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

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It’s hard to match the thrill of destroying a Death Star…


As I’m happy to admit, I’m a geek. A nerd. Dungeons & Dragons, sci-fi and horror: That’s all my bag. Oh, and computer games.

I got into computer games early because I was fortunate to grow up in the decade when they migrated from arcades and pubs into our homes.

However, my earliest memory of video games is from sitting in the upstairs rooms of a pub in Rhyl.

I would have been 10 or 11 at the time and, as mum and dad enjoyed a drink, my brother Matt and I would occasionally be given money to spend on Space Invaders.

Actually invented by Japanese company Taito in 1978, this was arguably the daddy of all arcade games which became a global hit in the early to mid-Eighties.

Simple and addictive, it was a two-dimensional game in which the player controlled a laser cannon by moving it horizontally across the bottom of the screen and firing at ever-descending ‘aliens’.

Your cannon was protected by stationary bunkers which slowly got worn away by the aliens’ missiles (and your own).

The aim was to defeat rows of aliens that moved horizontally back and forth as they advanced towards the bottom of the screen. You earned points for destroying each alien and they became quicker and more difficult to destroy as the game progressed.

Occasionally an alien ‘mother ship’ floated across the top of the screen and hitting this meant major points.

The object was obviously to get the highest score you possibly could. Truth be told, I wasn’t great at it but I loved it nonetheless.

I also have vague, blurry recollections of playing Atari’s Pong – a very simple, 2D table-tennis game which seems such a simple concept now I’m sure most children wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.

Then, in 1984, I went on a school coach trip abroad. A couple of classes from years one and two at Holden Lane High went to Valkenburg in Holland.

It was in an arcade there one evening that my friends and I (Rob, Richie and Glyn) discovered the Star Wars arcade game. It was a revelation to kids like us who had grown up playing cowboys and indians, ‘Army’ and play-acting the heroes from our favourite films and TV shows.

Made by Atari, this game was truly brilliant for its time. It enabled you to take on the role of Luke Skywalker, piloting an X-Wing Fighter in his final run against the Death Star.

You sat inside the ‘cockpit’, while your mates hung around outside egging you on.

As you downed Imperial Tie-Fighters character voices from the film would echo through the explosions.

“Use the force, Luke”, “I’ve lost R2!”, and, of course, “This one’s strong”, added to the excitement.

By today’s standards, the simple, linear graphics seem incredibly old-fashioned but I can tell you that nothing quite matched the thrill of hitting the exhaust port of the Death Star with your proton torpedo and watching its explode. Happy days.

PC gaming was still in its infancy (my much-loved Commodore 64 had yet to arrive) but video games slowly were migrating into our living rooms – with Atari, Nintendo and Sega leading the way with their chunky ‘third generation’ consoles, ‘joy sticks’ and slide-in games which were the size of a roof-tile.

In 2012, many homes have a Wii the latest X-Box or PlayStation but, back in the mid-Eighties, being able to play video games in your house was a real novelty and any lad (it was usually lads) who owned one gained many cool points.

Some of the games from this era had such an impact on us that they entered popular culture – with Donkey Kong, Mario and Frogger springing to my mind.

Indeed, Namco’s Pac Man was so big at one stage that U.S. President Ronald Reagan once set aside matters of state to congratulate a player on getting the highest score ever.

It was during this time that many of the best-loved platforms were born: First-person shoot-em ups, roleplaying games, survival horror games etc.

Certainly, today’s online mass, multi-player games and the home console games with astonishingly realistic graphics owe a huge debt to the mid-Eighties.

That was the golden age of video arcade games and, looking back, its not hard to see why.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia