Real Time, Unreal Numbers
Zip codes were not yet in use. Nor area codes. But numbers were advancing upon all aspects of life. "BUtterfield Eight" soon would become "288" and nobody was happy with the change. Distant technological volcanos rumbled and whole populations stood helpless, while a smoldering wall of numerical lava engulfed the landscape. Whatever the technical justifications -- delivering the mail faster, getting rid of party lines (imagine that, a private telephone for every household!), direct-distance-dialing -- whatever the benefits, the social price was noticeable.
The Government knew us by our respective Social Security Numbers, banks and insurance companies by our account numbers, the workplace by employee numbers. Where will it all end? we wondered. It didn't, of course. To work in a factory was to work with part numbers; the hospital, patient numbers; law enforcement, ordinance numbers. However stultifying numbers may be to the human spirit, computers loved them.
Computers -- "giant brains" in the fifties -- whirred and blinked, coolly calculating with incomprehensible velocity. Though mundane to the core, they accrued reputations of sorcery and brilliance. People customarily regarded the room-sized contraptions with suspicion as much as admiration. It was the computer that imposed its numerical will upon us. We joked wide-eyed about winding up on the inside of a zoo with those things on the outside. Nobody dreamed that a third of a century later their desk-top descendents would be playfully commanded by third-graders.
First to adapt to the world of numbers were the accounting mentalities of the time. Thus did computers take root in general ledgers, receivables and payables, payroll and cost distribution, order entry and sales analysis, inventory control and plant scheduling. Bespectacled folk with their fabled green eye-shades and gartered sleeves took up punched cards and tab-runs. They climbed down from their tall stools bringing with them the bookkeeper's technologies: the double-entry and the cross-foot. And when it was five o'clock they went home. What was not finished today would wait until tomorrow.
Not so with "real-time" (initially with a hyphen), which means finishing vital tasks within an allotted interval. You and your computer have only one second per second to spend. Such is the fundament of "process control" -- chemical factories and oil refineries, manufacturing machines and nuclear reactors. Invariably there are measurements to make and calculations to complete before an action can be taken. Numbers again, folks. Get a computer in there to do the job, we said. Make sure the thing is fast enough, too. It's OK to finish early but never late. You dare not trade reliability for speed, either. Errors must be caught and corrected. In "real time" (without the hyphen and without fail).
Better still, put the computer "on-line." Gather data automatically, calculate the shit out of it, and then take action. Twist that valve, tote that algorithm, get a little lag in the feedback and you land in the next county. Wait too long to close a valve and you dump toxic gunk all over the ground. A cartoon of the time depicted a computer expert running from a reactor building with his fingers in his ears. God, but it was fun.
We come now to air traffic, which is by all accounts an exceptional "process." By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the control of air traffic became arguably the most extreme real-time problem, and it was characterized by safety considerations of the highest order. That relentless flow of incoming blips affords little time for contemplation, none for hesitation. You cannot put up your hand and say, "Stop right there."
Observe and remember, judge and act -- now. You are on-line, fella! See those relative motions. Anticipate the flight paths -- all of them. Pick up the microphone and talk. Don't miss-speak either. A slip of the tongue in this game can be deadly. Once, a controller mistakenly said "east" for "west," and it cost two planes and a dozen lives over Teterboro.
Resolve those conflicts. Sigh with relief. There will be no sauntering over to the water-cooler for you. Can't let today's traffic wait in your in-basket.
Talk about numbers! Controllers are forced to manage mind-numbing lists of numerical information -- all inside their heads: flight numbers, heading numbers, altitude numbers, airway numbers. All are mere abstractions. None are real. The lists themselves are dynamic. Memorize the next number. Forget the first one. Now forget the second from last. If that's not unnatural enough for the human mind, think of the ad-lib calculations: speeds and times, distances and angles.
By the way, where are those double-entries? The cross-foot totals? Who the hell is checking me?
Do a good job in this work and nobody knows. Make a mistake and people die. Not like in war, which, however brutal, is at least self-evident. For the duration of each shift, the perils in the sky must be abstracted from the radar screen's harmless blips. Significance must be synthesized, stress must be self-inflicted.
In war, win or lose, eventually you get to come home from the battles and march in parades wearing medals and campaign ribbons. Tomorrow, however, those blips will still be streaming in. And the next day. Go ahead and congratulate yourself for a smooth operation through a peak traffic period. Just don't glance away from that screen.
How ironic that since the dawn of the jet age, air traffic control -- with its reliance on human attainment of computer-like performance -- has continued decade by decade to resist the numerical ministrations of computer technology. Ironic and, as we have come to see even in recent times, tragic.
A comedy album of long ago featured a deep-voiced monologue by a character with a distinctive Viennese accent. It was a spoof of self-administered psycho-analysis.
"Vee vill now test your threshold of frustration," said the voice. "Repeat each number I vill give you -- backwards."
The voice spoke soothingly.
"23 (pause), 41 (pause), 95 (pause), very goot!All in a day's work for the personnel in the radar room at Idlewild in 1959.
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