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

Mars mission just as inspiring as any Olympic feats

As the medals continue to rain down on Team GB there is genuine hope that success at the Olympics will motivate a generation. After all, even Andy Murray has won something!

Perhaps the superhuman feats of Ennis, Farah and the like will prompt youngsters to take up new sports, keep fit and learn the value of real hard work and dedication to a cause.

But while the nation’s attention focuses on the London games, there is something else happening which I believe should prove equally inspirational.

Yesterday, as many of us were waking up, a NASA spacecraft completed its voyage across the great, vast blackness of space to land on Mars.

The aptly-named Curiosity rover, which is the size of a small car, touched down in the Gale Crater after a truly mind-boggling journey which ended with a complex, nail-biting descent on to the planet involving parachutes, a crane and some serious ingenuity.

The goal of the Mars Space Laboratory, which has 10 times more kit than any previous mission, is to try to determine whether or not the red planet has ever had the conditions to support life.

This is surely science at its most riveting.

Forget the test tubes, Bunsen burners and chemical symbols which bored us all to death in school laboratories.

If only my teachers at Holden Lane High had been able to teach science through space exploration then maybe, just maybe, yours truly wouldn’t have flunked his physics GCSE.

If you ask me, if we want to engage children in young people in chemistry, physics and biology, I think all we have to do is stick the telly on or use an internet search engine to show them what mankind is achieving with its brains as well as its muscles.

President Obama Tweeted about it but sadly, the BBC didn’t think this event worthy of a live broadcast as they were presumably too busy scouring the Oxford English Dictionary for new ways to eulogise about handball.

So it is up to us to relay to our children the excitement, relief and joy which exploded in NASA’s mission control room at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the wake of this astonishing technological accomplishment.

It is up to us to explain to them how scientists had to plot a trajectory so carefully that a deep space probe could hit a box just 1.8 miles by 7.4 miles at the top of Mars’s atmosphere in order for it to arrive at its destination 352 million miles away. (It has been compared to hitting a golf ball from Los Angeles to Scotland and scoring a hole-in-one).

We can tell children that the spacecraft travelled at 13,000km per hour and its final descent was at an estimated 21,000km/h.

It is up to us to explain that Curiosity is equipped with tools to brush and drill into rocks, scoop stuff up and sieve samples. We can say its got a laser too.

We can tell youngsters that the project, which cost $2.5 billion (about a seventh of the conservative estimate cost of London 2012) will see Curiosity carrying out experiments for 24 months – although its plutonium generators will provide power for at least 14 years.

We can explain that the landing of the Mars Space Laboratory was handled entirely by pre-programmed computer and all NASA’s team of boffins – which includes two British scientists – could do was wait, hope and pray.

Of course, advances in technology are such that youngsters now hold in their hands computers more intricate and powerful than those available to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July, 1969.

Surfing the worldwide web is second nature to today’s schoolchildren and sci-fi films continue to push the boundaries of our understanding and imagination.

Thus we have become blasé about space travel which is a real shame because the Mars missions are, to me, the equivalent of the first manned Moon Landing which happened a couple of years before I was born.
For me, the very fact that anyone can build a craft capable of travelling unmanned over such distances and then relaying information and images back to Earth is astonishing.

In this age of austerity, the fact that American scientists are pushing ahead with an, albeit trimmed back, space programme echoes the pioneering spirit of their forefathers.

Curiosity’s mission will hopefully lay the foundations for further visits to the red planet and, ultimately, a manned mission to Mars within the next 20 to 30 years.

I defy anyone not to be excited by the cutting edge of space exploration which could help to answer some key questions about the evolution of our own planet.

At the same time it may also inspire scientists of the future to go where no man (or woman) has gone before.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday