27 November 2008

There’s an article in Wired about Microsoft’s Chief Software Officer Ray Ozzie, who in the 70s was part of the PLATO project, which inspired him to create Lotus Notes. From Wikipedia: “PLATO was the first (circa 1960, on ILLIAC I) generalized computer assisted instruction system. It was widely used starting in the early 1970s, with more than 1000 terminals worldwide. PLATO was originally built by the University of Illinois and ran in four decades, offering elementary through university coursework to UIUC students, local schools, and more than a dozen universities.” PLATO was bought in 1976 by Control Data Corporation, whose founder William C. Norris believed that PLATO would not only be profitable, but would be able to solve various social ills through computerized education. CDC expanded PLATO across the world. In the 1980s, there was even a PLATO cartridge for the Atari Computer (designed by China-born Vincent Wu) that offered access to “200,000 hours of coursework”.

PLATO had email, IM and group chat in 1973 before there were even BBSes, and perhaps more astonishing, “Any competent PLATO programmer can quickly hack together a simple chat program that lets two users exchange typed one-line messages. PLATO’s architecture makes this trivial.” Funny enough, the “Notes” proto-email program was meant to be a bug reporting system, but ironically a bug, people not talking about bugs, ended up a feature.

Probably the most interesting part so far is this, unfortunately unsourced, section of the Wikipedia entry on PLATO in South Africa:

There were several other installations at educational institutions in South Africa, among them Madadeni College in the Madadeni township just outside of Newcastle.

This was perhaps the most unusual PLATO installation anywhere. Madadeni had about 1,000 students, all of them black and 99.5% of Zulu ancestry. The college was one of 10 teacher preparation institutions in kwaZulu, most of them much smaller. In many ways Madadeni was very primitive. None of the classrooms had electricity and there was only one telephone for the whole college, which one had to crank for several minutes before an operator might come on the line. So an air-conditioned, carpeted room with 16 computer terminals was a stark contrast to the rest of the college. At times the only way a person could communicate with the outside world was through PLATO term-talk.

For many of the Madadeni students, most of whom came from very rural areas, the PLATO terminal was the first time they encountered any kind of electronic technology. (Many of the first year students had never seen a flush toilet before.) There initially was skepticism that these technologically-illiterate students could effectively use PLATO, but those concerns were not borne out. Within an hour or less most students were using the system proficiently, mostly to learn math and science skills, although a lesson that taught keyboarding skills was one of the most popular. A few students even used on-line resources to learn TUTOR, the PLATO programming language, and a few wrote lessons on the system in the Zulu language.

I found some of the sources, though: this section appears to be copied, more or less, from an article by Owen Gaeda, a PLATO developer who taught PLATO in Madadeni Teachers College for two years. Wired has another article from a PLATO reunion in 1997, where it mentions Brian L. Dear has been researching a book called PLATO People since 1985. I hope he finishes it soon. In the meantime, there’s a PLATO emulator system on the Web called Cyber1.

Bonus: The ANC used Commodore 64s to encrypt messages and play them to a tape recorder with an acoustic coupler modem. The receiver would record the playback with another tape recorder over the phone, then play it for their computer. The digital sound of resistance.



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