Written by David Tebbutt, Personal Computer World 11/80 - scanned

COMPUTER TOWN UK!

Our future survival as a nation will depend on widespread computer literacy. In what is probably the most significant article ever published in PCW, Peter Rodwell and David Tebbutt explain how you can play a major part in taking computers to people.

The Revolution has happened. Like it or not, we're now committed to the technological bandwagon and there's no easy way to get off. There's been a lot of talk recently about what may happen to our society as a result of adopting the latest advances in technology, computers in particular. Different theories abound and, while they all seem to differ in their conclusions, they all agree that the changes to our society, whatever these may be, will be big ones.

We're not going to discuss the different theories here, because we have something much more important to talk about, something in which you personally can become directly involved, something we feel is of urgent importance.

Whether the introduction of microprocessor technology causes massive unemployment or whether it will require ultra-large-scale retraining, there's potential trouble ahead - the probability of widespread social unrest, to put it mildly.

Yet these changes are inevitable. It's too late now for us to forget about technology, to hide our heads in the bushy by-products of a dreamy agrarian economy, unless we want to go back to the Stone Age.

This is particularly ironic when we consider that it was this country, through the Industrial Revolution, which started the rest of the world on the technology bandwagon. Now the rest of the world, or at least the

`developed' parts of it, is well ahead of us and we'll have our work cut out to catch up, a difficult enough task without having to cope with social disorder as well.

For example, the Japanese are flooding our markets with good quality, low cost products - the result of their investment in automation. This is just one illustration of how we are allowing ourselves to become uncompetitive. These days we must compete or find unique products in order to survive.

Nobody likes change, especially when the new order is something unknown and unpredictable. Fear of the unknown is the greatest barrier to change and it can only be overcome by making the unknown into the familiar. As a country, we're remarkably ill informed about modern technology; worse, many people are either hostile or utterly apathetic towards it, especially towards computers.

As a matter of interest, we've made large social changes in the past - from a nomadic to an agricultural society and from an agricultural to an industrial society. We're going to change again - very soon - so we'd better get used to the idea and prepare for it.

Computers in this country have a poor public image. We all know the myths and misconceptions: that you need to be an Einstein to even touch a computer; that computers are `cleverer' than people; that soon computers will be running the world. We've all heard the horror stories about pensioners receiving 1 million gas bills or the apparently Byzantine cock-ups perpetrated by the DVLC computer at Swansea. There's little point in trying to explain away these phenomena, or in trying to differentiate between mainframes, minis, microcomputers and microprocessors. Even the control chip in a washing machine is a computer, but to the layman, they're all the same and they're `nasty'.

If that's what it's like now, what's going to happen when we're surrounded by `computers', albeit in near-invisible micro form? We believe that, unless something is done on a very wide scale to introduce the public to some basic truisms of computers, this country is in for a rough time.

We're concerned not only with spreading the microword among the adult population, however, but to children as well. Currently, computer education in this country is a dismal mess. Some schools are making brave pioneering efforts against quite amazing odds and even a few Local Education Authorities are waking up to the subject but it's all pitifully little compared to what needs to be done.

There are two problems: shortage of money, and lack of centralised decision-making. Neither of these are likely to change in the near future as they depend, firstly, on national and international economic conditions and secondly, on a deeply ingrained system which has evolved over a long time period. We're not in the fortunate position of the French, for example, where the decision has been taken by central government that every school shall have a microcomputer, and that that particular make will be used throughout the country.

The young are important because they're the ones who'll have to live and work in the new technology based society which will evolve before long. They must have a good grounding in technology to enable them to become useful citizens with a real contribution to make to the country. Let's face it, they're going to be our leaders one day. The very least we should do is to prepare them for the world they're going to live in. Among other things, they'll be able to help create the new industry that this country requires, one based on brain power instead of on material products. We lead the world in software development and we'll have to work hard to keep that lead.

So, if there's no money in the kitty, a lack of a suitable, formalised central educational organisation, and a largely apathetic or hostile public, what can be done to overcome the problems we have described? The answer, we're convinced, can only be a voluntary organisation, manned by computer enthusiasts, who are prepared to spend a little time spreading computer literacy within their own communities. We're setting up this organisation and it's called ComputerTown UK!

HOW

CTUK! will work by `subversion', or, rather, creative anarchy. One of its main obstacles is public apathy. Go to Hyde Park Corner, stand on your soapbox, and see how many people fall asleep as you deliver your lecture on ``The True Nature of Computers and their Role in Society''; the adult population just isn't very interested.

But children are, and ComputerTown UK! is all about children.

