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The origin of information technology

The origin of information technology

Required reading

Who: Joël Karel, lecturer on Biomedical Signal Analysis at the Department of Knowledge Engineering

Book: Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Target group: knowledge engineering students


Cryptonomicon has two storylines. The first is set during the Second World War. There are three men - Rudy von Hacklheber, Lawrence Waterhouse and Alan Turing – who have known each other since they were students and who in one way or another start working on secret codes. Turing, who really did exist, deciphers a secret language for the allies; Von Hacklheber does the same for the Third Reich. Waterhouse eventually joins the American navy. His job: to prevent the Germans from knowing that the English have broken their code, so that they continue to use this code and the Allied Powers can therefore continue to read all their messages. For example, when they know where a German submarine is, because of a code that has been deciphered, they do not sink it immediately. Waterhouse first plans for a reconnaissance aircraft to fly over conspicuously,” says Joël Karel.

Exactly what happens then would take us too far to explain here. But the result is a plan to steal war gold that has been buried in the Philippines. “They seize a German submarine that is on its way to the Philippines with part of the gold, but then things go wrong. The submarine and the crew do not survive.” This part of the book, according to Karel, shows a great example of the origin of information technology. “Many inventions were made during the Second World War. For example, it was the first time that huge amounts of goods had to be brought from A to B. That is how a subject such as Operation Research came into being.”  

The second storyline also portrays a good impression of an era. “It is set in the nineteen-nineties; the beginning of the Internet age. The descendants of the main characters from the first storyline – who do not know that their grandfathers knew each other – come upon the war gold by accident and so they also make a plan to dig it up. The nice thing for knowledge engineering students is that a lot of security questions arise in the book. Randy, Waterhouse’s grandson, is extremely paranoid. He encrypts his e-mails and is afraid that his laptop has been bugged. This is actually possible, capturing the electromagnetic radiation from a screen and using that to determine what was on the screen. You see a lot of things that he was worried about are relevant today. People have to realise that you can gather information in many more ways than could be done before.”

Even though the book contains a lot of technical details, it is quite readable for a layman. “It is just an exciting book. The technical terms are usually explained. And you can skip a lot, not everything is of great importance to the story. When I lie in bed at night, I am not interested in a detailed technical explanation either.”

In this column lecturers recommend a novel that throws a different light on their field than textbooks do




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