Is raspberry pi a mid-life crisis?

Is raspberry pi a mid-life crisis?

Summary: When my 14 year old son couldn’t get his iPod touch to work with the wifi he didn’t try very hard, he just threw it at me and said “dad fix it”. My kids and their peers have no interest in how a computer works.

TOPICS: Mobility


When my 14 year old son couldn’t get his iPod touch to work with the wifi he didn’t try very hard, he just threw it at me and said “dad fix it”. My kids and their peers have no interest in how a computer works. Oh, they love what it does, miniclip, facebook, skype. But what makes their applications work or what is inside the black box is as interesting as the washing machine or vacuum cleaner. I’ve long thought that there is a bubble of tech; people of my age are more techie than their children.

The UK has reaped the rewards of the tech boom with companies like CSR and ARM having the chips they’ve designed sharing fluff in more pockets than Chubb and Yale. The economic significance of what came out of Acorn and Sinclair cannot be over-stated.

One of the wonderful things about the time I grew up in was that every half-geeky kid had a computer and learnt to program it. Thanks to the BBC programme “Making the most of the micro” and the computers in schools initiative there were lots of computers around. The price point of Sinclair computers meant millions of kids started programming. This was a particularly British phenomenon and made us world leaders in the technology. The echos of that time in the 1980s still exist with many of the best games being written in the UK. Games are the purest form of programming because they have to be innovative, the coding has to be supremely efficient and on consoles everything has to be done with the given hardware. You can’t cover up lazy programming by specifying more memory or a faster processor.

Today they teach ICT. Information Communications Technologies, with the impression that this is about computers so that it must be the same as computing. Of course those that understand computing realise that the two are as different as baking a cake and eating it. ICT is nothing to do with computing, communication or technology. It’s office skills. Using Microsoft Office and Windows is a sensible grounding for life but it’s not going to create the next generations of programmers.

When the report from Ian Livingstone, saying that ICT was boring and we need to re-think IT, got the attention of Michael Gove, Minister for Education, I wrote to Ian Livingstone to congratulate him. David ‘Elite’ Braben is championing Raspbery Pi, a £16 computer that lets anyone learn the real side of computing that is software development. Working down at the OS and processor level. It struck me as brilliant. Just the thing to recapture the lead the UK had in this kind of thing.

Then I thought. I’m 48, I also think that Scalextric and model kits are things children play with In reality the people who buy such things are my age and older. Today’s kids aren’t interested. The world has moved on. The BBC Micro does not need to be repeated. Yes it would be great to have today’s teens learning about how a computer works, how to write code and solder a good connection, but the analogy has been made that programming is the new Latin and it holds true. Latin is great as an academic exercise, and you can argue that it’s the basis of many languages so there is a use, but it isn’t useful in itself. Indeed on one school open day a teacher at the school Stephen Hawking went to said that the prime reason for having Latin, Greek and Classics on your CV was not to have those skills but to show the Merchant Bank you were applying to that you went to That Kind Of School.

Today getting down below OS level is something you do at university, not with a firmware manual under the sheets. Trying to recapture it might appeal to those of us with grey beards and little hair, but just because you can build a Raspberry Pi for under £20 doesn’t mean thousands of kids will want one.It’s great that you could do this at home but there was a time when the leading edge of genetic research was a monk with some peas. Just because young teens led the way in computing in the 1980s doesn’t mean it should, will or can happen again. Those outside the tech age bubble have better things to do. The Raspberry Pi is a BBC Micro come-back tour and as likely to excite teens as Phil Collins getting back with Genesis.

I sorted out the wifi on my son’s iPod, and up popped the last site he’d looked at: a porn site.

Simon Rockman blogs about big button and easy to use phones.

Topic: Mobility

Simon Rockman

About Simon Rockman

Fuss Free Phones: Simon Rockman: Simon has been in the mobile phone industry since Motorola was the top dog closely followed by NEC.

He's been the owner and editor of What Mobile Magazine, the editor of PCW and a senior director at Motorola and Sony Ericsson.

Today he focuses on Mobile Money and his passion of mobile phones for older people. he runs

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  • Good 'reality check' post.

