The Spectrum, the Pi - and the coding backlash

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.

Timelapse footage of Rory unwrapping his Raspberry Pi

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.

Richard Altwasser 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.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    To keep costs down, Raspberry Pi nixed a few options. A real-time clock (RTC) is unavailable. Adding an RTC is surprisingly expensive, once you’ve factored in batteries, area & components...Another item on the customer want list (went unfulfilled) is a self-assembly kit. The kit would be too expensive to provide + availability might put a cap on creativity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    John_from_Hendon says "You do not need hardware to code"...

    Yup.. you could write it down on some paper! Unfortunately ever since I started programming 20 years ago I've always needed a computer to compile it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I had exposure to coding; I hated it. I had to feed computer cards through a reader; I hated it. Maybe I wouldn't hate the Raspberry Pi, but probably I would. I belong on other side of computer screen - analyzing, thinking, analyzing, thinking...& then taking words/debates apart.
    Could it be coders use left brain; users, right, and therein lies the difference?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I don't see why people are getting so excited, the Raspberry Pi and the proposed changes to ICT are just about getting kids interested in computing. I work with many who bemoan the outsourcing culture in the IT industry, yet pour scorn on attempts to engage kids like this, you can't safeguard the industry in Britain without planning for the future. So what is their alternative solution?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    2. John_from_Hendon

    "You do not need hardware to code"

    No? What do you download the "excellent tools" on then?
    Software has to run on something....

    Oh, and I think you meant cerebrum. I hope your general medical knowledge is no indication of your general technological knowledge...

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Plus ca change - the dads of those 40-somethings were probably moaning in '82 that skills such as interpreting a circuit diagram or soldering were disappearing. Electronic gadgets such as radio, TV and hifi were affordable and came ready made. No need to to understand the difference between a cathode or an anode to enjoy your music. Probably why the only electronics we do well now involve valves!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    You take me by surprise. I thought this product needed European 'CE", deliveries had stopped - lacking mark stamped on most technological goods. I must've missed imprimatur ceremony; I though delivery date had been pushed as far our as August.
    More positively, Fuse Sinclair ZX Spectrum emulator has been ported to run on Raspberry Pi - ahead of the 30th anniversary of the BBC Micro.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I do feel sorry for youngsters that they won't have the same exposure to coding that I did when I was a child, I remember getting a Spectrum +2A and the manual came with an introduction to BASIC coding, starting my intrigue with programming. Maybe exposing young people to the power Excel's Visual Basic for instance, with its dialog boxes and macros may feed the mind of the current generation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Rory, try to get this through your cerebellum:

    You do not need hardware to code.

    There are( and have been for years) excellent tools available for (free) download that can let you code.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The new game from Notch, of Minecraft fame, will features an emulated 16bit computer that you can use to control your spaceship - THIS will probably do more to encourage young people into programming that the Raspberry Pi.


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