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Book Review: Computer by Paul Atkinson

Ian Martin

Historians and sociologists of technology have long been fearful of the spectre of technological determinism. So it is only recently that they have begun to confront the issue of technology’s materiality. Paul Atkinson’s Computer, part of the Objekt series published by Reaktion Books, is a timely contribution to this material turn. Peppered with images and pithy analysis, it offers a refreshing design history perspective on the material and visual aspects of a social construction of computing.

The book is organised thematically into four concise but revealing chapters, which draw chiefly on published sources supplemented by interviews and personal correspondence.

The first chapter retells the now familiar tale of the military-scientific computer reinvented as a tool for business control and then subsequently liberated for the masses by the hacker counter-culture. Physicality goes hand in hand with ideology as Atkinson explores the relationship between form, function and experience.

The second chapter continues the miniaturisation of the computer from corporate asset to personal object charting the emergence of the laptop, PDA and smart phone.

Chapter 3 considers issues of gender, power, status and control, with the computer’s varying forms playing out and duly challenging the conventional view of women as subservient to men in the office and at home.

The final chapter examines conceptions of the computer as an agent of the future in film and print, inspiring admiration, fascination and fear through its ability to automate mental work.

Each chapter successfully conveys the non-linear nature of technological development, highlighting the computer’s multiple contemporaneous forms before specific uses were fixed.

The book is at its best when exploring the design process: the precursor to the laptop is revealed to be a secret-agent-inspired computer in a briefcase; the Palm Pilot PDA began life as a Post-it note on a wooden block prototype; and IBM has the Bauhaus movement to thank for its large-scale computer design. However, despite the design influence of European firms such as Olivetti and Braun, and the diversity of British computing in the 1950s and 1980s, this is an overwhelmingly US-centric history.

It is also one that is focused primarily on hardware. The development of the mouse is cast as pivotal, but, beyond the development of the GUI, the increasingly important part software has played in defining our computing experience is left largely unexplored.

Nevertheless, Computer remains a lively and highly readable book with broad appeal and one that is a welcome addition to the historiography of computing.