Back To The Future – Next Gen from the Previous Gen

I’m working my way through the excellent Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene. The second chapter in the book is entitled “BASIC Differences” and talks about the genesis of the British computer hardware industry and the formation of Acorn, Sinclair and others such as Newbury and Oric.

The piece opens describing the decline of Britain as a manufacturing base – long standing manual jobs and industry being displaced to other counties with cheaper labour rates, resulting in high unemployment and long-term economic gloom. In 1978 the BBC broadcast an edition of Horizon called “Now the Chips are Down” looking at the impact of the microchip, and prophetically ended the episode with a statement: “What is shocking is that the government has been totally unaware of the effects that this technology is going to create. The silence is terrifying. It’s time to talk about the future.”

Sound familiar?

In the background the government was helping several innovative technology companies, but the main result from this programme was for the BBC to answer its own question. It embarked on a public awareness campaign, not only about computers, but also how to program them. David Allen of the BBC’s Continuing Education Department said “If we wanted to democratise the technology, rather than be dominated by it as some people seem to think, we needed people to experience it and control it. That meant programming”. To summarise this excellent chapter, the initiative led to the BBC Micro, a raft of technology and programming related TV timetabling – mostly fronted by the much loved Fred Harris. In short, the government and BBC scheme “Micros In Schools” subsidised the education market, placed BBC Micros in schools and perhaps led to Britain being the most computer literate country in the world.

38 years on from that original Horizon broadcast the world seems a completely similar place! As NESTA’s Next Gen and Plan-I and the CBI’s recent “First Steps” reports state we seem to have learned nothing from the past. Our kids are looking down the same barrel as those back in the 80s – leaving school with minimal skills required to enter the “microchip” market and take advantage of the inevitable digital jobs marketplace. How can this be? What is amazing to me is that we still have people in government and education that continue to resist this change, continue to believe that for the past 30 years we’ve been doing the right thing. We’ll never have the cheapest labour (though after 100 years of unopposed decline we might), and the emerging markets of India and China could overtake us for innovation and creativity – where will that leave Britain?

We dropped the ball somewhere in the mid-80s, will the government and the BBC be brave enough to pick it up again, and bring back a “Micros In Schools” program for the 21st century and beyond.

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