Friday, October 5, 2012

Can Raspberry Pi Save Civilization?

Last night I bought a book because 2 nights ago, I bought a computer.

I'm a big spender. I know.

The computer is a little bit cheaper than the first one I bought in 1980 that ran CP/M and booted from floppy disks. It's called the Raspberry Pi and I laid less than $40 for it. I paid half that for the book.

Reading the foreword of the book made me worried. The author described the state of the kids he's seeing entering college nowadays and how they differ from the kids entering college a decade or two ago. He lamented the fact that kids nowadays don't know much about programming.

I'm not being a cranky old man when I sympathize with him, because I learned to use a slide rule and the micro-computer revolution happened after I'd safely graduated from college. But get off my lawn anyway.

Seems that in the last decade or so, kids interact with computers that nobody can program except Microsoft or SONY or whoever the manufacturer is. Look in your pocket right now and you may find a smart phone that has a lot more computing power than ever flew during the Apollo program. But have you ever tried to write a program on it? Of course not. It's a phone, not a computer. Same goes for your Kindle, your Nook, your iPad, or a half-dozen other computer-powered devices you commonly use.

These things are locked down and you don't have the desire to open the hood and fiddle with the stuff inside. And big corporations spend money and hire lawyers to discourage you from doing that, too.

Is this right or wrong? I won't say here, because the point I want to make here is that the sociological change this makes on our society is to regard technology as a black box. If a kid can fiddle with the things at the edges of that black box, s/he may think s/he is a programmer when there's an ocean of knowledge s/he's ignorant of.

The Raspberry Pi guys decided to change that and have brought out a cheap, open computer running free, open source software. There's nothing in the hardware or the software that someone can't get at and start messing with. Instead of coming in an enclosure with tamper-resistant screws and a warranty that's void if you open it up, the Raspberry Pi has no enclosure. It is just a circuit board you plug things into.

The cool thing is that for half the cost of a pair of Adidas sneakers, a kid can start experimenting with a real, live computer. When I was a kid all you could get for that kid of money was a dozen relays that's make clicking sounds. Lame.

When I got out of college a kid's parents could spend a lot more money for a computer that would play Pong. This Raspberry Pi has all the multimedia functions you'd find in an Arcade video game, and it'll stream HD movies or music from the Internet to your TV. And all the software that makes it work comes with source code. That means kids can learn to change it to do what THEY want it to.

Will they?

Most won't, but a few will. And those few will have a head start on becoming the next generation of technologists. I hope they will be enough.


  1. I started out with a TRS-80 and then worked my way through most of the other early computers. I learned programming via those type-in programs in magazines and at evening classes. Took a degree in Maths at the open University and then went on to write software for NASA during the Shuttle program. No incentive for youngsters nowadays to do anything for themselves except hack into things for lolz.

  2. I dearly wished I could afford a TRS-80 when they came out. When I got out of grad school and had a job making money I bought a CP/M computer, a Heath-Zenith Z-89 that set me back more than my first three cars combined. Getting it to do something useful was excruciating.

    That's why I'm so pleased with the Raspberry Pi in terms of education. 1) kids can afford to buy one, 2) kids can do something useful without herculean effort.


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