    I agree that it's unlikely the average 14-year-old will want to mess around with a Raspberry Pi board on its own -- though I do think the wide availability of very cheap and quite powerful computers like this has a lot of potential to inspire interesting projects from some bright and imaginative kids.

    For other ways that kids can do 'real' computing, take a look at the Computing at School curriculum:
  • Being born in 1987, I missed the programming era. We had a family PC, but I was never told that you could make you own programs. The idea seemed absurd when I learned about it years later - what would be the point? Programs were created by teams of professionals, who then sold them to people to use.

    Note: the above comment suggests that the open source / free software movement may also be ominously generational - I'd be interested in the clever people of this site's views

    I was however, and still am, a big fan of model kits. The reason is simple: I started building kits because I loved aeroplanes. I'm still a fan because between my interest and the kits, I learned about the technologies and history - which provoked a lifelong interest. In short, there was a *point* to building model kits which I could see and this made me want to do so.

    It's a fine line between being a content consumer or creator - and having a point makes a lot of difference.

    Equally, we could argue that there's a "platform" level involved - the generation discussed in the blog saw computers at the hardware level (so you make software to go on it); whereas when I was little the platform was installed programs (I published an online comic which I drew in Photoshop) and now that has largely moved to web-based "things" (what do you call them?) like Youtube.

    The result being that computer-based creativity will be more likely to focus on generating content for Youtube and the like.

  • Not sure I agree. I'm of a similar vintage, and currently work for a digital marketing agency, where the majority of the company are a.) in their 20s, b.) spend all day on the web, and c.) have very little idea (if any) how it works.

    A couple of people asked how they could host their own blogs / sites, and I offered to tell them if they were prepared to learn about how the internet actually works (the 'OS of the web' as it were - DNS, HTTP, HTML). Turns out almost the entire company now want to learn about things like: how the internet works, what browsers really do, how to code HTML / CSS etc.

    The equivalent of the BBC Micro is the web, and I think a lot of young people are fascinated about how it works. Do they want to learn about web server internals - nope, but that's not relevant for them.
  • I generally agree with what you've said.. but the real story here for me is, this Raspberry Pi for (likely I guess) under £40 is a little marvel for people on low income, if it can run Lubuntu or similar. wow. parents will have no excuse not to help educate their children by giving them PC access to the internet. Just an opinion there.
  • "My kids and their peers have no interest in how a computer works. Oh, they love what it does, miniclip, facebook, skype. But what makes their applications work or what is inside the black box is as interesting as the washing machine or vacuum cleaner. I’ve long thought that there is a bubble of tech; people of my age are more techie than their children."

    I think you're describing an effect here, and not the cause. They have no interest because it's never been presented to them in a way that makes them think they can understand it. The analogy with the vacuum is good, but a bit limited, because the vacuum has a single function whereas the computer, once you can programme is pretty much limitless.
  • Toby, while there is some effect here, it's not solely that. I tried them on Mindstorms and Sketch and there was no interest. Offers to take them to a software house to see games being developed are met with "meh". I don't want to belittle my kids, they will lap up National Geographic and play the guitar for hours a day, but there is no culture of coding.
    Simon Rockman
  • What a defeatiest attitude by an old fart.
    "All dem kids 'r lazy bastards.. Im my day..."

    I heard the same thing when robotics competitions were started in north america "Kids these days.." is how it all started. Repeating the tired cliches of every generation as they get older.

    These competitions are not only for high school but for elementary school kids (im not a fan of kids travelling thousands of miles to go to a competition when they are 9 yrs old. the costs are too much).
    Are they for everyone? No. But guess what? The future engineers and doctors of this world arent like 98% of kids out there. But they are entry level enough that we might interest some kids who otherwise wouldnt.
    Not everyone that does robotics will one day work in the field but its a pleasure to see students a decade later tell me theyre studying to be an engineer, physicist (one of those is doing his master at MIT), a doctor or a teacher. What they learned there doesnt always translate into their futures careers but these same kids that have a thirst for knowledge need to be stimulated.
    Learning how to save a document in Word isnt one of them.

    Are there less geeks than before? Are kids more stupid than before?
    Your Micro semi-geeks still exists today. Its not like little Bobby who ate boogers and Billy whose only interest was football were those Micro geeks. Guess what? Its probably the same now if not more.

