Talking to my father recently, we spoke about how much things have changed in his lifetime. We talked in particular about his schooling and how everything was based on the three Rs – Reading wRiting and aRithmetic. In those days the educational system was doing what it was intended to do – to churn out employees for the type of jobs that existed at the time.
It is difficult today for people in their twenties and thirties to imagine what the world was like at that time – for starters, there was no computerisation. As a result, every small and medium sized business had to issue their receipts, invoices, delivery dockets, monthly statements, payroll slips, trade orders, to mention nothing about back office aged debt lists, monthly accounts, balance sheets and bank reconciliations, all largely handwritten!
Although technical advances had arrived in industrial production, the administration side was still doing business much the same way as in Dickens’ time – with pen and paper, and this required an army of clerical staff, not just in industry, but in retail and in the civil service as well. This was the market that a lot of school leavers went into and they were pretty well equipped with the required skills for the job.
This situation continued through the sixties and also the seventies. Electric (as opposed to electronic) machines made some of the processes easier, but business still remained a mainly manual operation with the number of clerical staff often equalling the sales staff in a company! In the late seventies, business computers had appeared and were developed to run business and accounting programs, but their inroads into the market was slow as they were expensive, and needed an expensive expert to program and run them and they were unreliable.
But in the early eighties something happened that was to have repercussions that are felt to this day. In early 1982 a company called Microsoft released an operating system called ms-dos, specifically targeted to cater for the ‘home computers’ that were starting to appear and were becoming popular. In addition to the operating system, they released a front-end system (Windows 3.1) that appeared on screen as a window with icons, coupled with a ‘mouse’ they developed which moved a cursor around the screen and could click the icons to access the various programs, taking the mystique out of the process and making it totally user-friendly.
To say it was a game changer is an understatement! By the early nineties, personal computers, or PCs as they subsequently became known swept the board. Not only did homes have them, small businesses bought them by the million and used them for clerical and accounting purposes, in the process forcing an awful lot of people out of work via redundancy or, for those companies who resisted the change, via company closures.
It was a period of profound change, the largest change since the Industrial Revolution, which was the first time that man had built and harnessed machines to replace labour, this time it was the Electronic Revolution, but it was just as profound.
During this explosion of technology, in the middle nineties, another game changer arrived on the scene. Since the seventies, computer experts had been developing ‘packet technology’, which allowed the transfer of data between computers over a data link. In 1994 Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web consortium and released a functioning Web editor on an unsuspecting world. It was to become as big a communications revolution for the man in the street as the Windows 3.1 had been to computer technology, and again its effects are felt even today.
The World-Wide-Web or www. as it became known, initially ran slowly and erratically on telephone lines, but literally everyone recognised its potential – businesses, politicians and individuals flocked to it in their millions, and by the millennium, helped by dedicated data lines and faster computers, was surging through the world in a truly exponential growth spurt that has not ceased to this day.
Maybe Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs dreaming in their bathtubs in those heady days in the eighties, dreamed of something like the World Wide Web, something that created an almost insatiable desire for their products, for better, quicker, less expensive computing power, but surely even they could not have dreamed of the world as it is today. Those two technologies, computer power and the World Wide Web, changed the face of the world that we live in today. In two decades – from 1980 to 2000, the world had changed utterly and irrevocably – someone from 1980 dropped into the world today would find it difficult to cope with the changes – and I haven’t even touched on mobile phones!
I realise I am a long way from the title of this piece, but bear with me a little. The children of the 50s were educated to prepare them for the marketplace that faced them, and so presumably the children of the present are educated likewise? Today’s schooling has changed a lot since my father’s time and I know that there is less emphasis on the rigid learning of past times and more emphasis on the development of the individuals personal development to prepare them for a very varied world that they will face. I also know that beautiful handwriting and amazing mental arithmetic skills are not as prized as they once were and presumably this is a reflection of the fact that not a lot of writing is done in these days of iPads and tablets of all sorts to store our every thought and word and deed. Even schooling is being delivered by eLearning technology.
So, if there has been a shift in emphasis in the education of our children already – will this change accelerate as technology progresses at an ever-increasing rate? Today, it is perfectly feasible to go through life without ever having to lift a pen and a piece of paper. Appointments are stored in a phone or tab, messages sent electronically (even to and from our six year olds!), recipes are looked up and bookmarked on the web, money paid and moved electronically, even the humble shopping list is now in a phone or a tab.
In the morning, walk out of the house, start the car and tell it what radio station to put on, what volume, what temperature the ac is to be at, and tell the satnav where you want to go. In work, communication is by email, notes are filed electronically, and even the holiday calendar is there on your desktop to keep you up to date on your holidays. You go to the doctor, and when he finishes, he appends a voice note of your visit to your electronic file, and if medicines are required an email goes to your pharmacy.
So we are already in a paperless, writing less world – but we still need to be able to read – right?
Scientists in Europe have just developed a computer chip that mimics the human brain, complete with neurons and synaptic connections – so it works just like the brain. The exciting part is that they have grown the functioning parts – that means that cheap nano computer chips of immense power will be available in the future which will revolutionise the world we live in. The limitations of mobile and tab technology will become a thing of the past with cloud computing being used as a huge data bank to store even the most mundane information. Is the next big game changer just around the corner? Machines that can read, write and think for us?
So, what do we read now? Newspapers and magazines are dropping in circulation and becoming online publications and even they are under pressure from live news visual broadcasts. Operating manuals for electronic equipment are no longer supplied – videos demonstrate setup and faultfinding procedures, and even mundane appliances like washing machines are going the same way. Road signs – research has shown that roadside beacons will transmit information before each junction, but maybe even this will be obsolete with improvements in Satnavs. Even the humble can of beans will no longer have instructions for opening and cooking, there will be a Neocode to be read on your phone and the instruction video is there for you. Yes, some of this seems fanciful, but is it really too much of a stretch of the imagination to see a time when reading and writing become obsolete? If you told someone in 1980 that in 25 years (a generation) all the recorded music on the planet would be available on a device smaller than a cigarette packet, and that on this device you could also call any telephone number on the planet, would he have believed you?
There is no doubt that technological change will continue at a furious pace and the requirement to read and write will diminish. Schooling will adapt to the demands of the workplace up to a point where we will be asking – not if – but when we will stop teaching our children to read and write.
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