The cover of BYTE magazine (the small systems journal) from November, 1976, is a color photograph of two children sat in front of what it seems to be a home computer system. The children are not looking at the camera. Instead, they are looking the screen of a 15” TV monitor that is placed in the middle of two desks, on the top of a rack that also contains wires, oscillographs, a microcomputer box, and machines for measuring electric current. The kid on the left is using one of his hands to press a button on the keyboard of an ITT microcomputer with a black screen. The kid on the right has one hand on his lap and the other seems to be pressing a keyboard of a Teletype machine. He is looking at the image that the TV monitor that is in the rack displays, an 8-bit graphic of two rocket ships. Both children are wearing short pants, t-shirts, and don’t have shoes. They are approximately 5 years old and since the chairs they are using are designed for adults, their feet cannot reach the carpet floor. In the wall that is in the back, there are two posters with the theme of outer space, the one that is big and has very light color shows a iconic photograph of an astronaut on the moon; the other one is little and shows a kind of spacecraft structure or an abstract map. In the bottom of the magazine cover, the phrase “It’s more fun than crayons” is highlighted in white letters.
Several photographs and illustrations that show little kids interacting with computer systems populate the hobbyists magazines of the 1970s and 1980s. Sometimes they accompany articles, other times they are used for advertising software, hardware, and books. The picture of the BYTE’s cover, for instance, goes alone with an article written by Richard Rosner, a computer hobbyist and dad from Brookfield, Connecticut, who has assembled a system that allows his children to create graphics that can be displayed on a TV screen. In the article, Rosner describes not only the technical characteristics of his home computer system and how his two children are able to draw by typing commands, but also how he has found himself “putting up a signup sheet as the family competes for computer time.”
The spread of images and stories about children using computers during the early age of the personal/home computer goes along with the diffusion of computer technology in the American society and the development of a computer culture in where adults, youth, and children participate. In this blog entry and in the next one, I would like to explore the history of the relationship between computers and children. In particular, I would like to understand how the personal/home computer and a rich variety of software acquired meaning by being attached to children activities such as play and learning. Some of the questions that guide my exploration are, What is the role of children in the domestication of the computer technology? Why are children important for the commercialization of the new technology? How does the computer meet children needs? Why children should learn how to use computers?
Home, Sweet Home
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.
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.
However, the same kind of popular magazines that are saturated with advertisements of computer and electronic consumer products, allow computer hobbyists to publish articles in where they share the kind of systems they have been building, their explorations of computer programming languages, and they techniques and formulas for creating video games and new programs. The article “It’s more fun than crayons” I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, is an example of how a hobbyist finds a new meaning for the personal computer he has when he is able to connect it to a television screen. He points out that “it wasn’t until I hooked up the TV to my present system that my family took interest.” He also provides more details on the meaning of the computer for him and his family by explaining that the location of his system is the “play room” of his house and that not only his children has started to use the computer but also his wife.
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.
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.