Saturday 2 June 2012

Raspberry Pi: A computer that doesn't matter (a response to Donald Clark)

In a recent post, Donald Clark has laid into Raspberry Pi (see He claims that the mission to get kids programming with the Pi is ill-conceived pedagogically, aesthetically, organisationally and commercially. On these points of course, he may be right. But then again, despite the amateurish website and production delays, there's still quite a buzz around the Pi. Maybe it's nostalgia... but maybe it's because it's CHEAP.

Does the cost matter? In short, I think it does. A lot. The reasons have to do with what we think a computer is in the first place, and in particular in how we have grown up thinking about computers and how manufacturers have affected our thinking.

The nostalgia around the Pi is related to how we think about computers today, and certainly I feel a tinge of nostalgia when looking at the Pi. I was a proud owner of a ZX Spectrum at age 13 in 1982. I vividly remember my dad ordering it over the phone (and having to extend the credit limit on his "Access card" in order to do it - it was a serious moment!), and how I then waited... and waited... and waited for the thing to arrive. Weeks went by. No news. A couple of apology letters. But eventually it did arrive. And, I remember the smell on opening the box, and the excitement of plugging it in.

But what I was subject to at that early age was the impact of (albeit amateurish) commercialism in combination with technology. For me, Sinclair was just magic. Everything they did was magic... and although it was cheap enough to be affordable, it wasn't that cheap. The devices had to be treated with respect... (I managed to blow mine up 3 times, although I don't think it was my fault - I'm sure Manic Miner had something to do with it!).

But the technology+commercialism continued as I migrated first to the Commodore 64, then to Apple and finally to Microsoft. Each time, the technology was expensive, the devices treasured (although much abused!)

Donald Clark is right to stick his Pi in a draw if he doesn't like it. Because it doesn't really matter what he does with it. But that's the point. The not-caring and creative application go hand-in-hand. Personally, I agree with Clark that emphasis on Scratch and programming is unlikely to work. So a disappointed kid thinks "what the hell" and swaps his Pi for a Transformer. It doesn't matter. But this is a computer that doesn't matter - and that's new.

Not mattering becomes interesting when the Pi is freed of the necessity to be tethered to screens and power sockets. 4 AA batteries will do the job, and when the magic of portability for £20 becomes a reality and interesting things start to happen. I reckon the spy bug will be a popular application - after all, it would take some batteries and a cheap microphone or webcam in one of those USB sockets, and away you go (but careful you don't get arrested!). On a similar theme, environmental monitoring would also become very easy and very cheap.

But how about throwing in wireless network connectivity, and then things start to get even more fun. (This, incidentally, is why I've been so impressed with the JeeNode, which at £15 is the same price but is wireless-ready, although only a micro-controller). The integration of physical control with online engagement is something that is only just starting to be explored through the use of mobile apps, but iPads are expensive. Throw a few Pis around (or should that be Pies?), don't worry about them... some of them will work.

But beyond the idea of disposable technology, these kind of examples demonstrate what computers increasingly are to us. My ZX Spectrum was a data-processing machine. I was excited about data processing because that's what all the computers I saw on the TV did (I always remember the giant computer tapes in the 6 Million Dollar Man). My programs for the ZX Spectrum were about data processing (in a very simple way).

Today, the emphasis on user interaction, and the impact of game-like interfaces presents us with a different paradigm for thinking about computers. They are state-machines (of course, they always were state machines, but it wasn't visually apparent). We click a button, the state of the machine changes, giving us new options. In social software, we click a button, and the state of other peoples' machines changes, and the state of the other peoples' minds changes (didn't that feel like a remarkable thing?!). Today, computers are tools for manipulating the informational constraints that we all live with: we are all affected by the knowledge we each have of the world, and the computer allows us to continually modify our knowledge and make decisions accordingly.

iPads are very expensive state machines. Raspberry Pi is a very cheap state machine. With either software or hardware, both can do the same job of manipulating informational constraints. But, apart from its disposability, I think the Pi has other advantages over the iPads, phones and tablets. That is because it allows for hardware innovation as well as software. Now, I said that computers manipulate informational constraints. But we all still live with material constraints too - not just because we get tired or hungry, but because there's something shiny that we haven't seen before, or some peculiar event that occurs when we do something with an "ordinary" object. With a tablet and a screen, we would expect something unusual to happen (although nothing particularly remarkable apart from the screen changing!). But a sensor on a Pi triggering a robot somewhere? It is in this way that both the material and the informational aspects of technology can be exploited.

This is why I think Clark is wrong. The material aspect of technology has been tightly controlled by manufacturers since the beginning of computing. The Pi is the beginning of the end of that control. And with the flexibility to manipulate these complex state machines, and play with their physical form, the focus needs to be on looking forwards rather than back. Computers have given us an environment of too much information, which we are barely able to control, and which buffets us around in a whirlwind of Facebook posts, emails and tweets. The problem we have is we don't know what it all means; we don't know what matters; we cannot decide on what sort of a world we want to live in.

Maybe Raspberry Pi isn't the knight in shining armour, but I do think it is the beginning of something new. Just as the possibility was presented for us to do cool things with our ZX Spectrums in 1982, we now have a possibility for coming to terms with the information-rich world of the 21st century by care-free experimentation with the technologies which are largely to blame for the deep economic and social problems we now have.


Admin said...

So... I get home after cooking pizza and read your blog on my ipad... checked my emails and got order confirmation (number 58228!) for my Raspberry Pi then swapped a few words with a friend on Facebook and made a joke about the Queen and Steve Austin.

I remember looking lovingly at adverts for the ZX80... couldn't afford it... or the 81 later :( didn't stop me writing games... I could type them in and run them when a friend of my mums let me use his.

The Pi seems to have got the marketing right, shame they didn't expect the response. I'd forgotten I'd ordered it, but paid up and should be tearing at the wrapper soon (6weeks?). But surely this is a good thing, getting so excited about something cheap and throwaway. It will probably end up in my drawer (not draw, surely).

Within days of the launch I saw a case design on the Blender website. Here. Maybe a lot of the points DC made were right, but after watching Punk Britannia last night I wonder...

Unknown said...

I just ordered mine too. The order link is available through but of course you'll still need to wait for stock stock to arrive in the US. My order number is in the 600,000's. Hopefully that's not the number of orders ahead of me for this thing.