​The Raspberry Pi is the feel-good tech success that we all need

Silicon Valley take note: you can be successful in tech and make the world a better place, too.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

Video: How to set up your Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

Tech is getting a pretty bad press right now, blamed for everything from widening gaps between parts of society to turning us into a bunch of passive consumers, craving the buzz we get from another social media like.

And it's true: until very recently, the big tech companies spent much more effort on growing their empires than considering the impact of what they have created. They've often trusted the algorithm, because adding humans into their processes was deemed too expensive -- and now those companies are learned, too late, that the algorithms are far from infallible.

See also: Special report: Harnessing IoT in the enterprise (PDF)

But not all tech innovation has to be this way; one of the best examples of taking a different approach is the Raspberry Pi. The latest version has just launched: a tiny board with enough processing power to almost use it as a desktop -- all for $35.

The Raspberry Pi was actually created in response to a drop in applications for the Cambridge University undergraduate computer science degree in the early 2000s. Prospective students had less programming language than in previous years, but as the Raspberry Pi Foundation explains, that drop was itself a symptom of a much broader challenge.

"For decades, schools had taught how to use computer programs, not how to make them. At the same time, digital technologies had become less hackable. The result was that, whether at school or at home, too many of us had become digital consumers rather than digital makers," the Foundation says in its 2018-2020 strategy.

The Raspberry Pi founders thought they could make some boards and give them out to encourage students to experiment with programming. They figured they might sell 1,000.

Since it was launched in February 2012, almost 18 million Raspberry Pi devices have now been sold, and the profits generated from the foundation's commercial activities have fuelled its wider educational mission, including building a portfolio of educational initiatives that include content, clubs, programmes, competitions, and training.

The Raspberry Pi in all its forms has been a remarkable success: that tiny device has helped enthusiasts to make their own games machines, cameras, skateboards, robot arms, walkie talkies -- pretty much anything. It's also given small startups a solid technical base on which to build their own products.

More importantly, these tiny boards have helped teach children to program, and in that, it follows in the footsteps of the BBC Micro which created a generation of tech entrepreneurs in the UK back in the 1980s.

But, most of all, the Raspberry Pi has shown us that we do not need to be passive consumers of technology.

Now see: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF)

The hardware that we buy -- smartphones or tablets or smart speakers -- are sealed, monolithic devices that do not invite scrutiny. We are not encouraged to think about what is inside them, but instead to accept them as they are.

Unboxing the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

That's a problem for everyone, and could make it hard for the next wave of entrepreneurs to flourish. As Raspberry Pi co-founder Eben Upton recently told TechRepublic's Nick Heath when discussing the role the Pi could play in challenging locked-down devices: "There's this risk, people talk about Africa: 'Maybe Africa will leapfrog the PC and go straight to the tablet'.

"That's a terrible thing, a tablet is a consumption device. Where are you going to get your African IT startups from if all anyone has is a cheap tablet? An unprogrammable device where all you can do is consume stuff that was written for you."

The Pi reminds us that the devices we use are simply a collection of components and that, with a bit of time and effort, we could even build the same or better ourselves. That there is nothing inevitable about the technology we are surrounded with. That we can change tech ourselves, for the better.

Sure, many of us may never do that, but the Pi reminds us what is possible. The Pi helps to demystify and democratise technology, something that we desperately need. Move fast and break things? Time to move fast and make things, instead.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:

Editorial standards