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

Chip butties, late nights and a few timeless classics

Back in the days before the internet and mobile telephones made the world a much smaller place, the telly was king.
And before the advent of satellite TV a handful of stations dictated what was beamed into our living rooms.
In ratings terms, the 1980s represented the golden era of the small screen in the UK – with shows grabbing mind-boggling viewing figures which today’s TV executives can only dream of.
Take, for example, the infamous snarling Dirty Den divorces Angie in Eastenders on Christmas Day, 1986, which was watched by an estimated 30.1 million people (if you include the repeat showing).
The following year it was Corrie which held us captivated – with 26.6 million viewers switching on to see Hilda Ogden say farewell to The Street on December 25.
I’m not saying TV shows were better during the Eighties because they certainly didn’t have the budgets of many modern-day productions.
But back then, because of the simple lack of choice, most of us watched the same ‘events’ at the same time.
Then we went to school, work or the pub and talked about them with people who had shared the moment.
In truth I was never much of a soap watcher. I had a brief flirtation with Jane from Neighbours during my school days – simply because of the novelty factor of it being an Aussie show which the rest of my class were watching.
The daddy of all soaps, for me, was actually Dallas which I’m delighted to say returns to our screens next year.
The antics of the oil-rich Ewing clan made for mighty fine viewing in the early Eighties – with scheming, larger-than-life characters contrasting sharply with the majesty of the specially-constructed Southfork ranch.
In November 1980 more than 21 million of us discovered who had shot JR (not Hartley) but I suspect Channel 5 would be deliriously happy if a quarter of that number tune in to next year’s reboot. Of course, if it’s rubbish they can always pretend Pam has had another bad dream.
Because I was a lad growing up in the 1980s a couple of other American shows were firm favourites of mine.
Despite it’s frankly ludicrous plot, hammy acting and the fact that 12,000 rounds were dispensed from a Kalashnikov in each episode but no-one ever got hurt – the A-Team was essential viewing in our house on a Saturday night.
I just pity the fool who felt it necessary to trample all over my generation’s cherished memories with last year’s woeful movie.
Another U.S. must-see of mine featured David Hasslehoff and his talking black car KITT fighting for truth, justice and the American perm. To be honest, I grew to prefer Airwolf – sort of like Knight Rider but with a helicopter and a better theme tune – but I have to doff the cap to ‘The Hoff’ for starting the ball rolling.
All of my other favourite TV shows from the decade of decadence were British-made affairs and I won’t have a word said against any of them.
The first was a show whose premise was the unlikely pairing of an elegant English detective and a tough New York cop – both working for an elite unit of the Metropolitan Police.
It may not have been as hard-hitting as other cop shows but Dempsey and Makepeace had a cool bloke and a gorgeous leading lady.
OK. I’ll admit to answering the phone with the word ‘Yo’ for a while in homage to Michael Brandon’s Dempsey but, in truth, I watched it for the love of Makepeace – AKA Glynis Barber – a woman for whom I’d still happily take a bullet.
I’m claiming another crime-fighting show for the Eighties – although it began in the late Seventies.
The Professionals, which centred around a far tougher double-act in Bodie and Doyle (the excellent Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw before he became a luvvie), focused on a fictional counter-bad guys unit.
I well remember my delight on Christmas Day morning in 1982 when my younger brother Matt and I opened up our toy Professionals Crimebuster Kits – complete with all-important CI5 I.D. cards, guns, watches, fingerprint kit and a working black and white camera. Best present ever, that.
The next show reminds me of creeping back downstairs after Matt had fallen asleep on Friday nights in 1983/84 to eat chip butties and watch one of the best British comedy dramas ever made.
As the son of a joiner, Auf Wiedersehen Pet featured working class heroes to whom I could certainly relate and, for a couple of years, this show was the highlight of my week.
In terms of comedy, I enjoyed the anarchic nature of The Young Ones immensely but, in truth, it was the gentle humour of cockney wide-boys the Trotters which made me laugh out loud.
Only Fools And Horses is one of the few shows which genuinely deserves the label ‘a timeless classic’.
It is little wonder we consider David Jason a national treasure.
Last but by no means least on my list of favourite 80s shows is another comedy which managed to fuse history and razor wit together to create one of the most quotable sitcoms of all time.
Rowan Atkinson’s sneering, morally-ambivalent Blackadder is a work of genius which I can watch over and over again.
Indeed, part of the fun is pre-empting the laugh lines and still finding them hysterically funny.
I sometimes wonder what Edmund would have to say about the television comedy on offer these days.
Not much, I suspect. Other than to blame Baldrick and punch him in the face.