Monday, 7 May 2012

The Way the Future Was - Part 4

This is the final posting from the report of the 1984 Mensa Conference at Cambridge, by Paul Johnson, and written up for "Thinks!", the Channel Island Mensa Magazine edited by Ken Webb, with assistant editor being myself.

This week the ZX Spectrum is 30 years old. Back in 1984, it was newly released, barely 2 years old. The successor to Sir Clive Sinclair's ZX81, introduced colour "high resolution" graphics and sound, and an extended version of Sinclair Basic. It sold for an impressively low £125 for the basic model with 16 kilobytes of RAM, or £175 for the 48k model!

The world of 1984 had a lot of optimism in the ability of technology to solve problems, but matters often didn't turn out quite as expected. We do have computers that are "able to speak and understand commands" - but they are not perhaps where the Mensa bunch thought they might be, in the home, like Robbie the Robert. Instead, they are to be found in the voice recognition systems at the end of a telephone, which gives you options, and asks you to speak clearly. That voice recognition would turn out to be one of the most irritating advances in technology was not foreseen!

I remember reading, in the late 1970s, a copy of Andrei Amalrik's book "Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?". It seemed solid, and yet it ended so abruptly. This is something that the Cambridge conference didn't contemplate at all, that internal strains might see its demise. And no one pretty well could see the rise of militant Islam back in 1984.

They are also remarkably optimistic about famine, which "will be much reduced". Sadly this is not the case. The situation today is just as bad as in 1984, not least because corrupt dictatorships or civil wars across Africa mean that aid cannot get through, or get siphoned off. Some does get to its destination, but countries which were rich in producing their own crops - like Zimbabwe - have seen a decline under dictatorships where land is a prize to be stolen and handed out, the spoils of victory, to people who often can't farm or know how to farm well.

Lastly, I have not found anyone else to use the word "mensating" for Members of mensa getting together. It is, however, a word to be found in the Mandingo language. I've not been able to find out what it means, but this sentence:

Maninka, Meninka, Mandingo MNI Katuko Alla ye dunya kannu nyinyama, an'ading wulu kiliring di, mensating mo-o-mo men lata ala, ate tinyala barri a si
balu abadarbag sotto.

is the Mandingo version of:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Report by Paul Johnson

4th August

During the morning we were shown the results of the poll taken the afternoon we arrived. It consists of two groups, one of the 110 mensans at the conference, one of 500 randomly chosen telephone subscribers. In general mensans were significantly more optimistic about the rate of technological progress and the kind of world it will produce.

In the afternoon we split into five groups. Four of these looked at the Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Death, War, Famine and Pestilence. The fifth looked at computers and artificial intelligence. After two hours of discussion each group reported its findings. They were generally optimistic.

Computers and special purpose robots will replace the servants of the last century, and be able to speak and understand commands.

Wars will not be nuclear. The superpowers will try to build defenses against the opposition weapons and attack by meddling in third world politics.

The plagues of today will be conquered, but will be replaced by others. There was a suggestion that the Eastern Block countries are developing diseases aimed at certain areas of the population and that AIDS might be one such.

Famine will be much reduced if not eradicated through education and birth control, It was pointed out that if you feed five hundred starving people for ten years, you get one thousand starving people.

That evening "Whoops Apocalypse" was shown, The black humour on the suggestion by Chris Lee of "war by accident" was funny and sobering at the same time.  Afterwards I discovered a disco in the College Pub, which was broken up by the management at 1.30 am.

That was Mensa at Cambridge, 1984. I found it an intensely stimulating experience. In this report I have only been able to record the lectures and social events. The rest of the time, taken by informal discussion with other delegates and "mensating" in the truest sense of the word, was the most important part of Mensa at Cambridge. The Old Hall had the motto "Floreat Domus" painted on the walls. We say "Floreat Mensa".

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