Historical Fiction

Bill Gates has just written a book “How to avoid Climate Catastrophe” which explains why getting to net zero emissions by 2050 is a big, big challenge. When I read this, the hymn “Think of a World without Any Flowers” came to mind. You can Google it if you don’t know it. The hymn asks us to think about a world without: flowers, trees, animals and people. It asks us to thank God that we have these. It is difficult to imagine a world without any form of life but this presumably is what people like Greta Thunberg, Caroline Lucas and now Bill Gates do. They are all making it clear that if humans do not change the way they behave then a world without any form of life will be inevitable.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, the preferred operating system and office software used by the majority of computers worldwide. Microsoft didn’t launch its “Dos operating system” until 1981 and the earliest version of Office till 1989. Yet, I think, if I asked anyone under forty, and, probably, most people fifty-five years or younger they would find it hard, to imagine a world without computers and mobile phones. They may find it easier to imagine the world with nothing living. Anyone over seventy might find it easier to imagine a digital free world. They lived for half, or more than half, their lives without computers, mobile phones, television and many even without a home telephone.

There were advantages in a world without these devices, although I would find it difficult to convince my grandchildren that this was so. The pace of life was slower; one had the time to enjoy family, friends and nature. Holidays and weekends were work free unless the boss knocked on your door or sent someone to fetch you. Christmas was about family and playing games – not watching television. Holidays were for exploring nature and digging sand castles not indoor entertainment.

 I often wonder whether I should be proud or ashamed at the small part that I played in helping to transform the world. A world where you can now carry in your shirt pocket a small device that can allow you talk to other people nearby, or the other side of the world. A device that allows you to; watch television, check prices in a shop to see if you can buy the same article cheaper, research your essay or do a myriad of other things instantly. But a world where often this device, and the internet, takes precedent over living life in the real world.

In 1980 I was a teacher with a young family and found my teacher’s wage did not allow me to do many of the things that I wanted to do with, and for, my family. My local authority viewed me as a teacher with potential. To become a school leader would take me away from teaching children. I would lose working with children and the rewards were not sufficient to make it worthwhile. I was attracted by an advertisement to join a company called Research Machines, in Oxford, as a sales person. The basic salary was the same as I was then paid, plus the promises of bonuses that would double that salary. I applied.

At the interview it was pointed out that for the first six months I would need to learn about the company and its products before I would be able to sell them. So I would only get the basic salary during that time. At least I would not be any worse off and, ultimately, I should be much better off. The panel were obviously pleased with my performance as they offered me the post. The other five candidates were sent away with thanks for taking an interest.

To be honest at this point I had really no idea what I would be expected to do other than I would be selling something to someone. Over the six months I came to understand exactly what I was going to be selling but I could not see who I would be selling to – certainly not to any individual I had ever met, or any company that I could think of and the price meant it was way beyond what schools could afford.

At the end of my training period I had to take a test. A week later I was called in to meet the managers. I was told that I had passed the test with a ninety-eight percent pass rate and this was what they had hoped. I was also told that I had been selected because of my teaching background and my teaching knowledge. The company had become aware that the government was going to launch a computers’ in schools initiative in the near future and my task was four-fold. Firstly, to lobby MPs and talk to Civil servants about the advantages of buying our computers. Secondly, to get the company talked about in town and county halls, in their education offices. Thirdly, once the initiative was launched  to talk to meetings of education officers and their advisers about why they should choose us. Finally, and in their view crucially (they knew of no other company which considered this important), to provide support and training to teachers in school. They said that at each stage my salary would increase and I would in the end be responsible for running a support and training team.

In 1982 the Department of Trade and Industry listed three companies whose computers schools could claim half the purchase price back. Our company was in that list so I had been successful with my first task. As the orders came in it was apparent that I had been quite successful in the second task. In 1986, when we launched a computer that could be networked, thus reducing the cost of individual stations, orders increased partly because we were offering training – success for my final task. So by 1999 the company was a very successful supplier to education.

In 1999 the government became concerned that, although most schools now had multiple computers, a very large proportion of teachers did not know how to use them. They were also concerned that computers were mainly being used for word processing and by the maths departments in secondary schools. They announced a new initiative that they called the New Opportunities Fund. They were prepared to spend £230,000,000 to fund Information and Communications Technology Training to all schools.

My company did not want to be involved with this, although we had been the only company offering our purchasers training. I flatter myself in believing that this was largely because I was due to retire in 2001. So I was surprised when I was called to a meeting with the senior management team at the beginning of 2000. I was asked if I would be willing to be seconded to a training provider in Cambridge who would give me a contract with them, to run from 2001 until 2005, at my current salary. They were also prepared to pay my moving costs and my legal bills for selling my house and buying one in Cambridgeshire. The managers were optimistic that I would say yes. They knew that my eldest son was a top computer designer living, together with my only grandchildren, near Cambridge. I suspected, but never asked, that the company benefited in some way.

I thoroughly enjoyed that five years. I firstly had to build and train a team and make sure that we hit our targets. Once this was done I was able to spend at least a day a week working directly with school teachers in their schools. So I was ending my career back in school almost where I had started.

Initially I was shocked by how many teachers had no knowledge of computers, were completely innocent about the dangers of the internet and initially were only there because the head said they had to be. Once they had got past the first day on how to do the basics and learnt how to search the internet and send and receive emails they became more engaged. All, but a few die-hards who would be retiring in a year or two became converted. Even some of those were converted when they were shown how they could use computers to enhance their teaching. Some even started coming up with their own ideas. The most memorable being a secondary PE teacher who had said initially that ICT would be no use to her. When she came to the third session, having understood that ICT included digital cameras, she was excited to show me how she had improved her javelin throwers performance. She videoed the girls and then showed them their action in slow motion. She then showed the girls an Olympic champion’s action repeating it in slow motion. Finally she ran the two performances side by side for each girl. She, and the girls’, were impressed with the  improvements.

By 2004 eighty five percent of the 450,000 teachers in the country had successfully been through training and had a certificate to show that they had. The initiative ended and I finally retired. Teachers were now using computers and children as young as six quickly picking up the basics. Many of them had found it easier than learning to walk.

On balance I think I have to be proud of my achievement. There are still things that I think are  negative outcomes for the new IT mobile savvy population. People who seem almost to have their mobile phone welded to them, whatever they are doing, and having to answer the moment it rings. The fact that people can send hateful messages via social media feeling confident they cannot be identified. However, how would we have coped with Covid 19 if we did not have a computer literate society? Few, if any, would have been able to work from home. Shopping would have been impossible for those who had to self isolate - they would have to have relied on friendly neighbours. Children, once schools were closed, would have had no educational support, and neither would the lonely. The fact that we have been able to have some visual and aural contact with friends and relations through virtual meeting software has made life bearable for many. Members of Parliament, local councillors, voluntary agencies have also been able to use this software, when necessary, so that life has gone on pretty smoothly.

Given all the investment and progress that has been made it seems strange that computers are not used more to help make important decisions. For example neither the “for” or the “against” Brexit groups offered evidence from computer modelling to argue their case. Bill Gates, a clever man who reads widely, is spending billions to fight climate change but is apparently happy to support private jets. He would justify this by saying they add a tiny percentage to green house gases and he spends money to offset this. Maybe we should not worry about computers, or robots taking over the world as much as individuals rejecting actions that would protect the world because those actions would threaten something that is of value to them personally. It seems emotion still outweighs cold evidence when humans make decisions.

Having worked in two great university cities people the question  I get asked most  is which is better Oxford or Cambridge. My reply is strictly “No comment.” I want a quiet retirement.

February 25, 2021 19:54

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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