Great myths about the computer

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
It arrived in three boxes: one for the monitor, one for the printer and the third for everything else. Having cleared my faithful Amstrad away, I set the new machine up. My last computer was a creaky old mid-eighties design, the sort of device that would be on the Hovis advert should their marketing folk ever choose an information technology theme. Aye, it were an 'ard life before we 'ad graphical user interfaces. When I were a lad you 'ad to remember strings of commands like copy a:\letters\personal\gran b: and a mouse were a little furry animal . . .

Now I've adopted the (almost) latest technology with Pentium Plus power, gigabyte hard drives, CD-Roms and a printer that talks back. All of this is, of course, "for the kids". The Amstrad would have continued to churn out TES Scotland columns and articles for obscure classic car magazines but that is about all. You might as well have tried to shove a Triumph Herald hub-cap into its drive slot as an encyclopaedia CD.

Until multimedia products came on the scene there were a few situations where stalwart BBC Micros had a role to play in interfacing and an avalanche of so-called educational programmes, many of which had only novelty value. (Perhaps, though, we should not underestimate novelty value.) The rest of the time computers were most useful in subjects where people had to be taught how to use computers.

Now to the great myth about computers, the one about them making life easier. When I started teaching (he's gone into Hovis mode again, readers), exams were made up by handwriting questions on a piece of foolscap with indications as to how much space should be left for diagrams. This was sent up to the school office, usually three months in advance, where it would be typed on to Gestetner skin by a secretary. The skins then came back to the originator of the paper, who would add appropriate illustrations using a stylus.

Other worksheets were done on the wonderful Banda spirit duplicator. All humanity takes comfort in ritual and, like wet shaving, the Banda offered a certain therapy in the familiarity of the actions that had to be performed each time it was used. Or maybe it was the fumes.

The rot started when someone discovered that a dot-matrix printer with its ribbon removed could cut skins. Suddenly, those of us in the IT vanguard were typing up our own worksheets and exam papers, slowly, with two fingers and with near till-roll quality. But we were inspired. Driven by visions of a massive disc bank of questions that we could cut and paste from in future years, we forged ahead, pausing only to leave space for the diagrams.

Even that got the boot when the Apple Mac beamed down. If there was one thing better than a massive bank of questions without diagrams it had to be a massive bank of questions with diagrams. Defeat, for the diehard desktop publisher, is having to reach for the scissors and Pritt-Stick.

Thus, rather than making life easier, computers merely make it possible to do all sorts of things you would have left to somebody else or not bothered about at all. For me the machines were put in their place at an early stage in my career after I had been demonstrating fancy programming tricks with a ZX Spectrum. One boy looked from the keyboard to the fancy screen display to me and said, his voice heavy with sincerity: "Aye, but can ye no' ask it somethin'?"

Gregor Steele wrote this on a laptop and transferred it through a 1,200-baud serial link using X modem and a . . . aw shut up.

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