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.