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Accidental Machines; the impact of popular participation in computer technology.

Michael Punt

This article is about computers, electronic communications, and how the current use of these technologies has been influenced by changes in the popular understanding of what they mean. It is about the  role of the mass of ordinary users in defining the meaning of science and its products. It shows how sometimes this is  a source of conflict  between the narrow interests of the professional and the broader concerns of the amateur. Extrapolating from this premise, the article rehearses a history of the personal computer to suggest how  the understandings that motivate commercial innovators might sometimes be vastly at odds with those of the consumer. It concludes by proposing that the type of historical method that we use is important in the process of explaining technology, and that this is a crucial problem to be addressed by all those with an interest in what the future of the computer industry and its products might be.

For most of us the term computer has come to mean a small inscrutable personal machine no bigger than the average television set, which sits on the desk top in the home and office and has become an extension of our professional and recreational lives. Typically  it is used for a number of discrete operations like word processing,  spreadsheet analysis,  publishing,  multimedia applications and  telecommunications. This machine, commonly referred to as the PC, but more properly called a microcomputer, is the paradigmatic engineers 'black box'. Few of us know how the apparatus works in detail, and, largely, there is little to be gained from the effort of understanding the finer points of the hardware and its operating systems. This tendency has been nurtured by the imperative of 'user friendliness' which informs much good computer interface design. Graphical user interfaces (GUI) make it unnecessary for us to do more than decode the occasional acronym (like ROM and RAM for example)[i][i] to which highly complex electronic modules known as chips have been reduced. The PC is one of the most technically complex and mysterious  pieces of technology that we have to deal with on a daily basis, and it is not a coincidence that it provides both  a metaphor for the mind and the architecture for  working  models of human intelligence.

The history of the PC is the story of the transformation of a specialised piece of scientific equipment into a popular consumer product. After starting life as an ambitious laboratory project, the computer is now something that we switch on and use for either work or play, depending on circumstances. These machines, in utilitarian plastic cases, have insinuated themselves into private spaces and provide an interface between the particular and esoteric concerns of professional science and the uncomprehending generality of the population. Increasingly they eliminate personal relations as they are placed between one human resource and another - answering telephones, tracking accounts, and administering communities. Since they are such incomprehensible and socially alienating things it may seem wilfully obtuse to want to insist that non-scientists were important in the invention of the computer and that  they continues to exert  influence on its current and future uses. More particularly so when it is far from clear that they are greeted with unconditional popular enthusiasm and are often regarded by many as a dubious gift from  the laboratory that reduce all human experience to bits of data.

The popular response to new and complex technologies is a sensitive issue for the corporate concerns in the computer and television industry.  It seems inevitable that the microcomputer will penetrate even  further into professional and domestic life and become the basis for all  telecommunications in the future. Among commercial and industrial interests there is considerable debate as to whether, in the next few years, the standard domestic entertainment and information platform will  be cable television or some sort of  hybrid Internet link using telephone lines and microcomputers. Some eminent commentators  argue the case that television is on the point of expiring and that the PC will take its place. Others see  the apparent financial ineptness of the computer industry, and its inexperience at dealing with the entertainment world,  as a significant barrier to any  shift away from the dominance of television as the main information and entertainment medium. What is at stake in this question is the perception of the developers of 'front end' products  like user interfaces  and even the hardware, which will make different kinds of information and entertainment available. If designers can be persuaded to produce attractive products for one platform or the other (television or the PC), then the battle between the corporate interests will be half won irrespective of the best technology. It has been understood for some time that without the so called 'killer applications'  new technologies, however good, will not achieve market penetration. In the 1970s an 1980s, for example, the competing standards of VHS and Betamax in the VCR (domestic video recorder)  market was eventually settled not by technical specifications but by the 'killer application' of pre-recorded movies. The machine that is now most widespread (VHS) is technically inferior to its competitors,  but   the advantages of  access to the huge back catalogue of the Hollywood studios tipped the balance in favour of JVC's system.

New technology may be the beneficial fallout from science, which a thriving industrial economy and smart entrepreneurs can turn into profitable products, but when they reach the market there are opportunities for new aesthetic forms.  The impact that popular culture has historically had on the form and uses of technologies is often  in competition with economic and institutional intentions. The domestic video recorder (VCR) may be a successful product with high levels of market penetration, but its use as a home cinema stands as an indictment of the failure of broadcast television to produce new aesthetic forms in response to the opportunities that it offered. In their absence the VCR  resurrected the international film industry, television's most direct competitor,  which was thought to be in terminal decline during the early  1970s.  The interaction between technology and society is not a top down  relationship but something much more complex in which there is a struggle for what inventions mean and how they will be used.

Something similar to the VCR story is already happening in popular telecommunications. The Internet is not only the consequence of  certain technological developments, but also owes much to astute political manoeuvres by the US government. It was expanded as an international  public resource mainly  by enthusiasts outside the market system  working long hours without payment. Not surprisingly it has not fulfilled the corporate expectations of social cohesion as a computer based Citizen Band network but has become a conduit for the exchange of radical politics and socially subversive material. Much of the traffic  passing between subscribers is profoundly anti-technology, anti- establishment and especially anti-American.  The current struggle is between those who see the network as an ideal forum for social criticism, and those who want to integrate it into the capitalist systems. Although the odds always appear to be weighted in favour of large institutional bodies, as the case of the VCR shows, the users of a technology have some determining influence over its eventual meaning, and it is by no means certain that the Internet will indeed become the golden goose that many entrepreneurs and large corporations  hope.  

The determining influence of users on the eventual meaning of technology is not a particularly twentieth century phenomena. David Nye's account of the electrification of America has shown how the meaning of electricity was negotiated between the various constituencies who produced it, those who used it and those who opposed it.[ii][ii]  I have shown elsewhere how the very invention of the cinema in the closing years of the last century was to some extent the consequence of  a crisis in the interpretation of the function of both the professional scientist and the amateur in the construction of new knowledge. The thematic of this struggle has never disappeared from popular cinema and remains in the foreground of many successful  movies today. Hollywood producers currently appear to find the problem of technological change a compelling topic for major investments. The mainstream 'Blockbuster' movie may be easily dismissed as aesthetically bankrupt, manipulative and cynically exploitative of ordinary people's anxieties, but   often provides an archaeological trace of science and popular culture reaching satisfactory compromise through a mythical reinterpretation of technology. During the summer of 1996 cinema box office records were being broken by Independence Day, a film that showed the terrible consequences of letting technologists run the world. The annihilation of the human race by the superior intelligence of both the aliens and the scientists, with whom they had much in common, was ultimately overcome but cunning, physical prowess, and the common sense of the lay person. The success of Independence Day was closely followed by Mission Impossible and Twister, films that also pitched the cloistered abstractions of high science against a practical first hand experience of the world. In each of these stories it is, finally, an ordinary man in touch with himself and nature who saved the human race, and it is the professional scientists who are dispatched into oblivion.[iii][iii] The aftermath of the carnage in each case is a less scientific and  a more humanly centred world. In these films Hollywood, as usual, manages to resolve the pressing and intransigent problem of technology which is both a life enhancing, and dehumanising,  by providing us with a satisfactory imaginary solution.

