The Silicon Factor : Episode 3

And What of the Future?

(Note. This is a draft of my initial thoughts, I may come back and edit this at some point)

Just this week (on 27 June), the BBC’s entire Computer Literacy Project Archive was made available to the public, containing pretty much every TV show associated with it, and all of the computer software used within the shows. At the launch event, there was an apperance by the wonderful Fred Harris, a face burned into the minds of any Briritsh kid of the 1970s and 80s through appearances on Play School, and as well as some of these computing shows, the front man for several education, maths and literacy shows on British TV in that era. And he was a cast member of The Burkiss Way, a raio 4 comedy show that provided an outlet for several very talented writers and has become something of a cult favourite over the years.

But, marvellous as Fred is, he’s not what I want to write about. What I do want to write about is episode 3 of The Silicon Factor, first broadcast in 1980. It is one of the first shows in the archive dealing with the incipient Information Age (though James Burke’s Connections came at it too, albeit from a slightly different perspective). It was presented by another much-missed media figure, Bernard Falk, with the final episode looking at what the rise of the computer meant for all of us.

At this point in time, Britain was still a player in computer hardware, with companies like ICL in the international marketplace. It’a also at around this time that Clive Sinclair is abou to launch his first truly mass-market home computer, the ZX80.

Not just that, but the Internet is barely mentioned. And this is only right, because at this point, it doesn’t really properly exist yet. At the time of this being shown, even things like the DNS protocol were another two years away, and the ARPANet (as was), was still mostly the preserve of the ilitary and academic sectors. They mention services like Prestel, and even “electronic mail”, but the networking component of the coming years is not even really considered. But one has to remember, at this point, Tim Berners-Lee (who was about to begin working at CERN when this was first shown) and Robert Cailliau were about a decade away from producing the first working version of the World Wide Web. What is also interesting is that Prestel was still eseentially a read-only idea. The vision was very much of data still being centralised in the hands of corporations, and users simply consuming it.

One of the overarching themes is the effect on employment. The clips of the Washington DC Metro system and its automated ticketing and driving systems seem somehow quaint now, as so much ticketing today is done this way, and in London, automated transport systems like DLR have been in place for a significant time. But arguments over staffing levels are still relevant, especially when we consider recent rail strikes in the UK related to staff levels and safety. There have certainly been effects in the job market. Lots of work that used to be done by people simply isn’t any more. And while the visions of ”5 million” unemployed that were being around haven’t seemingly come to pass, it’s probably instructive to consider that the modern definition of “employed” is: a person who does paid work for 1 hour a week or more. While we may not have 5 million out of work in the way they considered then, there are certainly a huge number of people who are not technically speaking unemployed, but might certainly be called under-employed. But then, at the same time, we mut also ask whether they all need to be. Some clearly do, because levels of poverty (especially since the events of 2008) are rising here, but ohers have less need. and they are not the same population. This will continue, especially as moves into automating more transport, for example, are already afoot. Within a generation or so, there may be many fewer jobs in driving, for example. What that may mean is that driving for a living becomes a more specialist and niche job, for those who want the service, while mass transport moves towards automation. End result: fewer human drivers, but the ones who do may end up earning more for more skilled work.

The fact remains: many of the old jobs have gone, but they have been replaced by others. In some cases, many of these jobs have arisen to support the new infrastructures and technology that supplanted the old. Thirty years ago there were (to think of just two) no web developers, fewer network engineers; those network people that did exist had very different skills from those doing the job now. But that has definitely cemented one of the other concerns that played out here: the digital divide.

More and more people have to use technology in their work, but the way they do so is creating a sharp divide within society, and the issue of poverty and privilege is playing a part in it. And part of that problem comes about because of education. Even then there were concerns that the education system was not geared up to deliver the type of pepole who would be able to cope in the emerging society, and these concerns are still being voiced today. We are still having the dsicussions about students not being prepared to be critical or creative enough, though there are certainly discussions going on about that too. Educationalists like the esitmable Sir Ken Robinson have been banging this drum for some time, and not without good cause. While the discussion has been very much skewed towards science and technology, these are not the only parts of an education that will produce the citizens of tomorrow. Perhaps one problem is that the framing of mass education has been in predominatly economic terms, made even worse by an increasingly individualistic and neo-liberal environment since that episode aired. The nature of education is a problem in a society where the nature of employment is going change, and is still changing.

If anything, the pace of change that was talked about by this programme was understated. The showing of the experimental Philips laserdiscs (an anachronism now, especially as the phone I currently have has over 80 times more RAM as the capacity of the disc Falk is shown holding) Within the last two decades alone we have seen a change in our technology and society almost as profound as the introduction of the printing press by Gutenburg. The social part of the Information Age couldn’t even begin to be guessed at here, so it wasn’t. Increasing numbers of us live in a world of always-on, instant mass communication, access to huge amounts of data, and the epectation of instant delivery of almost anything we may want digitally (as just a small example, as I was looking for a video clip of James Burke earlier, I was able to go to and buy the full 10 episode collection on DVD, and have it delivered to me by tomorrow, simply because I wanted to. Now we take the ability to do that almost for granted).