In the 1970s and 1980s, the computer starts to be a consumer product in the USA. Americans with enough money to buy microcomputer kits and electronics can create small systems in their homes. The size of these computers is very small compared to the previous generation of big frame computers from USA universities and government agencies. Computer and electronic technology, after almost 20 years of having been funded and subsidized by the American government for scientific research, has arrived to a state where it is affordable and suitable for the middle class home.
In parallel with the changes in prize and size during the 1970s, computer technology also experiments a change in its meaning. In order to enter the American home and become a personal consumer product, computers start to acquire new meanings in relation to the existing cultural practices and values that are already in place. In general, the American society and culture from where computer technology grows and develops, has strong consumer, scientific, and democratic values; has a transcontinental automobile and telephone communication systems; and has a mass media system composed of television, film, radio, and publishing industries. The growing of computer technology and its acquisition of meaning is a negotiation and a struggle with the ideologies and technologies that already exist in the USA.
Meaning of the PC
Since computer technology can take different forms, connect to different devices, appeal to different sensibilities, and serve different functions, the meaning that is attached to the computer tends to be ambiguous. Computers are sort of ambiguous machines. They are open to having several possible meanings, uses, and interpretations. Trying to figure out what is the computer for in the 1970s and 1980s becomes the central task not only of the manufacturers and advertisers of software and hardware, but also of the users of the new technology. This sort of collective search of meaning is the beginning of a participatory computer culture that will grow with the diffusion of the computer technology.
In popular computer magazines from this period of time such as BYTE and Creative Computing, it is common to encounter a variety of visual and textual advertising for microcomputer kits, peripherals, electronics, and software. These ads attach meanings of fun, business, education, entertainment, freedom, intelligence, and control to the new technology. For instance, there is a magazine add for The Challenger, a personal computer from Ohio Scientific, that has in its title the words “Educator, Entertainer, Accountant.” Besides providing paragraphs that describe these three different roles, the add has an introduction that says “a ‘friendly’ computer with hundreds of personal uses, via a huge software library of programs for a broad range of personal, home, educational, business use.” In the lower part of the page, bellow the textual description, there is a photograph that shows three adult characters (a female teacher, a male magician, and a male accountant) behind a desk where the microcomputer stands out.
Children become a central figure in the search of meaning for the personal/home computers. Unlike other technological and communication systems, where children have remained passive (e.g. driving automobiles) they assume an central role within computer culture and start to be showcased as active users of microcomputers since the 1970s. The interaction of children and computers becomes meaningful to middle class parents that are willing to afford the costs of the new technology. It is meaningful, because it meets the values and ideals of children education, fun, entertainment, and pleasure that are already placed in the American society and in the hegemonic children media culture. The microcomputer starts to acquire the meaning of a toy that not only entertains but it is also educational, allowing kids to create, learn, and play.
Genres of software The meanings that are attached to the computer in relation to children can be appreciated very well when we look at the specific software that is designed for kids. In Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children Software (2009), Mimi Ito has identified three different genres of software: entertainment, academic, and construction. Each of these genres grew out from existing educational approaches and media culture genres of participation. The meaning of the entertainment genre is tied to “open-ended play that is characteristic of family-friendly entertainment;” the academic is “based in a primarily behaviorist frame that focuses on the transmission of school-centered content;” and the construction “is tied to constructivist and constructionist educational approaches that stress authoring and media production as a vehicle of learning.”(3)
Children software provides an interface for giving meaning to the personal computer. In the production and marketing of software, the cultural values and practices of the existing American children culture are translated into the new technology. This process of translation is specially evident in the software that belongs to the entertainment and academic genres. For instance, entertainment software such as video games recreates existing characters and narratives that belong to the world of children television, literature, and comic books. Although the academic genre is also influenced by the fantasy-based and commercial children culture, it incorporates the school-based educational content such as mathematics, geography, and history.
The middle class American parents that value fun, pleasure, play, and education, find meaningful having a computer at home that children can use. Since middle class children do not work, they have leisure time they can invest in playing and learning with a computer. Middle class children’s principal activity is to learn and the computer at home is the ultimate toy for facilitating that process. The computer acquires the meaning of a tool that can not only entertain children, but also educate them, allowing them to express in new ways. In contrast to other toys that already existed in the market, computer technology provides the novelty of real-time interaction, children-machine symbiosis, and the promise of an augmentation of the children intellectual process. The children-computer symbiosis empowers children with agency and authorial capabilities that usually were reserved to adults.
Children computer culture
As Paper explains in the article “Computers and Computer Cultures” that appeared in the Creative Computing magazine (March, 1981), “when a child learns to program, the process of learning is transformed. It becomes more active and self directed.” (82) For Papert, children are active when using a computer, and they use it as an object to think with. As he points out, “in teaching the computer how to think, children embark in an exploration about how they themselves think.” (82)
Papert has an optimist vision of the coupling of the children and the computer. In a paper called Redefining Childhood: The Computer Presence as an Experiment in Developmental Psychology (1980), he explains how computer can change the patterns of intellectual development and how the diffusion of personal computers is a “giant experiment in developmental psychology carried out on a social scale.” According to him, in this experiment, “what is at issue is the nature of childhood and its role in the construction of the adult.” The notions of what children can do and what they cannot do change when they cooperate with the computer. The children-computer symbiosis empowers little children and allows them to access knowledge that before was available only to adults. In a paragraph that could have sound pretty utopian in 1980, Papert explains that “the combination of personal computers, high density video storage and high bandwidth communication channels will make it possible for every child to have access to much more and much more varied knowledge than the most expert scholars do now.”
It is worth noticing how Papert frames the diffusion of computer technology as a giant experiment in developmental psychology and learning, and how he places children at the center of the experiment. For him, children are protagonists of the social transformation that can happen when humans cooperate with computers. This vision of childhood will gain resonance in American popular children culture and would be embraced by the producers of the software that belong to the construction genre. Papert himself will be one of the leaders in the development of this genre with the LOGO programming language.
As the children-computer symbiosis start to be showcased in the computer culture, children begin to be recognized as authors, tinkers, creators, builders, and masters. The software from the construction genre facilitates this empowering process by diversifying the kind of creations that children are able to make. From computer graphics, to textual processors, to simulators, the construction software allows children to explore their creativity, and practice their thinking. Interestingly, the increasing recognition of children agency and creativity in the production of cultural objects goes in parallel with the development of a more participatory and democratic popular culture.
Conclusion In conclusion, children have a central role in the diffusion of computer technology in American society. Their learning and educational needs, as well as their ability to play and have fun with the new technology, provide reasons for bringing the computer home. Those reasons resonate with the consumer and bourgeois values of middle class parents that are able to afford the costs of the new commodity. The three different genres of children’s software (academic, entertainment, and construction) are an interface for providing meaning to the computer technology. Each genre reveals the influence of traditional educational approaches, children media culture, and the constructivist learning theory. In the production and marketing of software, the cultural values and practices of the existing American children culture and ideals and visions of scientific research are translated into the new technology.
The diffusion of the pc/home computer goes alone with a process of reinvention of childhood and learning. While computer technology acquires new meanings in relationship to children such as a tool for creation, entertainment, and education; childhood and learning are also redefined. On the one hand, children are imagined as empowered masters of technology, capable of control, authorship, and agency. On the other, learning is re-invented as an interactive process where children cooperate with the computer for thinking, problem solving, and media making. As Seymour Paper wrote in 1980 the diffusion of computers into the life of a society, turns out to be a giant experiment in developmental psychology. In such experiment, children become protagonists of socio-cultural change.