Perhaps the movies are so good at articulating anxiety about science and technology because  producers and film makers share some of the audience's ambivalence to them. During the early 1970s it seemed that watching television had made going to the movies redundant. The film industry fell into deep economic depression  and almost bankrupted itself, but somehow it  managed to revive. As Thomas Schatz has convincingly shown the,

Ensuing pronouncements of the 'death of Hollywood' proved to be greatly exaggerated, however, the [movie] industry not only survived [television] but flourished in a media market place. Among the more remarkable developments in recent media history, in fact, is the staying power of the major studios (Paramount, MGM, Warners, et al.) and of the movie itself...[iv][iv]

To even the most casual observer, the familiar logos at the end of prime time shows, is evidence of the degree to which television production is now in the economic control of Hollywood.'[v][v]  One factor in this  revival of fortunes is the new technologies for  encoding and storing data. Computer techniques that reduce production costs and enhance the product, electronic distribution of both texts and images, and good definition television combined with cheap videocassette recorders (VCR) have ensured that more people than ever before in the history of the world are watching movies. The proliferation of television channels, video entertainment, computer games and cheap publishing has ensured that  the film industry has never been more profitable, and yet the technologies that have made this possible, especially television and computers, are often demonised in the movies themselves. The films that Hollywood prefers to make are often stern reminders to the industry  that the very inventions that appear to make life better can quite suddenly also make it worse. In as much as movie making is now inextricably tied in with electronic entertainment media, the ambivalence and anxieties of Hollywood are also not far below the confident exterior of the personal  computer industry.

The uncertainties for the future of the entertainment industry, precipitated by new  network technologies, were highlighted in the summer of 1996 with a number of well publicised and contradictory predictions. Concurrent with the success of Independence Day, for example, Microsoft announced a new software development that would allow the home computer to become a terminal on the Internet. This software will access files that are resident on remote machines (servers) which will appear on the PC desktop as icons and can be used in exactly the same way as if they were on the resident hard drive. Apple too has been working on a system called Pippin that will turn the home computer into a personalised item similar in size to the Walkman.[vi][vi] These announcements herald  the beginning of a new generation of personal computers which will dispense with the key board as an interface and uses a standard television instead of a dedicated computer video display unit (VDU). Since this will reduce the cost of the PC (to around $400) it is hoped that they will be instrumental in the penetration of computer communications into a mass market through the entertainment opportunities of the Internet. Of course this system will incur telephone connection charges, but increasingly the economics of cable television distribution, based on selling consumers to advertisers, makes it attractive to offer cheap and sometimes free local charges.[vii][vii] There is a great deal at stake here, since if this does turn out to be  the future of  personal computing, then as both Microsoft and Apple realise,  seizing the initiative could significantly shift the balance of power between hardware and software producers and this would have economic implications for the future of television (and Hollywood).

These two companies are, as ever, competitively responding to projected hardware trends with the software opportunities that public access to the Internet offers.[viii][viii] Phillips and The Interactive Digital Appliance Company, who are respectable players in the hardware side of the industry, are fighting back. They also see the future of the entertainment market in a convergence of television and  computer technologies and are developing their products accordingly. By the end of 1996, Inteq promised a 27 inch entertainment machine which '... will be equipped with Zenith NetVision capability based on [a] broad technology platform for information appliances'. NetVision's capability will support a range of services, including browsing the World Wide Web, accessing electronic mail and future JAVA terminal applications.' 2 The NetVision set will include a fast telephone modem, 'picture in picture' image (which allows the television to be viewed simultaneously with the Internet), and 'Theatre Surround Sound'. It is expected to sell for around $1000. The manufacturers do not intend to replace the PC but instead allow the 'home theatre enthusiast' to '... combine channel surfing with Web surfing'.[ix][ix] Zenith too is attempting to use the profit potential of the entertainment market to gain control of the technology through the convergence of consumer electronics and digital networks. 'NetVision', they claim, 'will allow consumers for the first time to experience the Web without the expense or complexity of a PC.'[x][x] These new products are based on the assumption that television will remain the dominant platform for home entertainment.

George Gilder, a prolific cultural commentator on the relationship between technology and electronics, on the other hand, forcibly suggests that, for technological, social, and economic reasons, the corporate preference for television technologies is a wrong turning. The combining of television and the computer is, in his view, a 'convergence of corpses'. [xi][xi] He argues that the electronic future lies with  the PC, and supports his claim with an historical analysis of the market which shows that computer centred technologies, which may not have the show biz appeal of television, are nonetheless more successful than convergences. The PC market, Gilder points out, is expanding much faster than was expected, and certainly more than television. The current problem in the industry, as he sees it, is that much of the PC's power is diverted away from rapid data management to cope with compression protocols enforced by narrow bandwidths and this results in the poor video images that are currently tolerated in teleconferencing and on the Internet. This, he suggests, will be unimaginably transformed so that broadcast quality images will be the standard when  broader bandwidths, are introduced. In George Gilder's view, once this happens, multimedia will be a realisable goal rather than a rather sorry pastiche of other modes of entertainment like television, the movies and photography.

Most critically, however, Gilder recognises that the active participation of a broad public, interacting with the formal properties of these new technologies is important for their economic success. The television, he claims, cannot adequately deal with text and is inherently a 'couch potato' device, principally because it consumes human capital. By this he means that whereas  television (as an entertainment) is generally used as a distraction from business and careers, personal computing technology encourages personal growth. Even when the computer is used for recreation  and entertainment, it tends to develop skills and intellectual competence that are productive in other domains. This asymmetry between the television and the PC will tip the balance in favour of the computer as the dominant entertainment platform. Gilder's further prediction is that, when this happens, the 'PC age' will recuperate the lost cult of the amateur that preceded television as people use it to advance particular interests. Moreover it will stimulate an increase in book culture, which, in spite of competition from other media, is currently enjoying an enormous economic success.