Children are free from the hang-ups which we adults carry around in our heads. Sit a child in front of a computer and s/he immediately uses it, relates to it, plays with it, laughs and cries over it, learns from it. When, and if, an adult layman approaches a computer, it's with an air of suspicion, hostility and often fear. Children represent the weak point in society's anti-technology mental block and CTUK! is designed to take advantage of this.

It works like this: Microcomputers are made available free of charge to any child who wants to come along and do something with them. At first nearly all the children will need some minimal introduction to the computes (how to switch them on, how to load a program from a cassette, that sort of thing) but they'll catch on very quickly. Some of the kids will learn more quickly than others and these will be encouraged to act as instructors for the slower learners.

The children become well and truly hooked, and they then go home or to school and start baffling their parents or teachers with all this computer enthusiasm. Parents and teachers may at first dismiss it as some childish fantasy or a passing craze, but eventually many of them will want to find out what's happening for themselves so they, too, come along to the CTUK! centre.

Instead of being given a formal course or lecture on computers, the adults find themselves sitting in front of a machine, being given the same introductory talk (probably by a child) and being encouraged to learn for themselves with direct hands-on experience. Later, if there's sufficient demand from adults, some courses can be arranged for them to explain not only the more advanced aspects of programming, but to discuss some of the wider implications of microcomputer technology. If there's sufficient demand from adults, there might even be a whip-round at the end of each class to boost the centre's kitty. Just as the kids will have spread the word among their school friends, so the adults will talk to their adult friends, thus spreading the word about CTUK! and spreading computer literacy within the community.

It's important to realise that the aim of spreading computer literacy is certainly not to turn the whole population into programmers but to spread awareness.

Children take to programming very quickly, as do many adults once they've overcome their hang-ups, which isn't easy for many. So a certain proportion of both kids and adults will become quite proficient programmers and will probably want to buy their own machines to play with at home.

Likewise, there'll always be a proportion who never grasp the fundamentals of programming but who derive enormous satisfaction from playing packaged games or using teaching programs. And there'll always be a few from both age groups who will never visit the centre at all.

This is why we describe CTUK! as a subversive organisation. We're bringing computer awareness to the community at `grass roots' level, something almost heretical by traditional computer industry and teaching standards. And, even more heretically, we're doing it with the emphasis on fun, because we feel that people should know for themselves that computers can be fun.

IN THE STATES

Just in case you're thinking that all this theory is rather fanciful, let's look at the States, where ComputerTown USA! is alive and well in Menlo Park, California. Over a year ago Bob Albrecht and Ramon Zamora took their personal computers into local places such as pizza parlours and bookshops and simply made them available to anyone who was interested. Soon, so many were interested that they had to set up a permanent location in their local library where parents could bring their children (and children could bring their parents!) and get to know about computers. Within weeks hundreds of children had joined in. One-hour briefings on the basics of using computers were held; each child completing the briefing received a ``My computer likes me'' badge and certificate and was then allowed to explore the possibilities of computing.

Throughout, the emphasis of CTUSA! is on self-help. Librarians are encouraged not to help kids solve their problems and the kids are told to get other kids to help them.

CTUSA! has broadened its activities considerably from just introducing' kids to computers. Adults, too, can enrol for classes, at which the teachers are often children who are paid for their work out of the proceeds from the classes. There's a Rent-a-Computer scheme which allows you to hire a computer to use in your own home for a week and there's even a Rent-a-Kid programme under which you can hire a ``certified'' kid to come to your home and teach you about your computer.

So far over a thousand children and adults have received their grounding in computer literacy from the Menlo Park ComputerTown USA! and the group is constantly expanding its activities.

HOW CTUK! WORKS

ComputerTown UK! is a strictly non-profit organisation (full charity status will be applied for). `Organisation' is perhaps the wrong word, for we're determined not to let it become a formal, rigidly-structured outfit. The emphasis is on learning and fun and, while we may have to put up with certain formalities to satisfy the Charity Commissioners, these will be kept to the absolute minimum.

Although CTUK! has a national co-ordination centre (more on this later) its most important aspect is at local level - the ComputerTown UK! set up all over the country. Set up by whom? Well, why not by you? That's right - anyone interested in spreading computer literacy in his/her community can set up a

CTUK! centre - all you have to do is go out and do it!

To set up a CTUK! centre, you'll need at least one computer, some people to help you run it, and lots of enthusiasm!

Getting a computer is probably the easiest part - use your own to start with. If you're a member of a computer club, why not get together with one or two similarly-minded members to set up a CTUK! sub-group and pool both your machines and enthusiasm? That way you'll be able to handle a larger group of kids and, if you've a range of different machines, the children can gain a wider experience.

