A digital veteran’s view on modern technology and how it should change the world, not fill the Smithsonian with cat photos. Transcript of a TEDx talk given at TEDx University of St Andrews, April 26, 2015.
The topic is intended to be light-hearted but with an underlying serious message — about how technology has advanced so much, and so many opportunities exist compared to when I started out doing this stuff — but it’s totally under-used.
We could put elephants on Mars tomorrow if we wanted — but instead we Snapchat our parents if there’s no toilet roll in the bathroom.
I’ve been doing this digital stuff for years — some good, some bad. Built things and broken them. Tried things and thrown them away. Always learning and improving.
For those who like football, I was going to compare myself to Ryan Giggs — although his brand is a bit toxic for some people. Instead I’m a bit nearer to that guy — Gary Caldwell. Played for some big teams and his heart’s in the right place, but he’s got a big head and scores a lot of own goals too.
But where did it all start?
That’s me, 30 years ago almost to the day — being taught how to sew, by a similarly cynical — and formidable teacher of a different generation.
I wanted to know why computers and machines couldn’t do this. Why should we learn a craft so boring and repetitive?
History doesn’t record the torrent of noise that came my way. But Miss Campbell, if you’re still with us, you were right.
Some years later, writing a game for ZX Spectrum, I had somehow managed to squeeze most of a football manager game into 48k, but finally ran out of memory before I finished.
Being a self-taught hacker, I had copied and pasted bits of code I found in books and magazines and it all worked — but something wasn’t right. The game was utter rubbish and I had no space left to make it better.
A resident geek at school smirked as he responded to my cry for help — if only I’d learned coding from scratch, I wouldn’t have copied and pasted the same boring, repetitive procedure 130 times.
The game still exists, somewhere, in an attic.
Back in those days, the only way to learn this stuff was to head for the library and borrow some books. Or type stuff printed in a magazine. Hours on end wasted because some rogue ink looked like a semi-colon.
Nowadays good programming tips go viral in 10 minutes. The only things that went viral from these books were the germs on the pages.
No wonder they were usually laminated.
Some years later I had decided that programming wasn’t the career for me, and studied accountancy instead. We didn’t all want to be spacemen or train drivers, you know.
The hacker never left me though, and after hacking my way through a financial services package for my employer at the time — which apparently lasted more than 10 years — it was time to do this stuff full time.
But in the 15 years or so since my first attempts, nothing much had changed.
Books were still the way to go, and Amazon had started to make them cheaper and germ-free — but being an early adopter of the Internet, I soon noticed a trick.
Why spend hundreds of pounds on books, when I could spend it on phone bills instead? Why should my wife get to use the phone line when I could be online 20 hours a day?
Friends still at university didn’t see it that way though. Their 24/7 access to learning, funded by the taxpayer unlike me burning my savings, was spent playing Doom, downloading pirate software (whether they needed it or not) and watching ladies of questionable virtue.
In hindsight, I should have spent more time with them.
We all had web pages though. Like me running my new-fangled Perth Pub Guide, it wasn’t difficult to spin up some web space from Geocities and stick some nonsense on there.
Anything beyond a simple page though, and anything that you could call a career, needed proper research.
You had to learn hosting, you had to learn databases, you had to learn design and it cost good money.
But most of all, you had to learn how people were going to react, and that took precious time. Things that are almost second nature now, were a blank page back then.
I sent my first email at 11 — it took about an hour, needed equipment Frankenstein would have been proud of, and cost a fortune — but it worked.
My son sent an email, in seconds, aged 4. He didn’t mean to, and it took some explaining at work the next day, but that’s not the point.
You could have put my old football game inside the size of that message he sent, and still had plenty space for a picture of his dinner. He sent that next anyway.
He doesn’t play much with Lego anymore — unless it’s a game with Lego characters in it. But he builds much more with blocks than I did — inside Minecraft. The imagination is the same, the boundaries very different.
When I wanted to build something new in Lego, it meant saving up, waiting for a birthday or taking something else to bits. Andrew asks for a Minecraft hack and it’s a whole new start for free in a few minutes.
People coming into the Internet world we know today, have got it easy. They know today what we didn’t believe yesterday. Progress is as old as mankind but not at today’s pace.
We’ve learned that people DO judge books by their covers, or at least strangers’ star ratings of them. Everyone believes they can spot bugs in Facebook — but don’t care about the bugs they pick up, taking selfies in the toilet.
But more than that, the things kids do in their spare time, are now the beginnings of a career. Not many people sit at night thinking about law or accountancy, some dream of being train drivers. But most youngsters are in the “internet economy” now.
The days of hobby developers like me, juggling 101 things (including the cleaning) — having to risk their livelihood on doing it full time — or working in another trade until opportunity knocked — no longer happens.
And you’d think with that opportunity at the fingertips, more youngsters would have made their millions — or billions — by now. Certainly you have Zuckerberg at Facebook, Evan Spiegel at Snapchat — in their early 20s when it took off. Nick D’Aloisio sold his news app to Yahoo aged 17. But they always seem to be the exceptions.
You’d expect the Google founders to be about my age, but so are the people who founded modern wonders Uber and WhatsApp.
Someone using an app, is barely a few dollars — and a dedicated weekend — from building their own. The world of open source and online help — if you aren’t too pushy — takes that weekend to much bigger things very quickly.
I hope that kids realise the chance they have, and become masters of the craft rather than basic consumers or adopters — unlike me and my sewing.
The best advice I can give is — don’t be complacent.
Let your local pub guide become the next Yelp, OpenTable, TripAdvisor. Your wee football site advertised takeaways and taxis to pay for the hosting — don’t just assume Uber and Just-Eat will take it that step further.
Because he pursued it, “Dyson” is almost as common as “Hoover” to describe a vacuum cleaner.
But with all this technology at my hands, all the experience of the Internet economy, the digital world we live in today — what’s my startup?
I run a blog with bad jokes made from photos of pies. It’s very good by the way, thepienation.com. Investors always welcome.
This is the script of a TEDx talk video, published at www.youtube.com on June 18, 2015.