Gilder's history and future of digital technology is influenced by the recent return to favour of so called 'supply side economics'. The emergence of the PC coincided with some influential revision in the way that American, and some European, governments attempted to control inflation. It was felt that only by stimulating the movement of goods and services the flagging economies of the industrialised nations would be revived. Cutting taxes and government intervention, it was argued, stimulated investment and re-tooling, which in turn would promote growth, increase revenues and control inflation. The fashion for this policy stimulated a restructuring in some industries, which had been built upon the early twentieth century preference for vertical integration, in which all parts of the processes of manufacture, distribution and retail were in the control of a single corporation. New horizontal structures were put in place which exploited and controlled the potential of network technologies. The largest corporations reorganised themselves  more as financiers   than  manufactures and distributors  of products. In the process of this restructuring limited opportunities for  small scale low investment businesses  opened up, to provide  goods and services at prices and volumes which were controlled by the  mechanics of a market economy. The pros and cons of supply side economics have been widely debated, but the extent to which George Gilder's case rests upon a quite specific idealisation of the American economy is illustrated by Robert X. Cringely's equally compelling, although fundamentally different aetiology of the PC and prognosis  for its development.[xii][xii]

Since the early 1970s Robert X. Cringely, a gossip columnist for InfoWorld, has assiduously followed the story of the impact of individual  speculators on the development of the personal computer. His account of the PC industry is chronicled in Accidental Empires which was  first published in 1994 and revised in 1996. It describes the growth of the personal computer from an amateur obsession to the fourth most profitable industry in history (after automobiles, energy production, and illegal drugs).[xiii][xiii] Unlike George Gilder, who tells the story of computing from the point of view of the winners, Cringely provides a more symmetrical causality for the various changes in hardware and software technology by charting the realisation of particular personal ambitions of some individuals associated with the industry, as well as the near misses of others. He shows how certain people with particular talents and similar social inhibitions, accidentally met others and were able to temporarily challenge the hegemony of the establishment (most notably the market leader - IBM) by developing an alternative view of the computer as a personal (rather than corporate) machine. With well-chosen examples of spectacular financial misjudgements by major players in the industry, he shows a gap between established powers in the industry and maverick entrepreneurs (like the young  Bill Gates) who were closely in touch with an alternative view of what computers and computing 'meant'. This interpretative group was a small, but obsessive, constituency of amateurs who were interested in computing relative to semi-recreational uses. Once equipped with basic machines many cemented their affiliation with the community of other enthusiasts by writing inventive software. Commercial exploitation was the obvious next step  for the personally ambitious, and companies such as IBM, who were committed to the idea of computing as a hardware business, faced competition from unexpected quarters.

These competing interpretative groups - the hardware giants and the software based enthusiasts - have, according to Cringely, reached some kind of consensus in the pattern of product development and this accounts for the present characteristics of  the industry. For example he shows that hardware innovation is rapidly subsumed by software applications. His predictions for the future of computing as being dominated by software solutions from Microsoft  are based on his personality based overview of the past;

<The trend in information technologies is first to solve a problem with expensive, dedicated hardware, then with general purpose non dedicated hardware, and finally with software. The first digital computers, after all weren't really computers at all: they were custom built machines for calculating artillery trajectories or simulating atomic bombs. The fact that they used digital circuits was almost immaterial, since the early machines could not be easily programmed. The next generation of computers still relied on custom hardware, but could not be programmed for many types of the jobs, and computers today often substitute software, in the form of emulators, for what was originally done in custom hardware.>[xiv][xiv]

Cringely's approach suggests that understanding the historical causality of technologies is vital if expensive investment mistakes are to be avoided. As he observes, the errors of IBM are even now being repeated on a vaster scale by Pacific Rim speculators. 'The hardware business is dying' he asserts, 'Let it. The Japanese and Koreans are so eager to take over the PC hardware business that they are literally trying to buy the future. But they're only buying the past'.[xv][xv]  By implication, Cringely's history could teach them differently.

Hardware will, of course, change to some degree, and like many commentators Cringely sees a convergence of television and the computer in a set-top device with a highly efficient  processing chip to decode  and decompress data. What will make this product successful in the domestic market is computing power that is both cheap and better  than the average PC. Motorola is currently investing in this vision of the future, with the Power PC 301 processor in the belief that the market for new personal computers have levelled. New sales,  based on a  periodic replacement strategy, will be used as  an opportunity to upgrade processing power (in much the same pattern as company car renewal). As Cringely points out; 'The Power PC 301 yields a set-top device that has the graphics performance equivalent to a Silicon Graphics Indigo workstation, and yet will only cost users £250'. Who is going to want to sit at their computer when they can find more computing power (and more network services) available on their TV?'[xvi][xvi] Motorola expects the demand for set top devices to be one billion units in the next decade. Unlike Intel, (the other leading player in chip production) who are going for ever higher specifications, they are structuring their research and development, as well as their marketing to produce a cheap fast chip. At the beginning of 1997, in line with Cringely's predictions, the Motorola Company announced that it intends to pull out of developing Power PC-based systems, but, they added nodding in the direction of convergence,  they will, however,  continue to work on Internet access devices using the chip.

Ultimately Robert Cringely's methodology, and his careful sifting of the evidence provides both a convincing explanation for the present, and, as the recent announcement from Motorola illustrates, a credible forecasting tool. What distinguishes him from George Gilder is a belief that technology and culture do not function confrontationally, but rather more dialectically. Cringely maintains that technological innovation is shaped by both the possibilities of the hardware and the imagination of those who encounter them. In Cringely's history of the personal computer he charts a transformation from the fixed bulky machines, accessed by the professional elite, to ephemeral, simple and cheap software that is, above all, popular. The causality, as far as he is concerned, is the interaction of a new kind of machine with '... disenfranchised nerds like Bill Gates who didn't meet the macho standards of American maleness and so looked for a way to create their own adult world and through that creation, gain the admiration of their peers.'[xvii][xvii]  In a seductive homology, Cringely suggests that personal computers are the fallout from 'nerds' replacing the heavy duty muscle of the corporate hardware  giants with 'brainy' software.

