The Amstradification of Education

Amstradification” refers to the idea that when offering someone a choice between two things that can be considered to be broadly similar, you make your favoured option sound better by making the unfavoured option sound worse…

Older readers will probably be familiar with Amstrad, the consumer electronics company founded by Alan Sugar, but for the younger readers that make up the core demographic of this blog (and if you believe that, I’m very grateful) a bit of explanation may be needed.

Amstrad (Alan Michael Sugar TRADing) was big (by which I mean BIG) in the UK Consumer Electronics market in the 1970s and 80’s – mainly, but not exclusively, in relation to hi-fi equipment. In the late 1970s, for example, Amstrad had a reputation for producing equipment, such as record players, that while cheap was definitely pitched at the lower, lower, end of the listening market. The two are probably not unconnected.

The name, either by accident or design, also sounded “Nordic” at a time when Scandanavian companies led the world in hi-fi design. There’s a suggestion – that I may have just made-up but, since this is The Internet, who cares? – initial discussions over the company name ranged far and wide, with one particularly popular suggestion eventually rejected because it was felt the connection with Japan, at the time associated with cheap, knock-off, consumer electronics, was just a bit too close to home (not as close as Oslo, of course, and, to be fair, since the company was based in Essex, the East Coast is about as close to Scandinavia you can get without getting your feet wet). It was, however, a sad day for nominative determinism that the link-up with Hitachi never got past the rickety old desk that passed for a drawing-board at Sugar HQ.

Anyway, the point of this rambling introduction is to draw your attention to the no-doubt apocryphal story about Amstrad’s development of the Home Entertainment Centre – something that was “all-the-rage” in the 1980’s (it involved combining a record player, cassette deck, amplifier, tuner and CD-player in one metallic-looking plastic box).

This was at a time when music CDs were just starting to be the “next big thing” and they were being marketed on the basis of two advantages over vinyl and cassette tape:

  1. They were “indestructible”. You could throw them around, coat them in jam (as a BBC tech programme called “Tomorrow’s World” once did – why, I’m not sure) and generally treat them Very Badly Indeed. They would still play your music (although, as no-one realised at the time, they would also gradually degrade over time until they ceased to be a viable way of playing music…).
  2. Their sound quality was a big improvement over tape and vinyl (but only in comparison to a cheap record player or cassette deck. Looking at you again, Amstrad).

So the story goes, the unveiling of Amstrad’s new HE System – featuring both record and CD players – took place in front of a group of expectant Top Executives, including Alan Sugar. The minions responsible for demonstrating this wondrous new piece of kit duly played both the record and CD players to the exited executives who quickly realised there was no discernible difference in sound between the two. This was a Very Big Problem since the whole rationale for getting punters to splash-out on the HE System was the amazing difference in sound quality. And since there wasn’t one this left the assembled execs. with two choices:

  1. Go back to the drawing board, re-engineer the CD player (at great expense), delay the launch and generally spend a lot of time and money putting things right.
  2. “Make the bluddy record player sound worse”.

If you chose option 1, congratulations! Your choice reflects well on your personal integrity, trust in your fellow human beings and all-round niceness. Unfortunately you’d have made the wrong choice and your tenure at Amstrad would likely have been less than the lifetime of the HE System (i.e. not very long at all).

Choosing option 2 reveals you to be of a mind with Alan Sugar (allegedly – the story is, as I’m at repeated odds to stress, apocryphal). Although, to be fair, your choice was probably made easier by the fact Alan has form for this kind of thing; he called the first amplifier he mass produced “The biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever seen in my life” (as luck would have it, he said it after he’d sold a shed load).

This, then, is the basis of Amstradification and in the next couple of posts we’ll look at examples of how it applies to education, firstly in terms of “New Technology” (a global application) and secondly in terms of the increasing marketisation of education in the UK (a local application).

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