I’ve had a hard time reading lately. My relationship took a disastrous turn last week, which put me behind even further than I’d like. But I’ve managed to push through the adversity and finish one of the goals I’d set for myself. Here we go.
Title: Now the Chips Are Down
Author: Alison Gazzard
Genre: Tech History
Now the Chips Are Down is another entry in the MIT Press "Platform Studies" series. The series started in 2009 with Racing the Beam, a deep dive into the Atari 2600 and how its very peculiar implementation shaped the American video game market. Since then, a variety of authors have written about a variety of creative platforms. Most are game consoles, such as the NES (I Am Error) and the Wii (Codename Revolution), while some are home computers like the Amiga (The Future Was Here). A few don’t seem to fit in, such as Macromedia Flash (Building the Interactive Web) and the Amazon Kindle tablet (Four Shades of Gray), but there’s a cohesion to the series despite that.
This book falls into the "home computer" category, but it’s a very specific one that I’ve never used and never even seen in real life: the BBC Micro. As its name suggests, this was a computer built—well, contracted—by the British government.
Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the BBC was well-respected as an impartial presenter of the news. Today, of course, it’s a leftist propaganda outlet little different from the New York Times or Washington Post, but the Thatcher era was a different time. This was back when governments cared about building up their constituents, making them more informed, not less. As the UK was a technological backwater, missing out on many of the advances taking place in the US at the time, they needed something special to create the kind of digital literacy we now take for granted.
Their answer was the BBC Micro, a fairly large and expensive 8-bit home computer. Built by Acorn—the creators of other also-ran computers like the Atom and Archimedes—using the same 6502 processor that almost everyone else used, the BBC Micro had a few additions that made it unique to its time and place. Open, accessible expansion ports encouraged tinkering. Manuals described programming, an absolute necessity for computer owners in the years before I was born, in better detail than most of the competitors’ offerings, and the included dialect of BASIC is still regarded as one of the most advanced. The thing even had an adapter for Britain’s early attempt at a nationwide on-demand streaming service: Ceefax.
All this was part of the UK government’s attempt at getting its citizens, especially children, both interested in and comfortable with computers as tools. And that’s admirable. Too often today, we see the opposite: computers are expected to be black boxes, mere appliances that do whatever their creators tell them. The hacker spirit is actively discouraged through social and even legal means. But again, Britain circa 1981 was a different place. This was a country afraid of losing what little remained of its status on the global stage.
Gazzard harps on this point repeatedly in the book, always trying to paint the BBC Micro as innovative because of its intentions. It was used in education, for gaming, and as a way to connect people together. Okay, that’s great. The thing is, all that was happening with American home computers, too. And minicomputers in academia, and…well, you get the picture. The fact of the matter is that Britain really was behind the times, and no amount of praise for a government program can change that.
The book itself is light on details, and completely devoid of screenshots. The text has a few obvious typos, formatting errors, and grammatical mistakes. This is not the level of quality I expect from a Platform Studies book. The veritable fawning over the platform is a little over the top, though it is a welcome change from Super Power, Spoony Bards, and Silverware, which was written by an author who let his apparent hatred of the Super Nintendo shine through in his introduction and the tone of the book as a whole.
It’s good to be a fan of something. There’s nothing wrong with a nostalgic love letter. In this case, however, the nostalgia is just too thick. Any developer or even gamer who knows even the first thing about Elite knows it started on the BBC Micro, yet Gazzard feels the need to remind us of this on multiple occasions in the chapter about the game. She also dedicates full chapters to a low-budget educational adventure game and a Boulder Dash clone, acting as if these were innovative. But the truth is different. Oregon Trail came out years before Granny’s Garden, and it’s still played today. In the Repton chapter, she even admits that games with level editors already existed.
Overall, that’s the glaring flaw of Now the Chips Are Down. It’s actually too nostalgic, and that nostalgia gets in the way of the history. There aren’t enough whys or hows in the narrative, and I feel that’s where it falls short. Racing the Beam set the gold standard for the series. I Am Error and The Future Was Now both met it, and even exceeded it in places.
Here, there’s just no substance. The final chapter, for instance, combines Acorn’s future after the BBC Micro—they went on to create the ARM architecture, a curse for developers everywhere—and the Raspberry Pi, which started as an attempt at recreating the educational aspects of the platform. But the text is just so rushed. It feels like Gazzard is bored and wants to get through it so she can work on something else instead. And while this book, written in 2016 as it was, is mostly free of wokeness, there’s way too much emphasis on the sole female engineer on the Acorn team.
I did learn from this book. For that, I’m glad I read it. It makes me curious about a platform I’ve never used. I wonder why it was special, and why it’s so loved 40 years after its release. But Now the Chips Are Down doesn’t give me any answers except the author’s 200-page statement that boils down to, "I love it, and so should you."