    Besides, even without the educational aspect, if it doenst catch on, you still have a nice little computer to surf and play Angry Birds on the TV.

    Mediocrity has never been a problem and good students who want to learn exist everywhere,no matter the country or the economic backgrounds. This is a very cheap way to get your kids out of a future of mediocrity and service industry jobs.
  • contd-

    Selling out a whole generation because its perceived to be lazier and more apathetic than the last is a tired old cliche that you see very often with people who ARENT involved with teaching kids.
    I take time out of my schedule to help a teacher run the robotics group in elementary school because there ARE kids who are interested. And every so often we get some kids you would not expect to be interested but who think that robots are cool. If we can make learning fun and educational, there are no losers.
    There is only a losers mindset.

    As a parent, you job isnt to teach your children, its to teach them to learn things on their own.
    Giving up on them is the worst and laziest thing you can do.

    Lets stop teaching advanced math and calculus because lets face it, most kids can barely count,right?
    The young mind is a like a sponge and can absorb much more than people give them credit.

    I for one am always amazed at my friends 8yr old who can play Chopin beautifully while Im not better than a pop tart after 20yrs at it. We each find our niche. Some kids it will be science, some it will be languages (4 year old nephew speaks four languages), some it will be sport.
    To give up on finding those that might be interested seems like callous thing to do.

    I only visit England on business so Im not sure if robotics is a big thing in UK schools but the educators involved in those in north america are thrilled about the Pi since its a continuation of what they are doing.

    But then again, a lifetime of serving fries with that doenst demand more than touching a few buttons so there is a lot to look forward to.
  • The Raspberry is not going to find a mainstream audience but will be a boon to kids who do like taking things apart and I think that's a reasonably-sized minority and one definitely worth empowering.

    It sounds to me that the golden age of computer programming you describe came about because programming was cool. It wasn't that the kids involved saw that learning to code was inherently virtuous - they did it because other kids did it/spoke about it/prized it. In short, there was buzz.

    On a side-note: it's very rare, these days, to see buzz combine with virtue where kid-fads are concerned (then again, playing the guitar is cool, and music has plenty of moral applications).

    Programming will probably never be a kid-fad again, but start-ups like Codecademy do offer some hope.
  • Ah, didn't realise you meant your kids, thought you were talking about *all* kids.
  • I completely disagree with Simon. There was a market back when the BBC Micro and Sinclair Spectrum came out of rich geeky parents or geeky kids with rich parents. There is still a market, but now it will be bigger as the geeks wont need to be rich.

    I know a kid who's been banned by his parents from using the family computer as he kept breaking it by tinkering constantly - a raspberry Pi will be a massive benefit to someone like that.

    Just because your kids like looking at National Geographic, playing music and taking their iPod to the toilet for extended periods, don't tar all kids with the same brush, there's a lot of geeks and future geeks out there.
  • I think there are two separate issues:

    1) Whether children today care about the nuts and bolts of computers.

    2) What the pi will actually do.

    Most children find the nuts and bolts of computers uninteresting, just as most people did when I was at school did. It doesn't matter how it's presented, they just won't care.

    The question I have with the pi is just what purpose is it going to be put to. Given how cheap computers are now, are there really many children, future IT professionals, who are destined to never have a career in IT because they don't have access to hardware to experiment with? A few, sure, but many? In the UK the pi will have a future as an enthusiasts item, a novelty, but I really can't see it being any more.
  • I hope you're wrong - last week we founded a start-up to create add-on kits for the Pi, targeted in part at a teenage audience. And the evidence is against you: there are over 250,000 children involved in the LEGO mind storms challenge, and even more in other robotics activities.
  • I suspect bio-hacking will be / is the new programming for geek culture. Computers are just old-wave.
  • I got in on computers through a series of lectures for young people at the Science Museum in 1967. That put me in a good position to be one of the first generation of science undergraduates to be expected to learn to program and operate a computer. When the web came along I when on to learn HTML and in due course the basics of CSS.

    However, the key skills that assisted me along the way were those that I gained by studying technical drawing. That is where I gained my basic knowledge and skills in data abstraction and modeling. Later this was supplemented by studies in reprographics that included learning about the print skills of typesetting and preparing camera ready artwork. This gave me a body of knowledge that I have subsequently applied in ITC work. As has the knowledge gained from an Open University course that included the basics of graph theory.

