In 2012, the first Raspberry Pi was released. For those who haven’t encountered one, the Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized computer, which you can plug into a monitor or a screen, attach a mouse and keyboard. Originally invented in the UK, it is designed as a learning tool for young people to learn how to program (not exclusively, though; you can use it for lots of other things. Someone’s turned one into a retro-gaming console, and someone else has turned one into an FM transmitter). It’s cheap (the top end ones are about £35) and very portable, though you do need several peripherals to get it working.
This is where it’s important not to go all dystopian or utopian. It’s great that this bit of tech is cheap and handy to use, but I’m not going to say that this device will end social inequality, because plenty of young people are worried about getting basic Maths and English under their belts before they even think about tinkering with a bit of kit like this. And the causes of technological inequalities aren’t restricted to cost, and not really anything to do with access to a computer anymore; most households at least have one, even if it’s shared. The difficulty is a much more complex one. For a start, how does a young person get inspired to program? Back in the 80s, computers were pretty basic; someone at home could learn how to program one. Now they are so complex and the training to use it (apparently) so advanced that working with technology has become a bit of a rareified activity. So rareified that I wouldn’t be surprised if the very idea of taking the technology apart might be suppressed as a result; the interior workings of mobile phones and computers can remain something of a mystery to many. So this inspiration is a big part of the questions that surround technological inequality. Who has access to role models to inspire them to program? Who lives in areas that might be covered by outreach programmes that promote inexpensive pieces of technology that can be used independently? I’d guess that cities are much more likely to have vibrant creative programmes because that’s where the main markets are for organisations to promote and sell their products. But once you get to rural areas and small towns, challenges multiply – self-stereotyping according to gender, for example, and lower participation of women in STEM subjects. The image of programmers mostly as white middle-class men is hard to get away from.
I will, however, come down on one side of the fence and say that it’s probably a good thing that young people can have access to something like this, so that their interaction with technology isn’t purely unidirectional – so that they don’t simply consume, and instead have the option to participate in creating (Raspberry Pi runs competitions and challenges for young people to stretch their programming wings). I think it’s good, too, that young people can envision themselves as programmers, so that the idea of programming isn’t a halcyon state of post-graduate career choice, but down-to-earth – something achievable. Even if not all young people are exposed to it yet, at least the age barrier is starting to be broken down.
I’m going to get one. I’ll tell you what I think when I’ve played with it, but I’ll tell you this for free: it runs an operating system called “Raspbian”, which apart from being a wonderfully geeky name, is a Linux-based OS. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a Linux nut – not because I have mad programming skillz (I don’t), but because it’s open source, incredibly stable for the most part, and I find Apple’s user interfaces to be difficult and restrictive. I also grew up slightly after the Commodore 64 and similar machines were available to tinker with and self-teach programming, so I feel I’m of a generation that missed out on the opportunity.