Cringely is concerned with the power politics of Silicon Valley, his conceptual premise and methodology yield some brilliant insights,  but the deficit in his account, at least for product designers working with multimedia, is what the personal computer might mean for 'ordinary users' now. When new technologies meet ordinary people they are sometimes transformed beyond recognition, and, moreover they can continue to change. It is now well understood by historians of early cinema, for example,  that the basic apparatus became the foundation of a mass cultural experience because of the interaction of technological, economic, and social determinants.[xviii][xviii] Histories of the invention of the cinematographe, and the economic exploitation of the popular enthusiasm for moving pictures cannot satisfactorily account for how the films looked. For this, we must turn to the audience's interpretation and expectations of the technology that were often (as they are today) confused and inconsistent. Early producers were often also exhibitors and were able to adjust their films in response to popular reception. They changed topics and treatments, (and even projection speeds) to suit the audience. In a similar way, Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote operating systems for a constituency of amateurs with whom they were closely in touch. However as the PC industry took off, the distribution arrangements for software and other products, distanced the designers from the users. The seductive  technological determinism (which suggests that culture is changed by technology) precipitated significant wrong turnings in much of the early design. People buying computers and software were often expected to follow the enthusiasms and agenda of the 'disenfranchised nerds' now turned entrepreneur.  Some did, but the vast majority of the potential market had different ideas about what playing with computers meant.

Perhaps more remarkable than the rapid growth of the market is that  the PC survived as a consumer product given the gulf between  the consumers and the producers' ideas about the machines. The  uncritical technological determinism in the industry has inhibited the creative possibilities of what was possibly one of the most promising media to ever emerge from computer research and development - the CD Rom. According to industry 'vapourware', interactive CD Rom based on hypermedia architecture, was going to transform education and popular entertainment in unbounded ways. This medium, it was predicted, would be used to store data in a great variety of forms (text, image, sound, graphics, movies) which would be accessed associatively to provide a powerful value-added learning tool. CD Roms would transform libraries by eliminating the costly storage of volumes and providing different modalities of access to data, which would ultimately affect scholarship.[xix][xix] In short it would be a new episteme. None of this seems to have happened except in a number of highly specific applications, mostly concerning industrial training programmes. Even here, according to some analysts, the changes are small. It has been noticed, for example,  that trainees invariably make paper printouts of the contents of a whole disc (regardless of relevance) in order to be able to consult the material away from a machine.

The CD Rom. publishing business was thought to be worth around $5 Billion in 1994, which for a world market is minute, (consider for example US telecommunications predicted at a trillion Dollars by 2,000).[xx][xx] CD Roms, it appears, have been used to provide another format for the existing collections of computer games, the distribution of freeware (which works haphazardly), and pornography. z Invariably these do not exploit the non linear navigation, which is the true potential of the medium, but instead re-circulate existing conventions for information retrieval disguised in vogue pop graphics.[xxi][xxi] Consequently it has proved very difficult to market, since on the one hand it was promoted as revolutionary, whilst in reality it is more often than not simply an expensive, unwieldy and approximate copy of something that already exists. The products have failed to fulfil the imagination of the consumer, and retailers see little incentive in promoting them with large displays and shelf space. As the focus of attention has moved on to other promising forms, notably the Internet, the CD Rom industry seems to have stabilised as a vanity publishing medium rather than any real alternative way managing information.[xxii][xxii]

In the absence of any distinct advantage for using CD Rom as a medium, it has, consistent with Cringely's prognosis, been replace by a software equivalent that we know as the Internet. Access to the Internet provides an associative database, and the storage and intelligent search engines that formed the basis of many of the earlier promises made for the emerging hardware medium of CD Rom have been emulated.  This is now achieved  with a non-specific piece of hardware called a modem that interfaces between the PC and the telephone system. If this trajectory is followed through, the immanent 'convergence', using set-top devices to connect homes with cable companies, will be replaced by a programmed chip (presumably made by Motorola). In which case the expected penetration of the personal computer into the domestic space will quite possibly be as a software product. Rather than innovative hardware, the application that is expected to support the popular uptake of home computing is a hypermedia graphical web browser of which Netscape and Microsoft's Internet Explorer are perhaps the most well known.[xxiii][xxiii]

Once again, however, industry 'vapourware', advertising, newspaper copy, and particularly home computing magazines provide a dubious history. They tend to  focus on the technological aspects of interactive hypermedia and give the impression that personal computers were always intended to be like this; all that was necessary was the appropriate advances in science. The Internet, however, has been around for a very long time (some suggest as early as 1969). It was the outcome of a rather specialised project to develop an associative database that could be accessed, and most importantly, added to,  primarily by professionals in scientific research. It was never intended as a public access network and, consequently, most users were content to work with somewhat forbidding chopped down machine codes rather than the friendly graphical interfaces we use today. However in the early 1990s a number of political decisions widened the constituency of Internet to include amateurs, enthusiasts, and users without a specialist technical background. This group saw the Internet rather differently from the professionals, as a space for public access and universal connectedness. As this different interpretation has prevailed, more user friendly interfaces have emerged, not through the insights and speculations of entrepreneurs, but from the creative resources of the new community of users. Graphical web browsers are not so much advances in software design, but can be seen as both software emulators of existing hardware, and  responses to a popular engagement with the Internet which has produced new ideas about what personal computing means, in the context of a broader culture than that reflected by the  industry's journalists.

Software emulations of existing hardware might mean that the PC could easily disappear from personal computing. This may be regarded as further evidence of a cultural slide towards the sort of virtuality that was foreshadowed by the cinema a century ago, when moving images were seen as substitutes for the realities that were represented. In this analysis, resistance to an increasingly vicarious existence is impossible, and keeping pace with a progressive de-materialisation is almost an obligation for artists and designers. Another view of this is that nothing has changed, and that the personal computer (like the cinema) has always been a machine that had an imaginary dimension for both scientists and a lay public, and that its various incarnations since the second world war are simply recirculations in a process of reinterpretation to which many technologies are subject.

