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Close up: Meet the team, Robin Message

This series of blog posts is about getting to know the Firefly team a bit better. This time we're introducing Robin our Head of Technology. Robin is responsible for the servers, systems and infrastructure that help keep Firefly sites running.

Name: Robin Message

Team: Head of Technology

Where did you go to school?

A “bog-standard” comprehensive called Beaumont in the city of St Albans. It was actually a very good state school, our headteacher just used to call it that after (I think) Alastair Campbell described all comprehensives in those terms.

What is your first memory of using technology in a school environment?

At my first primary school, we had BBC Micros (showing my age, although to be fair this was another bog-standard state school so we couldn’t afford anything fancy). The best bit of the BBC micro was the real virtual turtle.

What do you mean by real virtual turtle?!

Well, one of the things you could do with a BBC micro was use a program called Logo to draw little patterns. You gave a virtual “turtle” commands like RT 90 and FWD 100 to rotate the turtle 90 degrees to the right or draw a line 100 pixels forward respectively.

The real virtual turtle was a robot dome with wheels (it looks like a Roomba from a low budget 80s sci-fi film) which had a long and snarly cable which you could connect to the computer and then your commands would make the real turtle draw patterns on the floor, or a big piece of paper if you didn’t want to get into trouble.

All of this was taught to us by an older volunteer chap called Mr Brindley, who I never got the opportunity to thank properly as an adult but who was a great teacher and definitely helped put me on the path I am today.

How do you use technology in your day-to-day life?

I generally don't use technology when I am doing something active in the countryside (although I might use an online map to plan the walk), reading a paper book (although I researched and/or bought it on Amazon), chatting with friends, or asleep.

So, for everything except conversation and sleeping, I'd say technology is completely integral to my life. Arthur C Clarke once said “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and we live in a magical age. Technology has become so ubiquitous as to be mostly invisible. Modern life is technology.

Where do you see technology in five years?

Steven Sasson at Kodak built a working digital camera in 1975. Neil Armstrong stood on the Moon in 1969. Vannevar Bush described an imaginary system called Memex, which combines OneNote, Wikipedia, and the internet, in 1945. Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer program in correspondence with Charles Babbage when she was 28 – in 1842.

The future is here, it just isn't evenly distributed yet.
William Gibson

So, in five years, I think most technology will look like now, just more spread around. But that’s not to say there won’t be some surprises. These are the next Google, the crazy ideas in the back of people’s minds, the science experiments that give an unexpected result.

These innovations spring forth suspiciously, as if they already exist and someone just had to colour in the blank spaces (look at three people inventing television the same year). Unfortunately, this means I don’t known what the surprises will be. I can tell you that, like television or computers, at first they will seem crazy, then pointless, then useful, then irreplaceable, then trivial, and finally completely invisible.

The crazy ideas that excite me at the moment are things like new energy technologies – electric cars and new forms of renewable and nuclear power generation. Also medical technology like implanted devices and gene therapies are only just getting going and could make a real difference to people’s lives.

We’re an education technology company.

Oh yeah. In education I’m hoping technology will enable more and better sharing of educational content by teachers, so more time can be spent actually engaging with students, and less time writing lesson plans or delivering lectures. I’m hoping MOOCs and things like Khan Academy will be embraced by mainstream education instead of ignored or mistrusted – again, it’s here, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet.

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