To celebrate a colleague’s clocking up 25 years on the staff of The Open University, I put together a slideshow to remind us all just how long ago 1990 was. Amongst other things, that was the year in which Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign, Germany was re-unified, and the first Gulf War began. Top films of the year included Ghost, Pretty Woman, Home Alone, and Back to the Future III.
But what was learning technology like in 1990? Three events from The Open University’s history remind us how things were back then.
At that time at the OU, only students on certain courses were
required to have a computer, or at least access to one. The minimum
specification of that computer had been the subject of much debate,
being eventually fixed around the capabilities of the Amstrad 1512: an
IBM PC “clone” from the company of Alan Sugar, who was then famous not
for firing apprentices but for manufacturing cheap and sturdy computers
for the business market. In 1990 however, the argument erupted again
when the minimum specification was breached by a computing course which –
because of the requirements of a database package – demanded that
students have a computer with TWO floppy disk drives, instead of just
one. (Most personal computers at this time did not have a hard disk
drive, let alone a CD-ROM reader.)
These kinds of trips back into the past can be great fun. (So can seeing what kids of today make of the cutting-edge technologies of yesteryear.) But if we find the VCRs, floppy disk drives and dial-up internet connections of 1990 quaint, we should resist the temptation to imagine ourselves superior to the people we were back then or to congratulate ourselves on how much progress has been made. Rather we should be reminded of how many of the technologies which now seem so obvious and central to our lives will in fact prove transitory and doomed to ultimate obsolescence. William Gibson, the author of the 1984 SF novel Neuromancer and regarded as something of a prophet of the digital world, once commented on his attitude to new technologies:“whenever I’m shown something like Google Glass, … [I imagine] what it would look like in the display cabinet beside the cash register in a [charity] shop - I try to imagine how they'll look in ten years time. It's a very good exercise for putting it in perspective. In a charity shop you'll find all the once-new technology, gathering dust as all things do.”
That’s the great thing about history: it can give strip away our temporal chauvinism and give us perspective. How will the learning technologies of today look in 25 years time, I wonder?