Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 13:47 UK

A nation of programmers?

Computer programmers
Are we a nation of technophiles or technophobes?

Computer skills must mean more than word processing, says Bill Thompson.

I've had my own website for 15 years now, running on a wide variety of different computers.
I started off with some space on the Pipex WorldServer, a large - for the time - system that offered web hosting back in the days when getting online was a dark art and I was lucky enough to work for one of the early commercial internet service providers.

On leaving Pipex I moved over to Cityscape, another Cambridge-based provider from the early days. When it went out of business I set up a server at home for a while before relocating the hardware to a shelf in the corner of a friend's office, where he was happy to offer bandwidth and a power supply for a very modest monthly payment.

Three years ago I moved the whole thing again, this time onto a virtual server at Bytemark, one of the many small hosting companies that offer friendly and reliable server space for all sorts of organisations.

A virtual server is a way to get lots of different sites on one physical computer. From the outside you can't really tell, and when you log on to the virtual server it acts just like a real box, but it's a lot cheaper to run and you get the benefit of having serious hardware, a secure power supply and an easy way to upgrade.

Bill Thompson
Far too many people who use computers every day, and have them in their homes, aren't even capable of applying the system updates that Microsoft and Apple automatically send out
Bill Thompson

If you run your own computer, even a virtual one, then you also have to take responsibility for keeping it up to date. Mostly this involves applying patches, checking system logs and other relatively straightforward tasks, but servers, like cars, sometimes need a proper service.

And so it was that I spent a happy couple of hours on Saturday morning stripping down my website, backing up the blog installation files, database and key configuration files, and then doing a complete rebuild, or 're-imaging' as it is called.

It all went remarkably smoothly, and installing the latest version of Debian Linux went without a hitch. I spent most of the time copying the gigabytes of data from my home server back to the site because uploading is still slow thanks to the asymmetric nature of UK broadband services.

The configuration files for the virtual servers went in smoothly, and I even managed to trick the MySQL database management system that holds all my blog posts to let me simply copy my files by creating an empty database of the same name and then overwriting it with my backups - far faster than importing everything.


Apart from a ten minute hiatus when I failed to get the web server to restart because I'd forgotten to create the folders where it writes its log files, there were no problems and I managed to get to the cinema to see the excellent 'In The Loop' for the noon performance, as planned.

One reason it went well was that Bytemark's systems made it easy, but it also helped that I'm trained to do this sort of stuff. I've got a master's degree in computer science and have had 25 years of experience in the industry, including a period as managing editor and systems administrator for The Guardian's first website back in the mid-90's.

Far too many people who use computers every day, and have them in their homes, aren't even capable of applying the system updates that Microsoft and Apple automatically send out, leaving them with buggy and insecure systems vulnerable to all sorts of attack.

Even though we rely on our computers for so much there is still a sense that understanding how they work is an optional extra, something that really only needs to be reserved for the geeks or those whose work absolutely requires it.

Last Friday the actor and self-confessed 'technophile' Stephen Fry was one of the more interesting contributors to a rather self-serving debate about Digital Britain held at the British Library.

He offered an analogy between the early days of the motor car and the current development of a network society, noting that there were no agonised debates or high-level task forces convened to discuss the rollout of the car, so perhaps we should be more relaxed in our attitude to going digital.

We might not have seen our cities damaged beyond repair in the interests of improving traffic flow if we'd stopped to think, of course. But even if the network is going to happen with or without government intervention, the end result is that most of us, most of the time, will be using computers to carry out activities that are pretty central to life in the modern world.

And if we do not understand how they work then we will be in trouble.

There are many reasons for knowing a bit about how cars work. You can tell if there's something wrong, and avoid driving a dangerous vehicle. You can decide whether the mechanic suggesting a thousand pounds worth of repairs is ripping you off. And you can even do some things yourself.

It's almost 50 years since the writer CP Snow gave his famous lecture about the 'two cultures' at Cambridge University, where he outlined the dangers that come from the lack of understanding between literary intellectuals and the scientific community. Today things don't seem as bad, and there is clearly a much greater awareness of and interest in popular science.

Unfortunately a new divide has opened up, that between those of us who know enough about our computers to look under the bonnet from time to time and those who use them without any real curiosity or awareness.

The results could be far worse than being ripped off by unscrupulous engineers who offer them unnecessary upgrades, because these digital tools will increasingly shape society. Those whose understanding of IT stopped at learning how to use bold font in a word processor will be at a significant disadvantage, one that we should work hard to overcome before it is too late.

We don't need a nation of programmers, but we do need to be confident that everyone knows what programmers do and what programs look like.

Bill Thompson will be speaking about the new two cultures in a lecture at the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University on May 27th, part of the University's celebration of its 800th anniversary.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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