Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes, north of London, is an Ur-site of modern computing. The BP or War Station X of legend began contributing intelligence (called ‘Ultra’) derived from decrypted Axis signals (named ‘Enigma’ after the encipher machines used by the German armed forces) in 1941. Among the most celebrated BP codebreakers were brilliant mathematicians Alan Turing, who had already demonstrated the Universal Turing Machine as proto-computer in the mid-30s, and Jack Good, both of whom were instrumental in building the Colossus computer — a British precursor to the American ENIAC — and later stars in Manchester University’s post-war computing projects; Stanley Kubrick consulted Good on the basis of his writings on AI when conceiving of the HAL 9000 computer in 2001:A Space Odyssey. Largely dismantled after the war, what remained of BP stood idle for decades, still shrouded in secrecy, until the historic property was redeveloped by a ‘Friends of’ trust as a National Codes Centre and Museum of Computing. BP remains exemplary of the unity of war and computing, well before the ARPANET of the 1970s, and as evidence of how hacking, both hardware and software, won the war.
Inspired by legends of machine history spun in the annals of modern computing and science fiction, together we visited BP for two reasons: first, to confront a troubling disjuncture between mechanical tradition and the silicon simulacra of our time; and second, to look for traces that augured another trajectory for this place, not so much a dead end of embalmed techno-history, but another future for cryptanalysis. In short, is another BP possible?
William Gibson’s brilliantly evocative descriptions of cyberspace have educated our imaginings of worlds of code; he has been so successful in this that typical login/out commands pale in relation to the dazzle of jack-in/out scenarios. The same may be said of the effect of the visualization of tumbling data in The Matrix — a graphic convention of code so powerfully hieroglyphic that beside it everyday interfaces seem dull and distracting. Indeed, Jeff Noon’s efforts to describe the insertion of parasitical noise into images as unstable crackling and cloudiness hovering over photographic surfaces elevates sensory erosion to new heights, leaving behind the modest glories of decay.
We are so attuned to the vividness of the virtual that the encounter with the crumbling ‘National Code Centre’ at Bletchley Park seems to accelerate the aging process. The phantasms of Baudrillard’s code, the ecstasy of digitality and the caress of the tactical and tactile, violently recede when faced with the dinge and despair of an English suburb and abandoned telecom buildings overrun by weeds and vandalism. That is how Bletchley Park is approached from the train station. ipods and Blackberries go quiet at the sight of boarded-up ‘huts’ and unimpressive heaps of industrial waste. A vision from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon appears: Alan Turing hunched over reading the RCA Radio Tube Manual exclaiming: forget sprockets, valves (tubes) are the future! Welcome to yesterday.
Steampunk has of course imagined worlds where defunct technologies turned out to not become obsolete, and so altered the world picture around them. Parallel universes run on steam, cogs and gears, and travel is by airship. From Gibson and Sterling to Stephenson, Miéville, through numerous graphic novels, and elements of recent blockbuster films, the past is re-imagined as an errant future that should have been. Steampunk is in love with a past that was not to become (our) present. It is more than a device to set up an alternative history/future — it is a machine for reading time. It is a way of reading causality critically, and ties in to a love of technology that is not about buying it and buying into it.
What if Bletchley Park could be made into a future that never was, rather than the future it was apparently destined to be? What is the world like where the computer is mechanised, largely electrical rather than electronic? A monstrous heat exuding tube set like grandfather’s radio. Baudrillard’s code becomes the lost future, as the digitality of the decoding machines is never revealed, as they are never surpassed. The febrile birthing of ‘information technology’ on show here becomes so much less, and therefore, much more — regaining potential instead of being some sort of lumpy precursor. This is not a utopian dream of a lost real, but a hope that a branching universe would have been differently creative, and, say, developed colossal new technologies in order to allow the use of mechanical computers in giant spaceships, in a very different space program, rather than strapping a huge amount of fuel onto a missile.
Bletchley seems to offer so much less, but it offers more, and is the carrier of unexpected gifts: it organizes time and time streams through its persistence, through its fixing of data, its fixing machines, always to be what they once were. A once that travels through time, at standard clock pace, nothing escaping by nearing the speed of light. In Cryptonomicon, Stephenson maps two more or less actual worlds (one of which is Bletchley Park itself) expanding the standard idea of a parallel universe being a bit like this one, but separate. His Bletchleys operate in parallel — so Bletchley Park retains potential for spawning branching universes (and ties in to his ‘Baroque’ cycle).
The Bletchley Park on show now is, again, so much less. Today Bletchley Park is a playground for le troisième age. Buses disgorge the ex-army, navy, air force and ‘Wrens’ hungry with memories, and they are met by the same guiding tours. Without going sociological on anyone, the average age is 70 plus. The jokes of the tour guides are as stale as war rations, and the renovated sections of the site are punctuated with strange collecting cultures: vintage autos and train sets. The key here is not the age of guides or visitors as such, it is the age from which they come, in which they stay, in visiting this other Bletchley, so much like itself. The gravity that holds this Bletchley together is the co-presence of so many actors and objects from ‘the original’, as well as those who have grown up in its shadow (one of the guides was born in the park itself).
It would have been more moving, you would think, to leave the site completely unrepaired, unthematised. This is to misread the purpose: Bletchley Park is a peculiar experiment in live steampunk: slowpunk. Like Ian Watson’s ‘Very Slow Time Machine’ that can only travel backwards in time, whilst taking the exact amount of time travelled to make the journey, this park is the past brought into a parallel future, where it is always 1943. At the same time, the inhabitants of this slow space are the real marker of time whilst still as close to inhabiting the 1940s as possible. Nobody imagined that steampunk in the real world would be so odd — that it would be exactly the same people, living the same moment, seemingly for ever.
The shop is full of 1940s re-issues. Over at the canteen hut (the same as used in WWII), there is only soft food — no culture sector treats, as scones and tea sit in for organic salads and chai lattes. The culture sector is never born, in this world. This is a place outside of global trends, other than those already in place by 1941. This is a world of huts brimming with rambling anecdotes and nationalist pride in a job well done. No glass walls. Not a hint of stainless steel and titanium surfaces. The steamseniors of BP have become code, one that resists decoding, as in this world, the computer (or anything else) never left the glorious moment the universe branched. This theme park is a nature reserve, preserving a moment so a static universe can come to be, and all futures are removed. Hidden again.
And perhaps rightly so, for the very existence of the fruits of the codebreaking labours at Bletchley Park — ‘Ultra’ — from spring 1941 to the war’s end remained more or less hidden from view well into the 1970s until F.H. Hinsley’s monumental official history of British intelligence and the brilliant exploits of decrypting German Enigma codes during the war filled out many details.
Still, Bletchley continues to be perfused with the legacy of secrecy and suffers from residuality and state neglect — it remains standing only because of the ongoing efforts of the ‘Friends of’ benevolent society. In his popular writing, Hinsley’s approach runs against the grain of facts — he writes in a counter-factual mode in order to grasp the impact of Ultra on events in the war. This practice of wondering how things might have been without Ultra is dubious, Hinsley admits, but it is the only way to backfill existing war histories. One of the most intractable problems about telling Bletchley Park’s story and assessing its impact is that the knowledge it gained of German war plans could not be translated into decisive action without revealing that the Enigma keys had been broken. The superior intelligence enjoyed without a doubt by the Allies needed to be supplemented by other sources and knowledge attributable to them. Further issues plague this approach: deductions from intercepted messages were sometimes too aggressive and at other times too restrained. Unlike hindsight which is always perfect. On the tour that draws you in to the ‘proper’, fully institutionalized reading of Bletchley, the guide is reticent on a key point: it cannot have been possible to invent other sources for every part of information decoded, so German missions must, on occasion, have been let through. Sacrifices must have been made, knowingly. There is no place for this, in this storytelling, enough cunning would always be found to prevent that Axis from its evil acts, in this place, at this time. This time being now, but also 1943. Morale will be kept high. The purity of that time cannot be threatened, especially not by facts that might interrupt the storyline. This doubled time of Bletchley and another Bletchley must hold firm.
Bletchley Park remains suspended over the gap between information and action. It is uncanny — that is, the enormous influence of Allied intelligence on the war’s outcome is accepted but in order to tell its history it is made into something alien. Bletchley or just plain BP is familiar to most through the roles it has played in spy thrillers and science fiction novels; it is a site known through literature and cinema. So, the difficult approach made to Bletchley Park today through the derelict and disused, through rubbish and neglect, is at odds with the Bletchley of lore. In a sense actually visiting Bletchley produces an uncanny feeling in reality that is already there in literature and, for that matter, reading a counter-factual history of the place serves to heighten this feeling, by making science fiction seem more vivid and to the point. The clash is between fiction and reality but also between the virtual and the actuality of the village of code. No longer the haunt of Oxbridge graduates and professors and computer geniuses, but of aged, shaking men and leaky, damp buildings, renovated well below the standards of the culture sector which creeps over almost all places labelled ‘sites’.
What is even more interesting is that almost none of the machines function; only the reconstructed Colossus computer, first switched on in 1943, bears witness to that machine heritage. Unlike Freud who experienced the uncanny wandering in the red light district from which he could not escape, for us the machine is the thing that creates unease, not by producing dissatisfaction, but by the real’s taking such license with the virtual. The cunning of history keeps us in an artificial darkness. What exactly are we supposed to surmount: reality and history or virtuality and fiction?
Bletchley as it really is has become a new precursor: of theme parks that ply nostalgia but subtly bend time around collecting, futurology and the machine. In the not too distant future we will visit parks that recreate social networking sites, others where Second Life is made ‘real’; imagine a cordoned off area in a nearby mall consisting of Sims hacks. The Matrix shows us this: concocted from an easy meld between 1970s Baudrillard and 1980s Gibson, it also builds its aesthetic from the 1980s, a time as ripe as the 1960s for futurology. Leather coats, shades, black, black and more black; industrial music that might have been ‘way out’ 10 years or more before the film… while the 2000s remake of Battlestar Galactica is specifically a return to the 1980s future of the show in the technology on the ships.
The secret of Bletchley is not found in its official histories and proliferating testimonials. Rather, its history is not of secrecy but of what it has, we think, become: a site that secretes another universe where computing remained at the valve stage with punched cards and paper strips and manual, labour-intensive information management froze in a glorious moment of sociality in standard dress.
Let’s imagine another Bletchley based on an alternative destiny of secrecy and follow the line of codebreaking. The historical convergence of information theory and secrecy, two concepts that Claude E. Shannon once remarked could not be kept apart, did not result in the surveillance society characterized today by deep packet inspection for the purposes of monitoring and censorship of Internet traffic and manipulation of message content by governments around the world including China, US, and Iran. Instead of a burgeoning cybersurveillance of data intercepts, traffic intelligence gathering, rerouting, rewriting for disinformation, disrupting peer-to-peer communication, and control of encryption resistant to widespread inspection, the hackers really did win the war and full packet encryption became available to and free for all. Codebreaking, then, as an anti-fascist practice and staple of resistant technocultures. The doubled Bletchley we see now will remain a permanent precursor, persisting. The ‘other Bletchley’ (of now) that mirrors the first (and vice-versa) are a lesson in breaking code through further encoding. Another Bletchley Park is needed now more than ever.