Tuesday, 22 November 2011

That was the future, that was.

    They say today's children are digital natives. That is to say, they have never known a world without ubiquitous computing and to them operating a computer is as natural as a dial telephone or a record player was to someone born in the 1970s.

    I feel sorry for today's children. They are surrounded by so much computing power, yet they know so little about how to use it.

    I was part of the first generation of digital natives, for whom affordable home computing arrived just as we were old enough to get to grips with it. I saved my primary-school-age pennies and bought a Sinclair ZX81. Back then if you wanted to use your computer you had to learn to program it, there was very little commercial software and the machines were designed to be easily programmable. My generation learned BASIC, and if like me we were extra-geeky, machine code. I eventually learned enough about the internal circuitry of the Sinclair to understand its operation completely, the only computer I've had that I've understood to that level in a long career in technology.
    My generation's schools had rooms full of similar home computers. In an unusually far-sighted move the UK government funded the development of a school computer - the BBC Micro - and we kids lapped them up. It is fair to say that many people like me were given careers by that investment.

    By comparison, today's children learn basic Microsoft Office skills. They use computers as appliances, dumbed down in case they might inadvertently learn something from them.

    I spent a while a few weeks ago sorting out some of my old PCs. Dismantling and scrapping some broken or archaic ones, resurrecting a couple of slightly more capable ones to take a lightweight Linux platform for web browsing and other general purpose duties. These were hot gaming and software development platforms in 1998 and 2001 respectively, but now they don't really cut it in the modern PC market. By rights I should get rid of them, but when you work in tech it's always useful to have a spare PC or two around.
    It is sobering to realise though that I'll soon be able to buy a more capable PC the size of a credit card for the equivalent of $25. The Raspberry Pi is a single board computer designed to use a modern HDTV as a monitor and a commodity USB keyboard and mouse. It uses a processor similar to the one in your mobile phone and for storage it uses a memory card like the one in your digital camera. Best of all it runs a full-featured modern Linux operating system which gives it the ability to do most of what until very recently you needed a full-sized PC to achieve. As you might imagine, I'll be placing an order for one as soon as they are released.
    The aim of the Raspberry Pi is not to give geeks like me a new toy though. It is aimed at schools, and it is designed from the start to be easy to program. Its creators - among them some of the people whose imaginations were sparked by the 1980s computer boom - hope to recreate some of the interest in computing as more than a study of appliances that we had with the BBC Micro thirty years ago.
    Maybe today's kids aren't going to be so unlucky in their tech after all.


  1. Once you get addicted to hair removal $25 is all you can spend on a PC!

  2. yes, but so handy for de-railment and voiding difficult questions

  3. Ah yes I remember my old Commodore Vic 20 (3K mem with a 19K plug-in mem) and my Commodore 64 of which I had two. My children learned basic arithmetic and language on the 64 which I had programmed in basic with accompanying fancy graphics. I printed out the program on my Dot Matrix printer and it was about six feet in length! I gave machine code a go using Dr. Watson assembly language for a while. I gave up programming after that!

    Shirley Anne xxx

  4. My niece's know how to log on and use the keyboard\ mouse seemingly instinctively at their young ages. There's an argument which I generally go along with that ICT lessons in schools should go beyond how to use a computer and make one.

  5. Tech is as core to my identity as gender, it's entirely natural that I blog about it here.

    I am glad I learned on hardware with limited resources. It gave me a sound appreciation of being economical in my code.

    I think in the future ICT lessons will be looked back at in the way we now look at typing classes for girls.