The PC was not invented as a whole idea, nor was there any fixed final objective to which its developers strove. As a piece of technical hardware it emerged from applied scientific research and a community of enthusiastic amateurs. Each group had significantly different ideas about what the machine was and might do in the future. In this sense it is an imaginary apparatus. It is an arrangement of smaller discrete machines, (chips, drives, keyboards, screens, etc.) a dispositif  that  can be regarded as material response to imaginary scenarios about technology. The PC, as we now understand it, (and this may just be a temporary interpretation) is a machine linked to telephone networks with a storage and retrieval system. It is, to use an engineering term, a kluge, or bricollage of a number of discrete components. These come together to produce an entirely  new device, greater than the sum of its parts, that we recognise at different times as the personal computer (or perhaps more accurately a microcomputer). A closer examination of these parts, together with an account of how they were put together, may reveal something of the imaginaries of both scientist and enthusiast to show a different, less determinist causality.

One of these discrete components is the telephone. Its linkage with a computer in the mid 1980s gave us a new word 'telematics', which roughly means the confluence of telephone and computer technologies. One of its first manifestations in a consumer product was in 1981 when France Telecom introduced the  Minitel. This was a small video display unit with a key board and telephone hand set that was connected via the exchange to various providers ranging from street directories to call girls. A critical mass of connected users was established by the free distribution of Minitel machines, as a replacement for the huge Paris telephone directory. Many subscribers found this apparatus compelling and, like some early Internet users, ran up crippling bills. Minitel offered a reliable, compact, domestic version of prototypical networking devices that had been  used by computer enthusiasts for some time. In these, data exchange with a host computer was made with a device called  an acoustic coupler. This was an electronic 'black box' with a pair of rubber cups that engulfed the hand set in a rather sinister manner. Since these devices used sound to transmit digital data (much like a fax) they were prone to error through 'dirty' signals and extraneous noise. Moreover the sheer bulk and inelegance of the apparatus made them unattractive products for the mass market. They remained an expensive item with a small constituency, but they did show that quite interesting things could be done with the telephone. This was not an obvious or natural extension of the computer, but the telephone became implicated, almost accidentally, because its network of wires and satellite relays were conveniently in place for professionals and amateurs exploring the possibilities of exchanging digital data. The diffusion of these pioneering efforts among like minded enthusiasts had the effect of extending the imaginary dimension of the PC into the realms of social interaction. Business interests, and then domestic users also began to take an interest in these telecommunications experiments. The ubiquitous modern modem, nowadays as chic as Reebok trainers, connect directly into the network to replace a clumsy piece of hardware with something smaller, more reliable and stylish. They also now come as a standard component built into many small computers, and the next step,  is that this device too is likely to be replaced by something more technically elegant, like an emulator chip inside the ordinary television set.

The subsequent development of the Internet as a popular medium has transformed the business plans of some of the largest companies in the world. The telephone companies initially became involved in network computing because their wires were already in place. This turned out to very lucrative, but as the market for telematic services has expanded there is increasing competition from other connective systems. Microwave systems for portable phones, for example, are rapidly replacing wires in developed economies and are becoming the start-up standard in Third World and Pacific Rim countries. Cable television also pose a competitive threat to the established networks, since delivering television signals is compatible with telephone communications. Established 'phone companies have responded with take-overs of digital networks and diversification into entertainment. Simply to survive in the changing market, the major telephone companies have become directly involved in show business, which is something for which they are barely equipped.[xxiv][xxiv] Whilst this promises increased revenues it is not without its problems as some of the largest  corporations in the world are being forced  to make vast and risky investments in unfamiliar territory. The imperative for this arises from the enthusiastic reception of  the convergence of the telephone and  the kluge we know as the PC. New products like those announced by Zenith, Phillips and The Interactive Digital Network Corporation  are not a technological inevitabilities (as George Gilder suggests), but responses to the current struggle for control of distribution networks precipitated by a new interpretation of the  small computer by consumers.

The most visible and dynamic evidence of this response is the burgeoning Internet as a resource for recreational pleasure.  Retrieving data from this network involves searching for the appropriate host and connecting with it to retrieve files. Early pioneers used arcane instruction  codes. Since then associative linking software, known as browsers, combined with search engines and Internet protocol management have provided one of the most widespread means of accessing the Internet. Most of these browsers are derivatives of hypertext  programmes that use 'hot spots' (areas of the display which when clicked, access another file in the database). Like the telephone, Hypertext was not a computer technology but initially a text based microfilm system for keeping track of scientific publications called MEMEX.[xxv][xxv] In 1932, Vannevar Bush began working on the problem of  extending human memory. He was particularly concerned that scientific research might be stifled by the massive growth of professional literature. Following a draft paper in 1939, his idea was finally published in 1945.[xxvi][xxvi] He proposed a system of 'windows' which allowed comparative analysis of textual material from disparate sources and an input device that enabled the user to add notes and comments. A new profession of 'trailblazers' (as he called them) would be formed of people able to bundle links together in a predetermined web so that specialist scientists could follow their own threads, unencumbered by irrelevant material. Development was slow since it was essentially a research project and an in-house tool for scientists and a fully working version of the MEMEX was never built. The prototypes that were made, however,  did provide a number of mechanisms that could model associative indexing. Using this device as  evidence he was able to show some deficits in contemporary ideas about the human intelligence and thought processes.[xxvii][xxvii] For example, the MEMEX was able to illustrate how the parallel processing of serial data was possible with relatively small technical resources. Much later his idea was used to form the basic architecture of hypermedia applications likeNtescape, but its immediate significance for artificial intelligence research ensured continued support of the American government for thirty years until 1975.

One of the people who developed Bush's original idea was Doug Englebart. He is now most well know for inventing the mouse as a computer interface device. Quite coincidentally, it seems, he was inspired by the brief description of the MEMEX that he came across, at the end of the second world war, in one of the many published profiles of Bush. [xxviii][xxviii] It remained with him, as a generalised idea but it was not until 1962 that he introduced it into data management and computing. Although both Bush and Englebart might be considered as pioneers of associative indexing, what neither of them anticipated was that a revolutionary idea for information management designed for specialist scientists would subsequently be crucial in the growth of a popular enthusiasm for personal computing. Nor did they envisage that it would become the preferred modality for the twentieth century flanneur, surfing the virtual arcades of the super highway.

