Last weekend I co-hosted Horizons, a weekend-long celebration of the ZX Spectrum’s 30th birthday, which took place at the BFI in London. It was put on by online arts/digital magazine Imperica in collaboration with Sci-Fi London. I’ve known Imperica’s founder Paul for a few years – in fact, he appointed me his ‘editor at large’ recently – and although I’ve been quite a crap editor so far due to busy-ness, I jumped at the chance to work with him on this. Retro-tech events are always fun, hosting with Paul would be particularly enjoyable, and it presented a great opportunity to deploy a particular slice of my tech/artist network and get some of those incredible people and their work in front of a new audience. So we did it…
…and it was even more fun than I think either of us expected. There are a number of excellent and comprehensive write-ups that I won’t duplicate here, but from my point of view the best thing was seeing all those extraordinary people in the same room at the same time. Whether you’ve tried to retro-engineer a Spectrum with breadboards, dedicated years to your collection of obsolete hardware, or were shaped by a childhood wrestling with a beloved computer that never quite worked, one way or another, you’ve spent a lot of time on your own. If not physically, then intellectually.
You can share a lot of what you do, but you can’t share why you do it. You can’t make people get it, and if what you do is a bit unusual, a lot of people will never understand your motivation. I’m afraid I speak from experience, as anyone who’s seen my film location map, or my magazine All The Rage, or really, let’s face it, most of my other projects will know. So what I love about these events is that you have a room full of people who are used to being in rooms where they can’t communicate their passion, and for once they don’t need to, because everyone else in there gets it.
I noticed a common thread through everyone’s stories of early computing experience, and before I go on, I have to say I fully accept this might be a reflection of my own approach to life rather than a meaningful general insight! Anyway, what I noticed was this: all the speakers talked about how much they loved making their computers work for them at home, growing up. Many of them didn’t get on well at school, but at home they could make stuff happen: learning computing was an alternative to learning things at school.
Now, perhaps teaching was worse in those days. Or maybe there was a greater distinction between school and home in a time when parents were a little bit afraid of teachers rather than the other way around. Maybe today there’s no equivalent to that phenomenon, because home and school are now more merged, and somehow we learn however we’re taught, structures don’t matter so much, and it doesn’t matter how people find things out.
The reason it resonated with me is because, well partly because (of course!) I used to mess about on these machines in the 80s, like most other kids. I grew up with a screaming cassette-loading Acorn Electron plugged into a black and white telly that gave me electric shocks. We bought platform and maze games like Boxer and Chuckie Egg and the unexpectedly terrifying Repton 2 on tapes from the market. But my favourites didn’t have pictures at all – the witty and difficult text adventures Philosopher’s Quest and Sphinx Adventure amused me for hours and were little pieces of theatre – they even came with their own hint book! And while I also hammered the word processor View with story-writing and ascii art efforts through the mid-80s, the real eye-opener was finding a way of writing stories that didn’t involve the word processor. You could write stories that people could interact with – you just needed a minuscule amount of code. I’ve written variably interactive stories since, as you may know, but that’s not the main point of this scenic diversion. All of this excitement of making has for me always always begun with the idea of doing things you’re not supposed to.
By which I mean it’s about finding stimulation in the challenge of living your life slightly askance to instruction. For me, this is the most exciting way into anything – it is where my motivation for everything comes from. The moment I seem to be asked to do something one way, an alternative will present itself as more appealing. It’s an infuriatingly contrary way to live, but it’s not conscious. Nor is it direct, efficient, or very rational, and I’m quite sure it’s not how everyone works.
There is a tremendous movement towards teaching children programming at the moment, and I think that’s right, and will help with recruiting efficient engineering staff, because you can teach kids to learn things, that’s for sure. You can definitely teach girls to learn things. I know I say this kind of thing a lot, but in my experience it’s not in the appeasing of an instructor but in the playing in the absence of any instruction that the best accidents and askance experiments take place, and the best new ideas are sparked. The way to make experimentation happen might be something else, something that can take place alongside the support of schools, but which – by definition – we can’t prescribe ourselves action points for. It might be more about the excitement we generate in the background as role models to young people, more to do with giving them space to find their own routes and motivations. It would be counter-intuitive to teach the askance approach, but it would be a terrible shame if we prevented it. If we want real experimentation I suspect we don’t need to worry so much about making computing seem usual, but we do need to start allowing our kids to be a bit unusual.