Britain exited the Second World War with a wealth of scientific expertise and an industrial base that whilst in a slightly dishevelled state cosmetically, could be considered world-beating. Computing, radar, manufacturing and ordinance in 1945 saw Britain leading the way. Truth be told, the inheritance was squandered, by and large by a country that was financially broke, obsessed with its declining Empire and tired after the best part of 40 years of war.
What’s curious is just how badly the legacy was squandered in computing terms. Name me a British hardware manufacturer that did well in the latter half of the 20th Century? Ummmmm. Amstrad? Ha Ha! No, seriously? Acorn and Sinclair maybe?
Most of us were bought computers like this by our parents. Some of the time was spent playing Jetpac, Horace goes Skiing and Chuckie Egg, all with a 5 minute load time (usually followed by a crash and starting again). But time was spent programming in a version of BASIC, writing programmes, exploring what you could get the machine to do. The BBC B Micro went into schools, replete with educational games so dull as to render these things pariah status. But again, kids programmed and shared their programmes. I actually remember being in the First year (that’s Year 7 in modern coinage) and being in awe of one of the Sixth Formers who had games PUBLISHED for the ZX Spectrum. Not quite rock star status, but genuinely an achievement to be proud of in 1984, and an inspiration to me and my nerdy chums.
Apologies if you are under 35 and this means nothing to you. If you are over 35, it represented a golden era of programming and learning about programming. If you are under 35, it may have meant a Sega Mega Drive.
I had one of these, and can claim with pride completing Sonic the Hedgehog without cheating, and without losing a life. Halcyon days at University there.
The point was that computing had gone from being an interactive process, promoting programming skills, sharing of home-written code and a mild rise of the nerds to a world of closed OS, and an entirely gaming focused platform. Who wants to write code when you could plug a copy of Streetfighter2 into your Super Nintendo and spend four consecutive hours kicking butt with Ryu’s special fireball move?
The UK Government has made noises about encouraging schools to teach programming for years, and has recently announced that it’s about to start teaching it (kind of) in schools. It’s years too late. There is a generation (or possibly two) that had access to affordable computing, clearly came from a nation that had the nouse and willingness to design and build great technology, but weren’t given the opportunities, incentives and encouragement to do so. People from the engineering sector have moaned about the same thing for years.
McAfee is doing its bit to help. At a local level, we do a lot of outreach activities including coding days in schools, as well teaching the kids about online safety. We’ve also found that following up on these activities presenting at parents evenings generates a positive response, although the focus tends to be on what the parents can do to support the kids, since it’s them we’re really concerned about.
On a more national level, McAfee are helping BCS with its efforts to build a curriculum for schools teaching computer science. This is a critical time for reversing the trend of the last 20 years of teaching (or non-teaching) of this topic, and McAfee are investing time heavily in this process. It’s in everyone’s interest that this process succeeds, and McAfee believes it has a good long term return for all parties involved.
But back to my overarching point. The cycle of technology, from open to closed repeats itself. Kids right now don’t get ICT, they consume it. And it means that the correct Legacy of Turing where a country of people played and programmed with equal measure is currently lost, and we are definitely worse off as a result.
Author: Graeme Stewart, McAfee