My Love Affair With The Raspberry Pi

I love the Raspberry Pi. There, I said it. I know that love may be a strong feeling for a tiny board filled with electronics, so before meds are prescribed an explanation is in order. But, first, permit me a short trip down memory lane …

I’ve always loved electronics, tinkering, and making things, and have been doing so since long before the Maker movement came into being. I remember creating a movie projector out of a shoebox, cardboard toilet paper roll, bulbs and batteries, and plastic for the lens. I wired up my bedroom with lights to let potential visitors know when they’d be welcome (never, if I’m being honest). I once disconnected the home phones because I needed a piece of wire and the unused painted over cable running along the baseboard was, apparently, actually in use. I’ve built gadgets and machines, or tried to. Just about anything electrical or electronic I’ve taken apart, and I usually put them back together, too. And all this before the age of 10.

Then came computers. First wonderful devices like the Sinclair ZX80, the Amstrad CPC464, and then the VIC-20. Next came PCs (sorry, I bailed on Apple in the early days). The devices were primitive but endlessly fascinating. Not only were they fun toys, but they opened up the world of coding which set a path for me for decades to come.

Computers then weren’t the streamlined machines and experiences that we know today. In the early PC days if you wanted to add color you needed to open the case and swap out video cards. Sound beyond beeps? That needed a SoundBlaster card, and tweaking config.sys files to load drivers. The same thing for mouse support and network connectivity. Computers were opened so often that easily removed covers became a promoted feature in ads, and many of us didn’t even bother to put the screws back in when closing them up. All of this created an understanding of what computers were and how they worked. Tinkering was comfortable, not scary. And successfully upgrading and tweaking the machines felt a bit like taming the beast, a process that, when everything worked as intended, was incredibly satisfying.

Contrast that to today’s electronics. Children today have access to incredible computer power, and devices that we couldn’t even dream of. That’s a good thing. Digital literacy is not optional, children are instinctively and intuitively comfortable in an increasingly digital world, and that’s going to be vital for them in the years and decades to come.

But they also have no idea of what’s going on inside of these machines. For starters, considering what most cutting edge electronics cost, which parent would actually encourage, or even allow, their dissection? But more importantly, kids would likely never be able to open them in the first place, if they did they’d not be able to put them back together, and in doing so they’d likely have learned nothing from the process anyway. And that’s a shame.

I’m not one of those parents and educators who stresses too much about how much time our children spend in front of screens. Hey, I’ve never thrown a ball and have always been more comfortable with gadgets than with the outdoors, and I turned out ok (well, I think so, others may incorrectly disagree). No, it’s not screen time that bothers me. What I get stressed over is the quantity versus quality imbalance. All that processing power our kids are walking around with, and, for the most part, they download apps and games, they watch videos, they communicate instantly with friends all over the planet … they use technology created by others without ever thinking or understanding about how it all works. They are consumers, not creators. And that upsets me.

The truth is that the innovation and ingenuity that brought us all these modern day marvels is both a blessing a curse. I’m really glad that computing is now available to all, and if the masses never have to play IRQ musical chairs just to get sound to work, well, that’s a good thing. But at the same time, this simplicity has necessarily created a significant barrier between man and machine, a barrier that ensures that the experiences I had as a child, experiences that proved formative and influential, are close to impossible to recreate. In this respect, our kids, despite being armed with the latest and greatest innovation, are at a serious disadvantage. We’ve made it harder for them to build, to invent, to create.

And invention is important. It was Nikola Tesla who said “I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success”. Granted, few of us will reach Tesla’s level of invention, but the thrill of having created something is real, and powerful, and intoxicating, and inspiring, and perhaps most importantly, hugely confidence building. And that’s something I desperately want every child, regardless of age, gender, or background, to experience.

