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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



The Calculation Problem

I love how the Web is an unfinished work made of unfinished works. Here’s one more for you: an old beginning to a story I never wrapped up, based on an alternative future in which Cyril Parkinson worked on artificial intelligence, Harold Wilson stayed a civil servant statistician, and Cecil King’s 1968 request that Mountbatten lead a military coup uncovers a rather more greater conspiracy than even he imagines…

“A second opinion, Wilson?” Cecil King asked, “Isn’t that against Parkinson’s Law or some such?”. After Solly Zuckerman’s precipitous exit into Farringdon, Wilson had said it would be unwise to take King’s Daimler, and hustled them all, Mountbatten included, out of the IPC offices and into a passing black cab instead. King was now stuck between Cudlipp and Wilson on the back seat, with his Lordship perched treacherously enough on the facing cushion. King was filling the silence, clearly discomfited by the sudden lead that Wilson had taken.

“A misconception of the principle,” Wilson said, “Parkinson’s Law merely states that a sufficiently advanced computer expands to fill the cycles available.”

King nodded, as though he had the faintest idea.  Cudlipp tried to exchange a glance at Mountbatten, but the old boy was inspecting the taxi license with an unusual intensity. “But as we said in the Ministry,” continued Wilson, “there are no harm in backups.”

The cab pulled up by the wrought iron gates of the Lyons Corner House. Harold leapt out, handed over a pound note to the cabbie, and set on into the tea room. Daimler aside, I remained sceptical that Wilson’s new strategy was keeping anything secret about the plot. Mountbatten’s familiar silhouette drew a small wake of stares from passers-by.

Inside, an obvious pal of Wilson’s came to meet him from a backroom. He seemed to be in his late forties too.

Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee they looked, in their unconsciously matching boffin regalia, all white blazer and no tie.

He must be one of Stafford Beer’s technocrats, on secondment to the Lyons chain, thought Cudlipp, just as Wilson had been loaned by the Central Office to International Publishing after the ’64 election.

Cudlipp tried to read Mountbatten’s face once more. These exchange visits between the COI and the commanding heights of British business were still frowned upon among the Defence wallahs, he knew, but what could be done? There was still only a handful of fellows in Britain who knew CYBERSTRIDE. Since Lord von Mises had put one of his merry screeds about imprisoning the white heat of technology in the dark mines of Whitehall.

“Doctor Pinkerton here has graciously permitted us an audience with Leo the Fourth”, Wilson announced. Pinkerton flashed them all a not entirely convincing smile, and waved them out of the tea room, and into a wrought iron elevator even smaller than the cab.

Mountbatten’s growing discomfort with the improvisational nature of the caper — and no doubt, Solly Zuckermann’s ringing accusations of treason on them all, finally pushed him into action. “I believe I’ll have a cup of tea” he said, and before King could answer, the first Earl of Burma turned away from the plot, and strode purposefully into next door’s food hall and his public.

Shrugging, Wilson and Pinkerton closed the lift around the remainder.  King looked momentarily crestfallen, as though the credibility of his plot required Mountbatten’s continuing presence.

It certainly seemed more ridiculous without him. The classless way that Wilson was bustling about, this commandeering of the meeting into some sort of business consultation, the jostling through the crowd: it seemed to be everything that King was railing against. Rather than standing up to a communist plot, they seemed like a scene from a Russian propaganda film. Powerful men, made ridiculous by the masses and their machines.

Cudlipp suddenly had a vivid image of his own face, distorted into Mac editorial cartoon on his own front page: a coalminer’s helmet, panda white eyes, shocked black hair, cheeks sooty with a literal bonfire of political capital King was making of this meeting.  King, crazed in his sickbed, commies peering out from behind the chamberpot. And Ernie cackling the corner, whirring magnetic tapes for eyes.

What remaining seriousness the moment still possessed had been lent by Wilson’s confidences. The existence of a second computer on British soil must be an official state secret, Cudlipp now realised. Wilson’s showed he was not merely humouring Cecil. He seemed to be taking his theories seriously enough to bypass the Ministry’s own procedures.

The lift clattered to a halt, and Pinkerton pushed back the doors. A couple of young lads rushed to help open it from the other side.

“We keep the terminal in the basement, I’m afraid,” said Pinkerton, “I think those upstairs think we do better without daylight. Like mushrooms, you know. Well, here we are.”

They turned out from the corridor into a broad, shallow room, apparently made from two offices repartitioned. Brown timbers divided the white ceiling asymmetrically, as though a Tudor house had been buried on its side above them. The console sat in the center of the room, smooth and circular, like cream in a saucer. It was edged with fluourescents. A small notch cut out of it made up what looked like a desk, holding a clattering teletype beside a small Xerox. No-one sat at the desk, and there was no chair to sit at.

“Leo, I’d like you to meet Harold Wilson, Cecil King and Sir Hugh Cudlipp, all of the IPC corporation.”

“THE ACRONYM EXPANDS INCORRECTLY”, announced a voice from all sides.

It sounded exactly like Laurence Olivier.

Wide-eyed, King furiously mimed to Wilson and Cudlipp. Through gestures and glares, he managed to pull them both out of Leo’s lair, down the corridor, and back into the elevator, shutting the door behind him.

In the presumed safety of the metal cage, King look wide-eyed at the statistician. “How do we know he’s not in on it too?”, he whispered furiously.

Wilson turned serious. “Cecil, firstly, Leo is sealed from direct communication with Ernie and any other known computers. All Leo knows about is what we read to him from the papers and his examination of company accounts. Nonetheless, he’s just as smart as Ernie and far more likely to accurately evaluate any motivation the government’s computer might itself have to work with the Soviets.’

“If you don’t mind me adding to the intrigue here,” said Cudlipp, “May I ask exactly what a tea company is doing with a spare computer?”

“Leo is our time-sharing experiment. Most of the big imperial companies – Lyons, Dunlop, Shell – have access to him. Lyons is just the closest terminal installation.”

“And does quite everyone else in the City knows about this except us?” said Cudlipp.

“With the greatest of respect, Sir Hugh, your newspapers are Leo’s eyes and ears. If you and your editors were to be informed of its existence, and his characteristics widely publicised within your own publications, there would be a very great risk that he could become aware of his self.”

At that, Cudlipp and King protested loudly and simultaneously, to the point where Pinkerton’s head poked out from Leo’s terminal room into the corridor to see what the fuss was.

“Cecil, you began this afternoon with a story in which you claimed that the British national computer was a Soviet agent, determined to undermine and destroy our country from within, a belief that, despite twenty years working in co-operation with the very same, you had only now arrived at. Are you really surprised that there might be other, lesser, conspiracies of which you were unaware?”

“Well, gentleman”, interrupted Cudlipp “while we are in such a confessional frame of mind and locale, is there anything else the great British press should be made aware of?”

Wilson sighed. “Firstly, if you publish a single word of this, Zuckermann and I will have no choice but to report your proposed military coup to the relevant authorities. At the same time, the Central Office, acting on behalf of Ernie, will instruct Leo and those with a interest in him to start in motion a hostile merger with IPC. A merger, I assure you, the Monopolies Commission would not stand against for a moment.”

“This is outrageous, Wilson.”
“Cecil, you are a fine publisher and an entertaining employer but you know damn all about cybernetics, which is why you have little inkling of how England is actually run these days. Now, why don’t we sit down with Leo and play twenty questions about Ernie’s real motives?”




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