How the digital revolution changed our lives (whether we wanted it or not…)

The keyboard from a Commmodore 64 (like what I had!).

The keyboard from a Commmodore 64 (like what I had!).

This week I attended my first ‘tweet-up’ where prolific Twitter users from our patch met face-to-face over a pint at The Leopard pub in Burslem.

A disparate group of people, including some of North Staffordshire’s most influential thinkers and business people, were brought together by the power of a social network.

It is a concept that would have seemed bizarre even 20 years ago.

During my time at high school and college and the early years of my career as a journalist, such a thing would have been impossible as the technology just didn’t exist.

I am talking about a time before Skype, text messages, mobile telephones, email and, of course, the internet.

Simply put: The revolution in digital communications during the last quarter of a century or more has had a dramatic effect on the way we live our lives.

It is an effect that we would neither have believed nor understood three decades ago.

What’s more, the changes all come back to the advent of the internet and key events during the 1980s which really did shape the world we live in today.

In 1988 I sat my GCSE examination in computing and got a C grade which basically meant I could log in and shut down a PC and use a mouse.

This was, in fact, partly due to the fact I had a Commodore 64 at home on which I was playing Airwolf and Johnny Reb of an evening.

Perhaps more telling was the fact that I was one of only two boys at Holden Lane High who also sat the GCSE typewriting exam – using actual typewriters with ink ribbons. Remember them?

What most of my generation was unaware of was the fact that a revolution was coming. A digital revolution.

Back then we viewed computers as new-fangled machines for the office and school or play-things. If you were lucky you had one at home – although most people didn’t.

It was a time when children first started having portable (usually black and white) TVs in their bedrooms. Chunky little things with aerials that you had to manipulate in order to get a decent signal.

Either that or you had to stand on your tip-toes up the corner of the room holding the aforementioned telly in a certain position to achieve the best reception.

Anyone over the age of 30 knows I’m not kidding.

Computers were static, large, clunky things which took ages to ‘boot up’ and were, in effect, little more than memory devices for text or video game consoles.

But the internet changed all of that and made computers vital to every walk of life – from healthcare and law enforcement to your weekly shop and keeping in touch with friends and relatives in other parts of the country or across the world.

The origins of the internet can be traced back to the first real network run on what’s called ‘packet-switching’ technology.

Arpanet, or Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was born in 1969 when computers at Stanford University and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) connected for the first time.

There was no commercial benefit to this – it simply allowed data to be shared by people across the network – but this very basic system was, over time, to lead to the global connecting of computers which the current generation takes for granted.

The 1970s saw the first email sent, the first trans-Atlantic connection and the advent of the first PC modem which was originally sold to computer hobbyists (when they were still niche).

In 1984 the domain name system was created – making addresses on the internet more ‘human-friendly’.

1985 saw the development of ‘The WELL’ (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) – one of the oldest virtual communities still in operation.

By 1987 the internet had around 30,000 hosts and a year later Internet Relay Chat was first used – paving the way for real-time chat and the instant messaging services we use today.

1988 also saw the first cyber attack by malicious software when the ‘Morris Worm’ caused major interruptions across the fledgling ‘inter-network’.

A year later saw the proposal for the World Wide Web – written by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim) and published in the MacWorld magazine.

At the time yours truly was working as a cub reporter at Smith Davis Press Agency, where one of my colleagues remarked that this ‘internet’ thing would hit our industry like a train.

At the time he was referring to electronic image transfer and I honestly don’t think he had any real idea how the internet would change everything. To be fair, no-one did.

By the end of the decade the die was cast and the digital revolution had begun.

Oh. I almost forgot: The 1980s also gave birth to another modern-day staple of communications.

In 1982 the first smiley emoticon was used.

Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist now living in Pennsylvania, proposed using 🙂 after a joke to represent a smile.

So now you know exactly who to blame for such nonsense. 😦

For more Eighties nostalgia pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday

A golden decade for Team GB’s Olympic athletes

Believe it or not there was a time when people in the UK could choose whether or not they wanted to watch the Olympic Games.
It was a more innocent age when not being interested in handball, beach volleyball and synchronised diving wasn’t punishable by incarceration in the Tower of London.
It was a time when seeing Olympic athletes perform on telly in glorious colour was a relative novelty and BBC employees had the freedom to criticise stuff as they saw fit.
It was a period when we weren’t brow-beaten into repeating the mantra that sports we’ve never heard of are all wonderful and exciting just because it has almost bankrupt the nation to stage an Olympics.
That decade was the 1980s when colour TVs which were becoming a fixture in most homes turned some British Olympians into household names.
The Moscow summer Olympics of 1980 was the games that made baldness cool as swimmer Duncan Goodhew scooped gold in the 100m breaststroke and bronze in the 4x100m medley relay.
At the same games, which was boycotted by many countries including the U.S., Japan, China and West Germany because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Scottish sprinter Allan Wells won gold in the 100 metres in a photo finish. He was pipped to silver in the 200m by just 0.2 seconds.
It was in Moscow that decathlete Daley Thompson announced his arrival on the world stage by taking top spot on the podium – a feat he then repeated four years later in Los Angeles.
The 1980 games saw current London 2012 supremo Lord Sebastian Coe, beaten into second place by his great rival Steve Ovett in the 800 metres – his speciality.
However, Seb hit back in the 1500m race to take gold, while Ovett had to settle for bronze. Coe replicated his achievements over both distances at the next Olympics in LA.
Those games in the City of Angels marked another golden period for British athletics when Tyneside’s Steve Cram – the ‘Jarrow Arrow’ – completed a one, two, three for us when he nabbed the silver in that infamous 1500 metres.
It was a race which was so thrilling that even I, a 12-year-old asthmatic and the laughing stock of Holden Lane High’s cross country course, was enthralled.
That year also saw Tessa Sanderson become the first black British woman win gold in the javelin. She went on to represent Britain at no less than six Olympics.
Meanwhile, her close rival Fatima Whitbread, whose personal story of triumph over adversity was as inspirational a tale as you could hear in sport, won hearts and minds when she scooped bronze at LA and followed this up with a silver medal four years later in Seoul.
Hockey forward Sean Kerly sealed a bronze medal for the GB men’s team with his winner against Australia in the Los Angeles games and went on to be the Aussie’s bogeyman again in 1988 when he scored a hat-trick against them in the semi-final.
Believe it or not, 1984 was the year that a young Steve Redgrave won the first of his five Olympic gold medals for rowing.
Little did we know back then that he would go on to become Britain’s greatest ever Olympian.
Swimmer Adrian Moorhouse had been expected to win gold in LA in the breaststroke but finished a disappointing fourth. Happily he made up for it four years later by winning gold in the 100m race.
My final Eighties Olympic household name will be no stranger to Sentinel readers.
Former policeman and Cobridge newsagent Imran Sherwani scored two goals and set up the third in Team GB’s demolition of West Germany in the final at Seoul.
It prompted one of the best bits of Olympics commentary ever by the BBC’s Barry Davies whose enthusiasm led him to ask the question: “Where were the Germans? And, frankly, who cares?”
All in all the Eighties was a great Olympic decade for Britain – before the time when the games themselves became the huge corporate monster that they are today.