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Feb 15

Where's the 8 bit revolution for my kids?

Just had my second child. I reminisced to aspects of my childhood now that i am a "Daddy" times two.

Atari. BBC model B. TRS 80. Sharp MZ80K. Commodore Vic 20 / C64. Apple IIe. Oric. TI/94a. Sinclair Timex. Fidonet. Dare I say it. Big Trak.

These brands and names have an almost emotional impact on the generation of technologists and programmers who used them as children. Games mostly and in some cases learning to program on them. My first machine was a Commodore Pet at school and later an Atari 800 at home. They were approachable and there was enough documentation around to be able to try most things. You shared code on cassette tape and printouts. New programs came in cheap magazines each month to be laboriously typed out only to be underwhelmed at the user experience :-) I may look back at salad days, but just do a Google search and you'll see countless sites and references to this era of computing.

Somehow I don't see Microsoft Visual Studio 200X having the same cultural impact as Microsoft BASIC did. It could do. But it doesn't.

Norman Lewis is a speaker at Etel 2007 this year and he espousing that we can introduce the idea of programming technology to children in a form factor that they are used to. The cellphone. Now the great thing is that the cellphone can be seen as the modern low-power 8bit computer of yore, cheap and accessible, but now with an Internet connection included. I had a conversation with Norman about his work getting the "Scratch" programming language onto handsets and I asked him for some pointers for this article. In the end his response was so good that i am going to paste it here.

"The talk aims to do two things: first, I want to explain why and how children are engaging with digital technology (and through this to challenge some common misconceptions, like children are naturally technologically gifted, that they are 'good at technology' etc). Second, and following on from this, I want explain why this is both positive and negative: its positive because children relate to technology not as technology but as life tools and this will be a constant source of future disruption. Their future behaviour will undermine the best laid plans by operators and technology companies. The negative side relates to the loss of confidence of adults in how they relate to both children and the technology (expressed as flattering children for their alleged technological prowess). In this context children's engagement with the technology remains trivial, fleeting and superficial. In some cases it may lead to kids wanting to 'look under the bonnet' and understand the science, physics, electronics, mathematics etc underpinning the technology. But it cannot lead to a generation of advanced techies because this is culturally anathema today.
One message, therefore is stop flattering kids and engage them in a more serious project of mastering the technology (not the latest fad. We really don't need anymore crazy frog ringtones!) My research reveals they have no loyalty to technology - merely what technology can offer in terms of immediate gratification (communication, self-expression etc). At the same time, there is huge potential, precisely because the kids are internalising the technology because of their contemporary experience of childhood. This means there are huge opportunities to embark on a journey of discovery which can result in real innovation and disruption. Some examples I will use are drawn from what kids are doing in Africa, and the collaboration I am doing with Mitch Resnick at the MIT Media Lab in developing tools that can enable the mobile phone to become a programme authoring environment for young people. I intend to use the platform to call upon anyone interested in this quest to contact me help set up a network."

He has already made me rethink some of my preconceptions about children and technology. If you can make it, come see him speak at ETel this year.

P.S If you know what a Nascom 2, VideoGenie, Superbrain, Sage and an Ohio 101 are then you can join the sad club that I am a member of. I should have played in the sun so much more as a kid. :-)

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monopole   [02.15.07 05:27 PM]

Been there, done all that.
I'm always astounded today how children can be surrounded with so many computers and have so little interest in programming, interfacing etc.

I don't think the cellphone by itself is going to introduce children to programming, simply due to its form factor. You can't type any great volume of code with a numeric keypad and a microscopic display. PDAs and smart phones have considerably better potential with regard to screen legibility and availability of real keyboards.

On the other hand, the OLPC and it's ilk has the potential to start an 8-bit revolution. Compact, tough, very functional, and cheap enough to destroy without severe ramifications, these are the true successors to the C64. I think that bubblepack computers will have as radical an impact on tech as PCs did.

The other issue is providing enough low hanging fruit to entice kids into programming. My personal preference is a MMORPG that allows and promotes "cheating" scripts, macros, hacks etc. To function in such an environment a player will have to devise scripts and the like to counter other players.

Surj   [02.15.07 05:50 PM]

Thats a great comment about MMORPG's and caused me to remember some work that you may be interested in from a researcher called Amy Bruckman. She built environments in MUD's and MOO's for teaching kids programming. They could code new objects for the world. Her work inspired aspects of my thesis to a large degree.

Tom Hoffman   [02.15.07 06:32 PM]

It would be nice if Scratch followed through on their promise from the NSF proposal on their site:

"Scratch source code will be made freely available via periodic code releases to allow collaborators to augment the core system with their own custom features and extensions."

If they've done this, I certainly can't find it.

Educational technology researchers & the foundations that fund them (in the US) have been shamefully slow to adopt free and open source technologies, and cases like this one, where promises to do so are apparently going unfulfilled, only make things worse.

Brad Fuller   [02.15.07 08:09 PM]

I believe Scratch source will be available this summer.
Scratch is built on Squeak ( and Squeak offers great ways for kids to start using the computer to learn more about the world. See the diverse projects at
There you will find projects and essays on squeak and Etoys (included on the OLPC). There are some great projects there, many created by children themselves.
To learn more about squeak, take the about page (

Tom 2D Forever   [02.16.07 01:15 AM]

To the first part of your post here, it makes you wonder if there will be such an interest in programming in the future? I suppose it's changing all the time but if it gets so complex with so many languages will it put people off?

The appeal of programming on old machines seems quite different to programming today...

Interesting post!

