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Friday, 19 October 2012

Prejudice and bigotry in role models

I was talking to someone picking my brains about inspirational British scientists, engineers and inventors to help encourage children to follow in their footsteps.

We went through the usual suspects: from James Dyson back to James Watt, Stephenson and Brunel.

"How about modern tech entrepreneurs, is there a British Bill Gates?"

Well, the Economist asked this question last year.  Turns out we're just a nation of digital shopkeepers...

Of course, we're not... the Economist article missed out Britain's important contribution in developing computer games, the development of innovative platforms such as the low-cost ZX Spectrum perhaps responsible for today's generation of coders and in computer chip design such as gallant Cambridge-based RISC processor giant ARM.

But role models?  I admire Sir Clive Sinclair but he's more often derided for the C5 than he is remembered fondly for the ZX Spectrum, and Sir Alan Sugar to my mind deserves no credit for riding in Sir Clive's slipstream.

And who outside the tech world has heard of Herman Hauser and Chris Curry? Although many more will have heard of Acorn Computers having used a BBC Micro at school.

"And women?"  The conversation went.

"Well I haven't got binders of them," should have been my answer.

But then I started thinking, are British school kids so ridiculously prejudiced that they will only be inspired by stories of tech entrepreneurship by role models who are British themselves?

Why not just tell British kids about the actual Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison?  Or are we so inherently prejudiced that we can't follow in the footsteps of overseas inventors?

And women in technology.  I'm sure it helps for a schoolgirl to see a successful tech entrepreneur and think, "yeah, I can do that."  But holding aloft Ada Lovelace, a pioneer in computable algorithms but dead for 160 years might actually be counter-productive.  Computers don't have cogs these days.

Might it not be better to get the message to Britain's schoolgirls that they can be inspired by any successful technologist, male or female; British, Russian, American, whatever.

The message should be that there is today no barrier to achieving; don't be put-off by the lack of stereotyped role models because there's nothing stopping you, Wendy Robinson, being inspired by Sergey Brin and Larry Page and making internet search relevant again.


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