There are no good news stories about computers and the NHS. The reporting of Friday’s malware attack may, however, be usefully different from the typical bad news story, in which hubristic politicians or nameless bureaucrats waste millions, if not billions, of public funds on projects which go over budget, fail to deliver, prove to be unusable or collapse under pressure. In this instance it seems that, for once, inaction and underinvestment have led to something sufficiently focused to be newsworthy, showing that there can be a political as well as a human cost to doing nothing.
I had just finished writing an article for the LRB and was attaching it to an email when suddenly all the files saved as icons on my screen vanished. I thought at first I had pressed some wrong and incomprehensible button – something that happens to me – when a message flashed up on my screen telling me that all my files were gone. If I wanted them back I would have to pay the equivalent of $500 in Bitcoins (at the current rate of exchange, that was 2.3 Bitcoins) within 130 hours, after which the sum would rise to $1000. Absurdly, I thought of Tarquinius bidding for the Sibylline books of prophecy, and every time he said the price was too high, the Sibyl burns three books and offers the remainder at the same price. Clearly, I was in that sort of auction. To help concentrate the mind the time remaining was set out in hours, minutes and seconds, with each second ticking off: looking at this merely increases one’s manic state as the loss of all one’s files kicks in. I was always promising myself to back everything up but hadn’t.
Jim Austin, who teaches neural computing at York University, lives on a farm in the Yorkshire Wolds. At the top of the hill, behind the farmhouse, are four large sheds that shelter the Jim Austin Computer Collection. He's been collecting obsolete computers for nearly thirty years, and has more than 1000 machines. ‘This IBM mainframe was $8.7 million in 1983,’ he told me when I went to see them. ‘Which in today's money is $24 million. I mean, that's astronomical. And they're scrapped after four years. That's it. Scrap.’ He points to another. ‘The Fujitsu supercomputer, I think it depreciated at £16,000 a week for three years. Then it was zero.’ Behind the IBM and the Fujitsu are more machines: DECs, Wangs. ‘I just take them all home. I preserve them. I just collect them, because I like them. And I've got the sheds, so I just put them in.’