In the early 1960s, however Ted Nelson, a media analyst, was able to make that conceptual leap. He saw in the concept of MEMEX the egalitarian ideal that was in tune with popular culture and the democratic aspirations of the times. Nelson is generally credited with the invention of the word 'hypertext' and he proposed a particular use for Bush's original idea in a project he named (with characteristic ambition) Xanadu.[xxix][xxix] Whereas a professional like Vannevar Bush was concerned with maintaining the growth of scientific knowledge through narrowing access to relevant data, Nelson's project was concerned with wide public use of computer technology through associative linkage devices. His imaginative concept was to establish a world wide network of information centres to provide interactive access to all the scientific data and creative literature that could be encoded. At these centres, which would be as ubiquitous as Laundromats, hypertext interfaces would enable users to both retrieve data and add  material of their own, which could then be accessed by others. The extent to which Xanadu was ever a realisable project, or simply a platform for visionary engagement with a new technology, is something of a question, but as it became a technical and economic possibility it was increasingly hampered by issues of copyright and intellectual property. Details of the system of data verification and credit payments  to authors overtook the vision of his proposal for an international information-rich culture. By the time it appeared that Xanadu might finally satisfy the lawyers and accountants, the political decision to enable wider public access to the Internet had already been taken. Ironically, the debate about intellectual property was sidelined by the  enthusiasm and generosity of the surfing community and his project was completely eclipsed. What remains of his (and Bush's) work, however, is a commitment to hypertext (and hypermedia) as a data management tool for ordinary people.

Hypertext is, as the name suggests, a system of accessing textual material associatively and was a microfilm technology. It was not immediately obvious that other kinds of information,  like pictures, sounds and movies,  might be managed in this way. The extension of Nelson's  original idea to Hypermedia, was also not computer based technology, but a videodisk project developed in the Media Lab at MIT. By linking a computer driven interface and a domestic laser disc player, images could be displayed at will on a screen at rates that provided the illusion of movement. One of the most developed experiments in this area was called The Aspen Movie Map. In this project photographs were burned onto a laser disc and, when interfaced with a simple PC, the material was accessed interactively so that  an image map of the whole of the town of Aspen Colorado, including the interior of buildings, could be viewed. Rapid retrieval times, which are standard in laser disc technology, meant that by using a joystick, the  operator could travel through the landscape at speeds of 110 kilometres per hour. Like MEMEX, the Aspen Movie Map  was intended as an in-house project at MIT.  Interactive laser disc technology has hardly been exploited in the public domain, except as a superior playback device for television and in arcade games. Apart from one spectacular military use (at Entebee airport) and  a few pioneering attempts in education little has developed in this area. But laser disc technology, linked to a computer, suggested possibilities for navigating and controlling different kinds of information. The diffusion of the idea that  data could be stored in formats that were independent of the modality of representation, introduced ideas to computing which appealed to amateur enthusiasts rather than  large business organisations and government institutions.

In 1987 Macintosh responded to this new concept of computing and launched a simple hypermedia programme called HyperCard. In an inspired marketing coup they "bundled" it free with their machines so that in effect it became public domain software. This turned out to be a brilliant strategy for launching a culture of 'third party' (independent) Apple software developers. Small scale speculative programmers with no more than a reasonable machine and creative flair  'invented' uses for HyperCard, ranging from address books and stock control packages to interactive interfaces for laser disc players.  In proposing the visionary Xanadu project Ted Nelson had correctly intuited a consensus around the idea of shared intellectual property programming community, but Macintosh's HyperCard software provided a concrete resource to express this ideal in informal low capital software development. The enthusiasm for it confirmed the willingness of a global community, particularly the group most enthusiastic about electronics and computing, to sideline professional ambition in the pursuit of a vaguely articulated social imperative that computers would be good for democracy. For Macintosh it meant that its machines and its operating system acquired a brand identity that became strongly identified with a creative community and a healthy suspicion of corporate exploitation. As a result of this effective low cost research and development strategy, large software houses felt sufficiently confident in Macintosh's consumer base and invested capital in ambitious projects to devise applications which commercial designers could use. Despite the failing fortunes of the company and its diminishing market share in recent years, this unorthodox approach to technological development has ensured that Macintosh still remains the preferred platform for desk top publishing (DTP), creative design, and multimedia uses. One consequence is that Hypermedia (as an associative cataloguing tool) is currently the preferred standard for Internet data management, computer based educational products like encyclopaedias, and  on-line catalogues in museums.

The facility with which computers can apparently cope with this form of storage and retrieval gives the impression of a certain technological inevitability. It is as though personal computing and hypermedia are somehow synonymous. However, but for a series of accidental meetings of scientists, the technological 'excess' of rapid retrieval times in the domestic laser disc machine, and the brilliant marketing coup of placing HyperCard in the public domain, the design of microcomputer software, and the particular use of the machines might be very different. There was not a single 'big idea'  that lead to hypermedia, but like many of the nineteenth century achievements in the natural sciences, the development of computer software has been the outcome of the steady accretion of the efforts of individuals and small groups of programmers, who were essentially working on an amateur basis (in the field of computer science at least), and who were willing to freely share their findings. This is contrary to the generally accepted 'Romance' histories that explain technological change in terms of the dedicated and visionary genius of individuals like Bill Gates.

The computer, like almost every invention, has an accepted 'Romance' history to account for its invention. Many  authorities regard the nineteenth century mathematician, Charles Babbage as the father of computing, and his  Analytical Engine as a mechanical progenitor of the machines we know today.[xxx][xxx] More teleological histories like those by Vernon Pratt or John Cohen trace the ancestry of intelligent machines back to the abacus and further.[xxxi][xxxi] Together such accounts lead to the impression that computers are the inevitable outcome of a long established desire to build machines that could replicate human intelligence. One of the earliest realisations of the electronic computer, however, the ENIAC, was not thought of in such general terms, and its subsequent development was no less accidental than  the convergence of the telephone and PC, the use of the Internet as a popular telematic technology, or Hypermedia as an international standard for data management.

The ENIAC was a calculating machine originally designed to meet a quite specific problem in producing firing tables for the American gunnery during the Second World War. The task of compiling a complete set of data  for each new gun was so time consuming that it threatened to delay the strategic objectives of the war effort. The ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator), as the name suggests, was developed as a massive adding machine for the American military. The intention was that the multitude of repetitive calculations necessary to precisely predict the trajectory of a shell from each individual weapon under variable conditions could be undertaken with sufficient speed and accuracy to keep up with the output from the arsenals.  It used a circuitry of valves and relays to perform certain calculations and although in principal it worked well, it was technically very vulnerable to component failure. J. Presper Eckert, a leading figure in the development team, suggested a practical solution based on an understanding of the ENIAC not as a single large machine, but as an accretion of small independent parts working together to execute a single complex task. He proposed the engineering concept of modular circuits that could be temporarily removed and repaired whilst the ENIAC was running without necessarily affecting the work in hand. Some technical difficulties remained unresolved by the armistice but the logic of his design suggested that a perfected machine might be possible.[xxxii][xxxii] Although the cessation of hostilities made further development less pressing,  the project was close to successful completion and represented a huge investment in time and intellectual energy. For these reasons alone it was thought to be worth pursuing, but perhaps more important for what was to follow, the limitedsuccess of the ENIAC stimulated visions of what such technology mean for the conduct of civilian life in the post war period.