    I suggest that we do not get too hung up on teaching programming skills as such. It is far more important is for our young people learn transferable skills that will put them in the position to move in to specific skill areas when they need to. That way when the iPad doesn't connect the young person will be better equipped to turn the problem into a learning experience.
  • Raspberry pi is bound to smoke out those people who are interested in nuts & bolts, providing they get to hear of it. Ah lad, I remember when I was writing an operating system for the NCR 315 in 1966 (that's not a misprint), I used spare locations in instructions to store static data, memory was so scarce. Get an RP for a kid with a train set & see if he can control it with the RP. And it runs Linux, not some crappy system beginning with W.
  • This article is complete nonsense. Yes, most children now don't want to get inside the inner workings of a computer, but then again, most children didn't back in the 80s either; but they existed then and they exist now. I'm one of them: I'm 23 and as a 13 year old, I knew assembly language, and if I'd been able to get inside the inner workings of our family computer (an Apple Macintosh Performa) I'd have started even earlier. As a child, I'd have been delighted to have a Raspberry Pi to play with (and I rather expect my family would have been too). I should probably add that I'm not even a computer scientist (I'm a Mathematician)

    It would be wrong to think that these sorts of people are rare: when I was an undergrad at Oxford, I shared a large house with 7 people, 6 of them (three Mathematicians, two Physicists and a Computer Scientist) all coded for pleasure and all had started early. The only person who couldn't was a classicist (perhaps we were odd, there was at least one Genesis fan amongst us). In any case, there really is a certain type of brain that wants to understand things down to the most fundamental level, they all want to figure out how stuff works; it would be wonderful if the Raspberry Pi helps a few more to discover that they're good at it. For these people, the Raspberry Pi will provide a great intellectual thrill and a creative opportunity: they're not the sort of people that are likely to be be satisfied with Twitter and Facebook.
  • 'Arthur Dent' (Arthur PHILIP Dent?... H2G2 reference...) I could not agree with you more.
    I was a geeky kid before the word existed, I think. I'm still geeky and will be 59 tomorrow. If the Razz-Pi is even briefly seen as 'cool' and some imaginative introduction by keen and geeky teachers, is done, I cannot see it failing. It may never re-create the BBC Micro days, or the ZX80/81/Spectrum followers but who cares? If it is fun (remember 'fun'?) and gently evolves into something slightly more than a clever building block, why would the 'interested' kids not go for it? When the Farnell sites eventually gets off its knees, it is completely overloaded we are told with requests about the Razz-Pi, I shall buy my allotted 1x unit. I shall play with it and so will my grandchildren, possibly a nephew or two... some may be interested.

    Aside from the next generation wanting to play with the little thing, I have a few mini projects of my own that could really benefit from a small smart inexpensive front end computer running something Linuxy. This'll do for me. Search out the fun and make it happen.
  • On the other hand, if you weren't able to fix his WiFi, he would have spent time figuring it out himself. Kids are spoiled nowadays.
  • I've come here from reading an article at the BBC website ( because I had to say something.

    I find your defeatist attitude to be utterly useless. Now I have been to school, so I remember it quite well. IT as it was when I was at school was a non-subject, it was the equivalent of PE class being a lesson in getting dressed and tying your shoelaces. I can quite confidently say that I learned more about computers at home, fiddling with shooting games, awake till 4 am in the morning, skiving off school the next day, than I actually would have if I had bothered to turned up. It is so completely feeble as to excuse the average 10 year olds complete disinterest in it. Kids only have it in them to tell you that something IS boring, they don't expect you to understand the details of WHY it is boring.

    In your own children's disinterest, you are seeing a symptom resulting from the close minded policy of computer manufacturers for decades to wall off any access to the guts of a machine as if they don't exist, and instead of blaming them, you are trying to blame the kids for not taking an interest. Christ, if you actually want to program an iphone, you either have to hack it, illegally in some countries and against the terms of use at the very least, or pay a ridiculous fee for the 'privilege'. It is absolutely disgusting that the world has come to this!