Avenue, that existed on Oracle, which was a UK teletext service. I am sorry about this episode was a little like dense with the technicalities and like the dates and the stats. Know that those dates are really important. It was cool to like look at dates back into the 1800s in the late 1800. Really? Yeah. The little like policy loopholes that actually allowed it to be developed. Yeah. And I, I enjoy your your tech your tech talk because I'm more of a I'm more of a history person. That's why we're a team baby. Yeah. Yeah. Right. Well, thanks everyone for listening and Will will catch you all in the next one. Goodbye. Yeah, see you soon, everyone. Enjoy watching center stage. Yeah. All right. Bye.