Further development work on the ENIAC, however,  required substantial financial support from public funds. Since the necessity of making calculations for firing tables had all but disappeared, and there was little popular enthusiasm for arithmetic, it was necessary to show  the ENIAC as something more exciting than a 'number cruncher'. Illuminated ping-pong balls that flashed on and off were added to the casing to 'show' it at work. These had no real function except to provide a simple analogy for the invisible electrical processes that made complex calculations possible. It was a brilliant publicity strategy that gave the illusion of a logical process going on in the, otherwise inscrutable, banks of valves glowing lethargically. It  also provided an enduring trope for machine intelligence that remains with us today. In both science fiction movies and contemporary product design small light emitting diodes (LEDs) have become almost mandatory features that often have no other function other than to mark the willingness of a machine to co-operate with human efforts to make it work.

The task that the ENIAC was given for its public debut was equally  inspired and proved to have a lasting impact. To show its power to a lay audience, the computer was used to calculate the trajectory of a shell that took 30 seconds to reach its target. This calculation took only 20 seconds; in effect the machine intelligence got to the target ten seconds before the real shell.[xxxiii][xxxiii] This demonstration suggested that a developed computer would not simply be a super efficient calculator which analysed data and confirmed empirical evidence, but could make evaluations of possible events faster than they had actually happened. Funding was forthcoming for the ENIAC project for a further five years but yielded little amounted , more significant, however, was that the public developed a curiosity about computers that it stimulated. The imaginary possibilities of artificial life, at least as old as the Pygmalion myth, had acquired an added impetus by various nineteenth century inventions (including the cinema). Suddenly, in the mid twentieth century,  these had a new objectification in the twinkling circuit boards of the ENIAC. At its most fantastic the idea of an intelligent machine furnished both dystopian science fiction fantasies like those expressed in pulp fiction and Hollywood 'B' pictures, and competing visions of utopian idealism. In the latter,  the drudgery of repetitive tasks, the last burden of nature, might be consigned to machines that could enhance human existence. At its most grounded, however, the particular collapse of time and space that the ENIAC demonstrated excited the creative imaginations of amateur scientists, artists and business people, who wanted to have access to the technology to explore its social and economic possibilities.

As a consequence of the visionary potential of computer technology it became a focus for diverse interest groups that comprised unusual mixes of people. Philosophers, poets and bankers - the traditional habitués of the nineteenth-century salon, formed the constituency of the many amateur computer science clubs that sprang up in the 1960s. At these clubs the collective imperative of building a small computer for experimental purposes overrode individual ambition and social and professional hierarchies. Students, professors and technicians, as well as those who were 'just interested' shared their experience and showed their latest achievements at the regular meetings. The most well known of these clubs is possibly the Homebrew Computer Club at Stanford. It was at this club that Steve Wozniak modestly showed a prototype machine, the Apple I, as a contribution to the shared project of developing a small personal computer. Its development as both a product and a computing concept was facilitated with the help and encouragement of the more flamboyant (but no less ingenious) Steve Jobs, whose chief interest was in computer games. Together they eventually produced a machine and marketed  it as the Apple II, (including a colour version),  and although it was by no means the first or only personal computer available, its design caught the mood of the amateur constituency of computer clubs and it found a market. The extraordinary popular enthusiasm for the Apple II not only laid the financial foundations of Apple Macintosh but also seemed to confirm that, aside from being a sophisticated calculating machine, in the hands of  imaginative people the computer  could become something else (even if, in the late 1970s, no one was quite sure what that 'something else' might be).

The Apple II and the many other amateur home computers that were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s were different from mainframes. They were not scaled down models of the mainframe, in the sense that the Walkman is a miniature version of a tape recorder, but more like fellow travellers with different objectives and different applications. These small machines (known as microcomputers) shared the engineering concept of modularity, open architecture and spirit of adventure which had turned  ideas about computing into the ENIAC. Like the large scale laboratory prototype, microcomputers were built from a bricollage of off-the-shelf and ad hoc electronic components put together in new combinations. But their appeal was to a constituency searching for new understandings of what computer technology meant. The Apple II was a machine  for the computer enthusiast and the experimental programmer. It was built by and for people with open minds about the future use of computer technology. To broaden the constituency of users  required the microcomputer  to  do something more than provide a platform for programming. Cringely suggests that the compelling application that achieved this for the Apple II was the spreadsheet software, invented by Dan Bricklin, called VisiCalc.[xxxiv][xxxiv] The particular brilliance of the application was that the outcome of one changed accounting parameter in a project could be automatically processed and expressed in terms of profits or losses. Since this was a simple process that could be undertaken in relative privacy there were no constraints on what financial fantasy might be modelled. It  saved professional accountants and entrepreneurs hundreds of hours in the preparation of reports and business plans, and could run with very modest technical means. VisiCalc confirmed what the ENIAC debut  had already suggested, that computers allowed imaginary scenarios to be played out as if they were real. It provided a hard headed commercial justification for investing in a microcomputer without entirely disavowing the imaginative spirit of adventure that had launched these little machines.

The emergence of the personal computer from the collaborative atmosphere of campus clubs and the apparent ease with which committed and talented individuals could shape products, and even the future of the industry, gave rise to a carefree Bohemian optimism vastly different to the corporate logic that dominated mainframe computing. The large corporate computers were invariably used as  accounting and inventory machines. Individual access was on a grace and favour 'downtime' basis when the main work of financial control had been done. Outputs were invariably sheets of printed textual and numerical data, which was often collected from a central printing resource (or even sent by post). The microcomputer on the other hand was available on demand to the individual and processed text and high quality images on a screen, which could be manipulated, stored and even distributed without ever being committed to paper. Furthermore, when hard copy was required, the screen display closely matched the final output. This feature alone transformed some publishing operations from a high investment institutional base to a decentralised 'cottage' industry. Since that time, and  the innovation of Hypermedia data management software (the poet's equivalent of VisiCalc), networking and games, the personal computer has become understood, at least in the popular domain, as a quite different machine from its corporate ancestors. Even though the production of microcomputers and software are virtually monopoly industries, some personal computers  still retain a suggestion of  a bohemian independence from large corporate institutions. To be sure the personal computer was unthinkable without the scientific research that produced prototypes like the ENIAC, but nothing could be further from the number crunching scientific and military machines than the personal microcomputer that is now so common in homes and offices.

