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Walking across the phosphor

I vividly remember the first time I moved a sprite across the glowing phosphors of the cathode ray tube that was, at the time, the sole illumination for the room. I remember the first assembly program I wrote, and—if I close my eyes—I could, maybe, possibly, still flip the physical switches on the console panel of a PDP-11 to enter the boot code to kick off loading the operating system from tape. These were life changing moments, and I would not be sitting here except that they existed. But try to replicate these moments today, the same feelings, and you run into problems.

Anything beginners do with a modern computer is almost inevitably abstracted away from how it works. Reaching deep down into the bottom of the machine, making it do what you want, is harder. Much harder. The jump from the beginning, to building something that looks and feels like something a professional could have built, so much larger. Even if you do manage the jump, the tools you use to built it assume so much — windows, layout, graphics — that you’re building on things that people have built, on top of other things, that stretch back into the era where people wrote their first assembly program.

Generation Z don’t look at computers the way my generation looked at computers, they don’t see what I see when you look at the glowing screen. They don’t see a box that can be manipulated, they see a way to communicate. A computer without an internet connection is just a brick. Changing that view point would be interesting, but I’m just not sure that it’s possible with the computers that still look like computers any more.

I’m not the first to think about this, or to think that there is a problem, and an industry, a movement even, has arisen around building and solving this problem.

For myself, I think you have to pare away the fat, and get back to what computers were, rather than what they are, before you can make headway. You can see the same light in the eyes of people learning physical computing as I had back in the day. When someone makes an LED blink on and off for the very first time, they share the look that was in my own face when I made my first space invader crab walk across the phosphor.

Inevitably, inexorably, computing is changing. What excited me about computers when I was young was what was new about them. That we could build a world inside them. That’s been done. We built the internet, and now it would be impossible to live without.

With the diffusion of computing out in the environment that we see today, with the ability to build physical computing that not only monitors by can affect the world around us, perhaps we should look for new levers. We should look, not at my generation’s experience, but at what computers can do now, today, that they couldn’t do yesterday. That is where the interesting, life changing, moments for today’s young folk will lie.