How to stay logged on

A computer keeps busy even when it looks idle. But what about you?

Up in south Warwickshire at the beginning of this year, clinicians in A&E found themselves at the centre of a mild controversy. Computer Weekly magazine initially broke the story. Sanctioned by their NHS trust board, doctors in A&E had been sharing smart cards. These are the chip-enabled cards that form part of Connecting for Health's National Programme for IT (NPfIT) in the health service, controlling doctors' access to the "data spine" of patient records.

Although, according to previous statements issued by Connecting for Health, sharing access to confidential medical records would have been deemed misconduct likely to result in disciplinary proceedings, in this instance the great and the good of NPfIT found themselves in a bit of a quandary when asked to comment on the antics of the south Warwickshire doctors. Why? Because the doctors were sharing smart cards to save lives: logging out and logging in to the system each time a new doctor needed to get into records was taking up to a minute and a half - precious moments in A&E.

Even for those of us not using our computers in life-saving environments, the time it takes our machines to log in or log out, boot up a browser or download and install a recommended software update is no less frustrating. But computers have their own fallow moments equivalent to when we sit staring at the screen wondering what to type or, indeed, staring at the screen thinking what to have for lunch. The difference is that a computer can make use of its so-called processor downtime.

A project called SETI@home is a prime example of this. SETI@home joins together the little moments of processor downtime in computers across the world to make something far bigger than the sum of its parts. Launched in 1999, it invites people to run a free program that connects their computer to a distributed network, designed to search for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life in the combined downtimes of more than a million computers, whose owners have signed them up to the scheme. Guinness World Records acknowledges it to be the largest computation of all time.

It is sad to think, therefore, that when my computer is taking a while to boot, thus forcing me into a moment of human downtime, I am more likely to be smoking a cigarette than establishing the galactic goodwill of humanity. Even the geekiest among us may use these moments merely to stretch our mouse-fingers to prevent repetitive strain injury. If I add up the time I spend waiting for my computer to do something, it probably amounts to roughly 30 minutes in the day. If only I could combine these precious moments, I could be learning a new language, familiarising myself with the works of some great poet, or, indeed, pondering what to say to my alien cousins when SETI@home finally finds them for me.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war