Children and the Social Construction of the Personal Computer (Part 2)

Children-Computer Symbiosis and the Reinvention of Childhood

Since the 1950s, researchers in the fields of artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and computer science, were asking questions about how humans learn and think. At university laboratories they were designing theories of the mind and imagining machines that could think and augment human intelligence. One of the most influential researchers was J.C.R Licklider, an interdisciplinary scientist with degrees in psychology, mathematics, and physics, that worked not only in university laboratories at Harvard (Psyco-Acoustic Lab) and MIT (Lincoln Lab, Project MAC), but also in the computer industry (Bolt Beranek and Newman), and the American government (Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA)). Licklider ideas about real-time computing and human-computer interaction are very influential in the development of computer technology. The implementation of those ideas in the personal/home computer is crucial for enabling the kinds of creative, playful, and learning interactions that children have with the new technology.

In his seminal paper on Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960), Licklider argues that humans and computers can cooperate as if they were in a symbiotic partnership in order to perform intellectual operations more effectively. Writing in 1960, he explains that, “in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.” Almost fifteen years later, with the commercialization of computer technology, Licklider vision of symbiotic partnership starts to become a reality for the American population (white middle class) that can buy microcomputer kits. The human-computer symbiosis, however, is available not only to the men, but to all the members of the American family, including children and women.

Seymour Papert
‘s work at the MIT Artificial Intelligence laboratory and the MIT LOGO group during the 1970s and 80s, focuses precisely on the kind of partnership that children have with computers. As an interdisciplinary researcher, Papert draws upon the developmental psychology and constructivism learning theories developed by Jean Piaget in order to explain how computers can empower little children. According to Piaget, children are active builders of their own intellectual structures, they are philosophers that create knowledge and meaning based on their own experiences. In the constructivist or “Piagetian” learning, the intellectual structures are built by the learner rather than taught by a teacher. Such kind of learning resonates very well with the idea of children-computer cooperative interaction. 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.

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.


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