A personal history of computing

When I was first asked what I wanted to do, and people suggested to me:  “work with computers”, my reaction was: “no way; working with computers just means sitting typing at a screen all day.”  Then the first hobby machines came out, and I learned of this mysterious world where you didn’t just use the computers, but you actually controlled them, and that was when I first took any interest at all in the subject.  I was lucky enough to be growing up at the very start of the home computer revolution: a visit to WH Smith or similar stores during my teens would find a whole display of different computers, all plugged into TVs, and the usual reaction of any school child would be to type:

10 PRINT "George Smith";
20 GOTO 10

which would result in the kudos of the child’s name filling the screen.  If we wanted to play a game, the chances are we would buy one of the many magazines available and sit for hours copying in code from the listings and saving it on a magnetic tape cassette.  We may not have understood the code, but we were exposed to it and most would have ended up with a working understanding of programming logic.

Then premade cassettes of games started flooding the markets and the need for typing in listings was reduced to the need to type LOAD “spaceinvaders”.  Then the PC hit the shelves, and suddenly computers had their own operating systems, and the shops were full of software that would do almost anything you needed, and very quickly people became users rather than creators.

Now most homes will have at least one computer.  We socialise via the internet, we post minutiae of our lives online for others to see, we take photos on digital cameras, we’re routinely advised to “look on the website for more information” and computers provide our social life, our working life and our entertainment.

That’s just the computers we see and are aware of, not to mention those that control automatic doors, the flow of fuel to the engines of our cars, wash our clothes, cook our food… and the majority of people don’t have a clue how they work, or care, or even notice.

But it seems this is about to change.  Now there’s a push back to getting kids to code, with brilliant resources like Scratch introducing even primary school children to the basics of sequencing instructions, and systems like Gamemaker encouraging them to think carefully about what they want to happen and create their own games.

Hardware is also developing, but in two different directions.  While computers generally are getting faster and more sophisticated, and able to control more and more of our lives, there’s also a back to basics movement: the raspberry pi is a very small (about the size of a pack of cards), very cheap (under £30) computer that’s almost back to the days of the ZX81, where I started.  You have to plug the pi into your TV or monitor, add a keyboard and mouse, and find a power supply, and you have a fully programmable computer.  Not as powerful as your desktop PC, maybe, but far cheaper and the possibilities are as yet still being explored.

There’s a chance to take the processing power of computers and put it to more practical use as well: from Lego Mindstorms robotics kits to the Arduino, systems are available to teach the basics of robotics and electronics, and suddenly it feels cool again to tinker with systems, and develop them, and create your own things.  The gap between creators and users is narrowing in computing as it is in many other areas – reading stories/writing stories, creating video/watching video, shops that sell things and people who buy things – and it’s an exciting time to be involved in teaching computing, as I feel this generation starting to get that same feeling of power that we had when we controlled the computer rather being just the user.

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