Limited Access

The advent of passenger railway services brought about major and pervasive changes in the UK in the middle of the 19th century.

From the official opening of the London and Manchester Railway on 15 September 1830, the Way rapidly spread over our towns and counties, bringing with it unprecedented mobility, the telegraph, and synchronisation of clocks to Railway Time. Thanks to the drive and vision of great engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the railway reached Bristol in 1841, Exeter in 1844, and Plymouth in 1849.

Even the Isle of Wight joined this revolution in 1862, by which time the mainland had been transformed by steam trains. The village in which I live was a fragmented scatter of houses and farms in 1850. Thanks to the tunneling required to take the new railway under the chalk downs to Ventnor, it more than doubled in population and size by 1866, sprouting shops and a small sausage-making factory. The railway brought gas (in those days made from coal) which lit houses and streets, transforming the night. Locals who might not have travelled to a nearby town for several years, could step onto a train and be whisked there in a few minutes.

Although we like to claim how rapidly modern technology is changing the world, and not just Western society, I am not so impressed. The ‘Rocket’ era was in the mid 1970s, culminating in the arrival of the first polished products such as the Apple II in June 1977. By 1983, when the IBM PC XT shipped, personal computers had most of their key features (apart from optical drives), and the Macintosh GUI became widely available early the following year.

Yet listen to any episode of The Archers, watch a TV soap, or chat to many ordinary people living ordinary lives, and you will hear limited mention of personal computers or the Internet, thirty years after the brunt of the PC revolution. Even those who spend much of their working day in front of a computer screen may use a home system almost entirely for playing games.

For a significant minority of us, computers and the Internet have transformed our lives, allowing us to work in industries that did not previously exist, or that have become radically transformed by technology.

Indirect impact, such as increasing the accuracy of weather forecasts, driving the development of new drugs, and on the media, has been huge. We can follow working patterns that enable individuals scattered around the planet to collaborate regardless of time zone and separation. We have instant access to vast collections of information that would previously have required trips to a university library. We can plan and purchase holidays and mundane groceries, and daily grapple with spam, scams, and modes of crime that did not exist a few years ago.

The most obvious and general changes have arisen less with ‘proper’ computers than with smartphones and tablets, where personal communications and social media, particularly Facebook, have become more pervasive throughout society.

But compared with the advent of the railway, the overall social impact of personal computers and the Internet has been limited at best, and it may even have increased divisions, bringing riches to our small sector but missing the majority. Lest you think that the railway revolution was unique, consider instead any of the major features of popular culture – sports such as soccer, television, movies, recorded music, or cars. The timelines of their popularisation vary slightly, but their effects have been much broader, much more quickly.

This is the more remarkable when you consider how much time and money has been invested in educating about computing. From the earliest years in Primary schools our children have been using computers, and some form of ‘IT’ is taught throughout Secondary and higher levels. As school science laboratories have become impoverished by safety obsession and lack of specialist teachers, their classrooms have become filled with computers. Repeated curricular initiatives have refreshed efforts to improve computer literacy, backed up by qualifications from ECDL to MCSE.

Yet our bright and thoroughly computer-savvy grandson, who starts at High School in just three months, had not heard of ASCII or Unicode, when they recently came up in conversation – as they do, of course, when you are in that privileged minority.

There are of course many differences between the railway revolution and personal computers, that could account for their different social impact. Most obviously, railways are far easier to use, with minimal instruction necessary before you can board the local stopping service for a trip to a large city. Whilst there are railway geeks, you do not have to be one in order to get a great deal out of railway travel. In short, railways have been eminently accessible, and have enhanced accessibility.

Too much of computing has been directed at restricting access, protecting vested interests and privileged cliques, to our long term disadvantage.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 24 issue 17, 2008.