Actually, if I were to take off my geek-colored glasses for a moment, this applies to more than electronics, gadgets, and code. The same thrill associated with creation applies to writing a piece of music, drawing and painting, or creating a Lego model (incidentally, this is why I am less a fan of themed Lego sets than I am tons of blocks, I love the sets and build them, but I see less value in being able to follow clearly illustrated step-by-step instructions than I do in thinking up new ideas). This is also why I am so passionate about products like Adobe Voice and Adobe Slate which are designed specifically to gently nudge our consumer children, morphing them into creators. As so, with the greatest of respect to Nikola Tesla, I’d amend his quote, changing “inventor” to “creator”. But, I digress …

So, to summarize, modern day electronics 1: don’t provide the necessity for tinkering, 2: make tinkering difficult, and 3: are too expensive to encourage tinkering.

Which bring me back to the Raspberry Pi. More than anything else, the Pi encourages curiosity and tinkering and understanding. The fact that components are exposed, the need to find a keyboard and mouse, being able to plug it into any TV screen, even using an SD card as the disk drive and having to create the image for it, all of that and more helps demystify electronics and encourages tinkering. (On a side note, this is why I am not a fan of the “Raspberry Pi Computer Kit” offerings, they undermine what I believe is an essential aspect of what makes the Pi so compelling). Progress is immediate and encourages further playing. Included software is a start, but there is so much more readily and freely available that inquisitive minds will find something that captures their interest.

Oh, and that concern about cost? In the past week the price of a Pi has dropped as low as $5, although realistically by the time you add a few connectors and a power adapter you’ll be nearer the $15 or $20 mark. The concern about breaking expensive electronics is history. Don’t buy a Pi, but multiple! If you fry one (you will, I fried two in as many weeks), oh well, that’s part of the cost of learning, don’t sweat it, toss it.

I’m a fan of anything that can get kids to tinker and create. For younger kids, look at littleBits (which I have reviewed previously), and when you buy them a Star Wars Lego set this holiday season, use them to make light sabers actually light up. I love Arduinos too; there is no simpler way to get children started with physical computing, and you’ll love the proud look on their faces the first time they write a few lines of code to make LEDs flash, buzzers vibrate, and motors turn. I am a fan of all of these and more, if they encourage tinkering and invention then I’m a fan.

But, when all is said and done, there is something raw and essential and unadulterated about the Raspberry Pi. It requires a little more effort to get started, but just a little, and the effort involved is educational without being frustrating.

The way I see it, the Raspberry Pi helps foster an experience pretty close to the one we grew up with, and I firmly believe that it can have a similar effect in encouraging the next generation of creators.

4 responses to “My Love Affair With The Raspberry Pi”

  1. MAF Avatar

    One point for Arduino, the advantage of Arduino is the minimal layer between the tinkerer and the micro. There isn’t Linux or Windows to worry about, and you can code in C, which us the lingua franca of embedded software. Python is a good language but is not as commonly used in industry.

  2. Ben Forta Avatar
    Ben Forta

    No disagreement. Arduino’s are simpler to get started with, and as I noted in the post, there are perfect for tinkering with physical computing, there is no simpler way to write code and have physical components and devices respond. But part of what I like about the Pi is that is it a little trickier, it’s a computer, so it does more and (albeit with a bit more effort) users will learn more, too.
    Oh, and you can indeed write code for the Pi in C, I believe that a compiler is included in the standard OS distribution.
    — Ben

  3. J Avatar

    Excellent, pretty much my experiences

  4. Ken Avatar

    I too am crazy about the pi. I have been playing with electronics all my life. My uncle got me interested in tubes (and a lot of Heathkit )and there was no looking back.
    Back then if you wanted to make an led blink you got yourself a 555 and some caps and resistors. It was magic and still is even if you say a pi may be overkill. When you learn how to make that led blink you can move onto bigger and better things. Seemed like there was a period when electronics was going the way of the dodo it’s great to see it come back in such a big way. What I really am amazed about is all the cool off the shelf stuff that makes such a wide variety of projects come together so fast. Plus with such a great community the Pi has it’s great to see projects that teach you how to create a VPN or cloud server or DHCP server etc,etc,etc that get you acquainted with linux. I like linux more and more that I work with it and the pi has been part of that too.

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