Sergei Shelukhin   [02.16.07 02:44 AM]

I think the reason for that is hacking and low level coding, using the system out of the box. I have recently turned 23 and I'm in Russia (so far) so I didn't hit pre-IBM-PC era, but I remember how I used lag and weird rendering algorithm in static image editor on local Electronika computers to create animations... Writing ascii-graphic based solar system model in Turbo pascal, you couldn't not jump up and down in excitement as ascii earth passed the "@" that represented your battleship on low zoom with its ascii clouds and continents.
Now you just fire up VS2005 and drag and drop stuff.
New technologies that were not "frameworked" still have this feeling, I palyed with AJAX and complex DOM before stuff like prototype.js, dojo or MS AJAX came out, I pondered writing my own framework but unfortunately didn't get down to it and then all those frameworks popped up and spoiled half the fun.
The feeling that you are doing something new, low level, clever-hackety, something that nobody else does or has done before drives this I guess, hard to get that writing yet-another-reporting-app with VS 2005 I guess.

Christian Flury   [02.16.07 04:24 AM]

I think the problem is the prevailing philosophy in software design which aims at "hiding" the application logic from the user (either because SW designer equal "non-tech" to "dumb" or because they want to impress the user with "magic").

To elaborate a bit, for me, as a school child there were two kinds of subjects: "logical" subjects that you could approach analytically (maths, Latin, etc.) and boring knowledge-focused subjects where you had to learn everything by heart (history, etc.). Unfortunately, for me computer classes fell into the latter category (they mostly focussed on using Office applications) and I hated computers. Much later, when I had to "look under the hood" out of necessity rather than interest, I suddenly realized, hey, computers can be fun, logical and easy to *understand* rather than just *manage*. I started programming and found it easier and more fun than I'd have thought. That being said, I'm still too dumb to use a lot of "intuitive" end-user applications.

In other words, because of the flawed principles of modern interface design, those who are best at, and most drawn to, USING technology aren't necessarily the ones with the most analytical minds and therefore not the ones most likely to develop a desire to logically understand what's going on behind the scenes. I also notice this in my little brother's (who just turned 18) generation.

Mark Simpkins   [02.16.07 05:27 AM]

Big Trak! my best friend at school had one of them.

It would be intersting to see if the mobile device could engage kids into programming, what I remember was the thrill of trowing simple graphics up onto a screen, writing small games or fractal explorers (myself and a couple of friends turned our school computer lab into a madelbrot factory, leaving the RM Research Machines (and the odd BBC Micro) running overnight to generate an image).

The point was that we could, even BBC basic allowed us some simple control over the graphics and it was graphics (and games) that acted as a spur to us to explore this.

Now though games are these huge productions, will this return to the mini game (via XBox live say, or the new Microsoft dev kit for XBox) actually be a trigger to getting kids back into programming?

At UCL I did an MSc in Computer Studies, after completing my BSc in Photographic Science. The course was designed as a conversion course, so there were people from Science and Arts backgrounds there to get a qualification in computing. We had to learn C++, so to start with the first things we programmed were graphics, wireframe boxes and simple lighting and movement but immediate gratification (or confusion when a vertice was in the wrong place).

From what I have seen of Squeak, it has the visual element so that will be easier to engage the kids with, the new bit is the connectivity and that is only going to work if they are allowed to build their own connectivity requirements (ie the network is not restrictive on how they connect or what they are doing). The networks will have to become open. They wont be interested in being told they cant do 'that' type of connection.


Frank Wartena   [02.19.07 01:37 AM]

Since 2002 there is a special government supported program in the Netherlands call Jet-Net (abbreviation of Youngsters and Technology Network: The goal is to increase the amount of technical students at universities over the next years by promoting technology on high schools.

Philips, the company I work for, is one of the participants in this program. We have developed a workshop for high school students in which they learn to program a Java game for their mobile phone. Every student gets a Linux LiveCD with the proper tools (SUN JDK and wireless toolkit) and in 2 class hours they extend a basic Java game (Bricks). In the end they can transfer the game to their own mobile phone using Bluetooth.

The experiences so far have been great. All students love to dive into the game and create their own levels. To our surprise the girls like it at least as much as the guys do!

Let me know if you want to know more about it or discuss oportunities to use this elsewhere in the world.


frank.wartena AT

Mark Damon Hughes   [02.20.07 10:48 AM]

The easiest way for young people to get started programming is with Python and the turtle graphics library it ships with. From there, they can move on to more advanced GUIs, like tkinter and wxPython, and there are plenty of introductory and more advanced Python books.

Greg   [02.20.07 06:36 PM]

A couple points.
1) to those who had access to the 8bit revolution, it may have seemed ubiquitous and a big deal, but to those who watched from the side-line or didn't know it was happening, it was nothing.Surely no revolution

2) the concept of standing on the shoulders applies here. Just like the 8-bit rev with keyboards and crt's improved upon the switched and led's; VS 2006 allows drag & drop combination od reusable services, aka mashups. This is the 8 bit of today. or part of it

3) Jon Udell made a similar point regarding kids & tech. They may be comfortable with it, but that doesn't mean they are better at solving problems with it. Like putting two tools together to come up with a 3rd.


Jay   [08.26.07 05:26 PM]

I used to be a high-school teacher of IT, teaching kids aged 11 to 16 about computers. I loved the Vic20 C64 era, and I tried to enthuse them with it too, but in modern terms. But actually most are not that interested, even though what you can do with a computer today is far more than you could do with my old Vic 20.

But then I remembered that I learnt programming so that I could write games because I couldn't afford to buy any and there weren't many good ones. And I learnt to hack my way into code because I wanted to cheat at the games I bought.

So I think games are the way in, it is just a problem that there are so many free games out there that kids never need to think about making their own.

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