Thirty years ago today I was given the little bottle you can see in the photograph. It contains crude oil and is an emblem of how the world has – and has not – changed in that time.
By the mid-80s, I’d had a crack at a bunch of different, temporary ways of making money: working in a clothes shop; helping to design nuclear reactors; playing drums.
Then I got a job, in Norway, with a firm that was then called Arthur Andersen Management Consultants and which is now known as Accenture. My task was to build computer systems for the Norwegian state oil company, Statoil.
This is why, 30 years ago, I found myself in a remote location called Mongstad on the wild west coast of Norway: an often beautiful, but perilously icy few hours drive from the nearest airport in Bergen.
A computer system I had built (or rather had designed and supervised being built) was going live at the newly completed Mongstad crude oil terminal. I was there to make sure it all worked.
It was not a glamorous location. The Mongstad terminal was a massive building site and had the look of a refugee camp – admittedly a well-run one. So remote was the site that the thousands of workers who had built the terminal had been housed in a vast expanse of temporary accommodation. If you’ve seen the film ‘Aliens’ and remember the rain-beaten colonists’ settlement, you’ll have a good idea of what it was like.
After work, the only entertainment to be had was in an unattractive, strip-lit temporary bar that was packed nightly with (mostly Finnish) men who had cranked up a fearsome thirst during the day. To be fair to them, they had deserved their thirst.
The centerpiece of the terminal was a set of three gigantic underground storage caverns blasted from the rock of the nearby mountains. Building them had been a dirty and potentially dangerous task. Finished, the caverns were like astonishing underground cathedrals and were lit – when I saw them just before they were closed to human traffic – with the steely blue light from dozens of brilliant arc lamps. In total, this rock-hewn storage could hold 9.5 million barrels of crude.
The night that the first shipload of oil was delivered in March 1988 was a frenzy of activity. I watched it all from the over-heated control room while seated by a computer terminal, ready to snap into action if my system (which monitored the flows of oil) failed in any way. It did not. At around 3 in the morning, dog tired, the load successfully transferred, I was handed a tiny bottle of crude oil as a souvenir. It has been with me ever since.
In many ways, the infrastructure that delivered the little bottle has not changed that much in those thirty years. The caverns at Mongstad are still in constant use, now filled by a pipeline from the huge Troll field. Looking at the terminal site on Google maps, its layout and pipework look – as far as I can tell – exactly as they were back in 1988.
But what is certainly the case is that the computer system I was so proud of back then has been deleted and replaced. The hardware and software that we used was state of the art, but the art has changed beyond all recognition.
The programming languages have been superseded; the computers have become obsolete; even the manufacturer of the computers – DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation – has gone.
The specifications of the DEC minicomputers – then so impressive and expensive – now look almost comical. The DEC VAX 8800 had a 22 MHz CPU and 32 MB of memory. The Apple laptop I’m typing this on operates at 2.3 GHz and has 16 GB of memory. It’s three years old and already becoming a bit of a period piece.
My little bottle is therefore a constant reminder to me of the central truth of our age: the physical world we live in changes very slowly; the virtual and digital world races ahead, seemingly unstoppably.
Who knows where it will be in another 30 years?