If, like me, you were a teenager in the 1980s, chances are you’ll remember the BBC Micro and the Sinclair Spectrum. These were ‘home computers’ that encouraged a generation of pallid adolescents to try their hand at programming, leading pretty much directly to the British games industry becoming one of the country’s biggest export earners over the next twenty years.
The problem is, over the last decade the culture of hobbyist programmers has become a thing of the past, as computers have taken on the status of all-pervasive ‘white goods’. Teenagers have their iPhones, iPods, iPads, Facebook etc – but by and large they don’t spend hours learning how to write platform games.
Lamenting this fact, a group of computer scientists at Cambridge set up the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the mission of creating an ultra-cheap computer targetted specifically at children. Launched earlier this year, the Raspberry Pi costs around £30 and consists of nothing more than a tiny uncased circuit board which can be connected to a standard USB keyboard and mouse, using a bedroom TV as a monitor. The Raspberry Pi runs the Debian version of the Linux operating system which is open source and therefore free, booting up from an SD card.
I ordered one as soon as they were announced and, after 6 months’ wait, it finally arrived on Friday. Theoretically it was intended for my 8-year-old son Alex but, if I’m honest, I might concede that there was some geeky nostalgia involved here. It took less than 10 minutes to set everything up – in fact, I spent a lot longer trying to make a homebrew case for it out of Lego! The next morning I sat Alex down in front of it and left him to it, avoiding the temptation to over-explain. Half an hour later I returned to find that he’d managed to create a complex animation using Scratch, the visual programming language for children included with the OS.
Will he choose to keep at it, rather than going outside and kicking a football around? We’ll see. But I wholeheartedly approve of the aims of the Foundation and believe it could make a real difference in encouraging at least some children to design/program/engineer things themselves rather than being passive consumers.