The Social Impact

Although computer geeks are generally thought of as anti-social, strange, and unwashed it is probably true that most geeks of the time were teenagers so, consequently, many would fit that profile by virtue of simply being a teenager!

Some schools catered for them by running after school clubs in which the computers would be wheeled out of store cupboards for any interested student to experiment. Given the limited number of machines it was sometimes necessary to share a computer, coercing students into working together using the paradigm now known as 'pair programming.'

For those schools unwilling or unable to purchase computers (see ##32 BBC Acorn) there were always events in the real world. Every month, magazines like Sinclair User would print a list of the user clubs across the country, and abroad. (In the case of Sinclair it was a largely UK-oriented affair.) For example, in August 1983 (just one year after the launch of the ZX Spectrum) there were 38 clubs in the UK from Edinburgh to Colchester, and from Surrey to Newcastle. Additionally there were 15 overseas clubs, including South Africa.

While computer clubs still exist in today’s world, it is much more common to learn and discuss technology online through forums and mailing lists. Similar facilities existed in the early 1980's, called bulletin board systems (BBSs.) However, despite the introduction of an affordable modem like the Hayes Smartmodem in 1981, owning one was still considered a prestige add-on. But despite it high-technology status, it could only transmit at 1,200 bits per second (about 150 characters per second) which was very slow, even for those days. What's more, because it would connect via 1980s telephone exchanges it was an expensive call. For example, a one hour “local” call in 1984 would cost about £4.56. (In addition to the fixed fee line rental.) But if the BBS was over 30 miles away then you need to double that number because BT didn't consider it to be “local” enough! This meant, if you were lucky and didn't lose the connection, you'd pay £4.56 for 527KB of data, which equates roughly to the script for Star Wars. And this didn't include the time spent looking for the data you wanted in the first place.

Even those with modems and a connection to a BBS usually only did so to one of the few public boards, or to those boards where they personally knew the owner. This was because a BBS needed a separate phone line for each user that wanted to connect to it at the same time – for two users to connect, you needed two phone lines. Not a cheap hobby! Consequently, the early 1980s were still largely a person-to-person environment. To strike a happy medium between the anonymous world of modern computer communication, and the inherent face-to-face nature of expectant conversation, geeks switched to an even older technology – the postal service! Magazines would run regular columns encouraging readers to write in with their letters. These might be broken up into separate sections, one for questions about the magazine itself, another for software reviews, and another for technical problems.

For those reaching for a more personal touch in their correspondence, magazines like Amiga Power would even print pen pal requests, for adults and children alike, without the social fear and stigma that propagates today. Sometimes this would initiate new friendships, with both parties exchanging programs they'd written and mutual support in a field where there was often no one else to turn to. But in many cases it would just be used to (illegally) share games. Sometimes, the postal service would reinvigorate old friendships; those who'd moved away from their family and friends and discovered computers independently would write to tell of their new hobby. Such as in the case of Jon Cartwright and Keith Stuart, who would co-operate on writing games like Rolaball, together. The method would involve one person posting a disc or tape in padded envelope to the other who would then make their changes and post it back. (Even Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, when writing Blackadder, would exchange discs containing their TV script in this manner.)

For those venturing out into the real world, several organizers would arrange conventions in large cities to facilitate both the industry and general public. After all, in those days there often wasn't a lot of difference between an amateur programmer and a professional one (See ##33 – The Cottage Industry.) The ZX Microfair, for example, began in January 1982 at Westminster Central Hall with just 70 exhibitors and an expectant 200 visitors. Since the hall only held 650 it could never be that busy... except that over 12,000 people turned up to prove the organizers wrong! (And who knows how many people turned up but were turned away, or gave up trying to battle the queues.)

These fairs, magazines, and events inspire such social cohesion that reunions are no longer the exception. In 2016 there was a reunion for fans of Amiga Power where both readers and writers got together to discuss the magazine, despite it having stopped production 20 years previously!

Another popular, albeit more committed, group meeting is the demo party. This is where computer developers travel across the world to show off their skills with audio, video, or other form of artistic programming. These parties are the real world manifestation of the traditional demo scene which encourages innovation in (what most people consider) obsolete technology.