The Spectrum, the Pi - and the coding backlash

  • 23 April 2012
  • From the section Technology
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ZX Spectrum

A wave of nostalgia is sweeping Britain today, with men in their 40s the group most affected. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the first computer to enter many a teenage bedroom, is 30 today, and its birthday has sparked a deal of soul-searching about the technology available to today's teens.

Millions of misty-eyed middle-aged men - and I'm pretty sure the Spectrum was mainly a boy's toy - are remembering that their first experience of computing meant getting their hands dirty. Before doing anything interesting like playing a game, they had first to go through the laborious job of typing in a program - and, the argument goes, that very process meant that programming itself became interesting.

Whereas today's teenagers turn on their computers, their tablet computers and smartphones, and start playing games without any of the creative input that programming involves. The result, say the nostalgists, is that today's "digital natives" are in fact a lot less savvy about computers than their dinosaur dads who grew up with the Spectrum and the BBC Micro in the 1980s.

One possible solution to this problem arrived in my home over the weekend, the first computer that has ever come into the house via the letterbox. (Here's a video showing just how small it is.) The tiny Raspberry Pi, a cheap credit card sized computer, is a project which has caught the imagination of the same crowd which remembers the Spectrum with such affection.

While it has a processor 200 times faster and a memory bigger by an order of thousands, the Pi is in some ways even more basic - and more demanding of its users - than its 1980s predecessor. You have to find not only a television, but a keyboard, mouse and your own power adapter before you can actually get going.

So will the digital generation have the patience to tackle the Raspberry Pi? "My impression is that the attention span of young people over the last 30 years has probably not lengthened," Richard Altwasser, who designed the ZX Spectrum, told the BBC.

Image caption Mr Altwasser designed the ZX Spectrum

But amongst some of those who learned their computing the hard way there is something of a backlash against the idea that today's children - or older beginners - need to be given an easy introduction into the world of coding. My post last week on a one day course promising an introduction to coding provoked quite a response.

Many people were enthusiastic, but some coders felt that I was belittling their profession, that web languages like HTML, CSS and Javascript were a long way from proper coding, and that the idea that you could learn anything in a day was a joke.

Leading the charge was Andrew Orlowski, a brilliant but provocative software engineer turned writer, whose articles in The Register are always a good read - even if he's talking arrant nonsense. In a piece headlined Compulsory coding in schools - the new nerd tourism, he describes the sudden burst of interest in coding by "bien pensant media folk" as "staggeringly ignorant and misplaced" and says it could end up doing far more harm than good.

Really? There is certainly a move to reform the teaching of ICT in schools - but it has been led by teachers themselves, by computer and games industry executives and by coders, not by "bien pensant media folk". And the picture Mr Orlowski paints of weeping children being frog-marched into compulsory coding classes owes more to his overheated imagination than reality.

Far from ordering schools to teach programming, the Education Secretary Michael Gove has effectively told them to do whatever they like about ICT, leaving many unsure what computing education will look like next September.

Mr Orlowski may, however, have a point about one thing - coding is unlikely to become a mass market activity. The same of course was true of the 1980s. The ZX Spectrum may have been Britain's best-selling computer but it was still a minority sport and millions grew up without learning anything about coding.

But what's the better message to send to today's schoolchildren? Don't even think about coding, it's much too hard. Or have a go, you might just like it.