Some words of warning here: children can give computes a heavy time so you should use only commercially-built machines for your CTUK! group - don't let them loose on that cherished home-brew which took you a year to build! You really need to provide something like a PET, Atari or Tandy, something self-contained, cased and without a spaghetti of trailing wires. The machine must have a `grown-up' Basic and have a useful amount of RAM left over - say 16k - with which to play. You'll also need a cassette player so that kids can bring along their own cassettes to save the programs they've written. We wouldn't advise disks for all the obvious reasons.

If neither you nor your friends own a suitable computer, try approaching your local computer dealers. They'll probably have read this article already (if not, wave it under their noses) so they should have some idea of what CTUK! is all about. Indeed, we're hoping that local dealers will themselves take the initiative in some areas - there'll be inevitable publicity and sales spin-offs from their involvement - but we must stress that hard selling is totally out of place in a CTUK! centre. If you should run into this problem just tell us and we'll help you sort it out.

We strongly recommend you to start your centre in a quiet way - don't go overboard and take on more than you and your colleagues can cope with. We'd suggest you start off with one evening a fortnight and as its popularity grows you can open more often. Once you've actually started you'll find plenty of committed, willing volunteers to help you, not least from among the children themselves! Remember that the centre will be even more popular at weekends and during school holidays. Getting extra volunteers to help is easy: word of mouth, notices pinned in your local library, community centre or newsagent's window, or even a small ad in your local newspaper will bring a good response.

At first glance you may think you need special premises but in every community there are places which can be used, such as church halls, community centres, bookshops or clubrooms. Try to avoid schools or colleges as they shut at weekends and during the holidays. Of course, wherever you set up your CTUK! centre, you'll need a power supply! If your local dealer is involved, he may be willing to let you use his shop, either permanently or until you outgrow it and find larger premises.

You may be able to use the meeting room at your local library, along the lines of CTUSA!; if the local librarian isn't too enthusiastic about letting you have the room for free get onto the chairman of the library committee - your local council will give you his phone number. If you're stuck for premises, you could always start off in your own home or garage, possibly rotating locations with other volunteers while you search for a suitable place.

Once you've conquered these challenges and you're ready to go, you'll need some way of attracting the punters. Word of mouth is excellent - putting notices in schools isn't so good at first as you'll probably be overwhelmed, and calling in the local press to publicise your CTUK! centre should definitely be left until it's running and you can cope with a lot more children and adults. Once you're ready to `go public', contact us and we'll send you an information sheet on publicity.

Remember, your local CTUK! centre is autonomous - it's up to you to get things going in your community. Once you're established, with permanent premises, we may be able to help out further, depending on the central resources we have available - but you've got to get things moving first!

If your local dealer can't help with machines and premises, he may be willing to help with some of your costs. You should approach you local council as there are all sorts of ways in which they may be able to help, even in these times of austerity. Find out who your councillor is and ask for his help - that's what he's there for. And there is an amazing number of small local charities with money to handout, provided you can locate them (start with the library) and convince them that you're a deserving cause. Some of these charities may also be able to help with premises.

As the central co-ordinators of ComputerTown UK!, we're probably best placed to approach computer manufacturers, major software houses and national sources of finance for their help. You, however, are far better placed to investigate sources of help within your own community.

We've printed here the nearest thing we'll ever have to an organisation chart, just to show you how we see it all fitting together and how the various elements interact.

You'll see that the local CTUK! centres form the most important part - we're here simply to act as an information clearing centre, to publicise CTUK! to the national media and in a regular CTUK! `noticeboard' in PCW, and to wield the begging bowl at a national level. The rest hinges entirely around you, the local CTUK! groups.

One of your main challenges will be to convince others that teaching microcomputing is actually a useful thing to do - certainly it doesn't fall into most people's definition of a charitable activity, but this is possibly due to the lack of technological awareness or interest in this country which we described earlier. Probably the best way to convince anybody (apart from showing them a copy of this article) is to sit them down in front of a computer and let them have a go themselves! If you can `hook' the chairman of your council's finance committee then you'll have made a really useful friend.

Whatever you're after - premises, machines or money - the possible donor will want to know how his involvement will benefit the community. We've marked this on the chart too: computer clubs stand to gain more members; dealers stand - indirectly - to gain publicity and possible future sales; the community stands to gain more useful, aware citizens who will be able to cope more effectively with a technology based society. The country as a whole stands to gain much, for similar reasons. And the computer industry will gain a badly-needed source of new staff from among those children and adults who decide to become seriously involved in computing.

And what do you stand to gain from all this? Involvement, the satisfaction of knowing that you're making a real contribution to our society, and a hell of a lot of fun!

If you want to write to us at CTUK! please send an SAE for a reply. Write to: ComputerTown UK!, 14 Rathbone Place, London W1P IDE. As we're running CTUK! entirely in our spare time, please don't telephone the PCW offices.