The amateur enthusiasm for computing in the 1970s not only created a demand and a market for microcomputers but also stimulated new scientific research. Miniaturisation, for example, essential to the development of powerful domestic machines, eliminated the problem that the ENIAC was developed for. Nowadays most ballistic missiles have an on-board microcomputer that does the work of firing tables whilst it is in flight. In less applied research, low power machines opened up projects in artificial intelligence to wider groups of scientists  who re-focused attention on more biological and quotidian models of the mind. In the 1980s, the hitherto predominance of linear processing solutions in artificial intelligence broke down under the weight of the burden of data that the human mind appears to cope with at any given moment. Parallel processing or Connectionist models, which had briefly been regarded as credible by scientists in the 1960s were resurrected as a consequence of a new constituency of interest in the field.[xxxv][xxxv] According to Daniel Dennett and others there were quite specific cultural determinants for this.[xxxvi][xxxvi] Among other things, he points out that in a period of relative freedom and hedonism, and a general preference among the younger generation for West Coast lifestyle (beach culture, surfing and transcendental experiences), artificial intelligence research re-focused attention onto the 'wetware' of the brain.  The connectionist models looked at simple organisms such as insects, whereas linear programming solutions had leant towards 'expert systems', (computer programmes which could in some sense stand in for high level professional expertise like medical diagnosis). They developed small programmes which processed data simultaneously though associative networks. This strand of artificial intelligence research has proved enduring and has most recently been integrated with the earlier linear models. In these experiments very basic instructions were shown to produce intelligent behaviour in swarms of identically programmed robots. A host of simple prototypes, with single chips on board, responded to an imperative  to avoid collision, for example, with intelligent wall following behaviour. This work has proved fruitful, and a new area of research, known as Behavioural AI, has opened up.

In artificial intelligence, as in many fields of computer based research, the various contributions of the professional and the amateur are hard to disentangle. This, however, is not the view of the computer industry nor many of the high profile commentators. 'Romance' histories of brilliant, gifted, and sometimes lucky individuals who are agents in the inevitable progress of technology tend to dominate the most visible accounts. The idea of  an inevitable technological progress oversimplifies the complexity of the causality of technological change. It predisposes commentary to future-watching in which evidence is often difficult to disentangle from speculation.  In popular literature, 'hip' magazines with unconventional  typography,  suggest that the changes in the technology are too overwhelming and too fast for ordinary people to understand.[xxxvii][xxxvii] Culture, they suggest, is changed by technology. For many theorists this technological determinism is problematic since it renders the ordinary mortal ineffective in the construction of what is, after all, a shared culture. Furthermore, the resolution of difficult social problems require no action on the part of the individual since they can be consigned to the pending file to await a new invention. Robert Cringely's Accidental Empires,  alternatively, does define the limits of his  methodology and consequently begins to offer  an explanation for what might be happening based on a history of the major players in Silicon Valley over the last three decades. But both he and George Gilder provide a view of digital media that is selective in its historical evidence insofar as the mass of people who use these machines, and give them meaning, are  rendered as passive consumers, which in view of the weight of evidence, is difficult to sustain. They overlook  the creative exploration of the uses of particular technologies that the innovators have, for whatever reason, overlooked. Nor do they recognise the impact of  reflective practitioners outside the business community whose interests and vision are informed by different cultural imperatives. This image of the consumer and designer as disenfranchised  may be good for the rapid turnover of products necessary to sustain investment in research and development programmes,  but if, through repetition, it becomes uncritically  accepted, the intellectual space for reflective practice and individual intervention in  technology is significantly curtailed. In the long term (as we saw with the CD Rom) the potential for new modes of expression and representation can simply atrophy.

The view of the history of the microcomputer set out in this article suggests that it was not inevitable that the ENIAC would eventually  lead to the microcomputer,  or that  programming would yield a new profession, which fused many fundamental graphic design skills with computer science. Or even that the activity  of software design  would be concerned principally with  the development of multimedia authoring programmes which these new professionals could use. The histories of the telephone network, associative databases and the microcomputer, outlined here, covers just some of the many little machines that have been brought together to form a particular information and entertainment apparatus that we now understand as the microcomputer.  There are others, such as the keyboard, the cathode ray tube, the micro switch, the electro-acoustic loudspeaker, the numerical calculator and so forth, whose accretion into a single machine was neither anticipated nor inevitable. Their convergence was not planned or even intuited independently by gifted individuals. Rather,  they were combined, through a broad constituency of imaginative and social processes, which  did not cease with the innovation of a product. A crucial contribution to the development of the microcomputer was the active and insistent intervention of the enthusiast  who challenged the professional interpretation of the machine. Had the technological development of the computer remained with scientists, corporate developers, and military strategists, it is possible that today it would still be understood  as a centralised database and number cruncher for government institutions and multinational companies. Academic access and amateur use would possibly only  extend to some form of grace and favour timeshare facility  on a mainframe, or a public rental system, such as Ted Nelson envisaged with the Xanadu project as a sort of information Laundromat. It also seems unlikely that the chief preoccupation in  scientific projects concerning artificial intelligence and artificial life would be so committed to connectionist models based on biological models of the human being.

The computer industry may prefer to present itself as startlingly new and unprecedented, but many features of its emergence can be seen as a re-circulation of another period in which inventions were enthusiastically received by amateurs who actively participated in the  projects of the scientist. In the nineteenth century, many technologies that were the product of corporate and military ambitions like the phonograph, the Xray and the  movie camera, were taken over by amateurs  and demonstrators who developed not only new applications for these devices, but new inventions, and, above all,  new scientific knowledge. The cultural framework of  the first cinema, for example, was not one of unsophisticated awe and hysterical distraction. The audiences did not duck for cover as most histories would have it, but responded with curiosity  and astonishment at the technology.[xxxviii][xxxviii]  Its popular fascination was founded on  intellectual goals that were shared between the audience, professional science, and an emerging class of technologists. The various meanings that were given to the cinema by its inventors, even the various permutations of the little machines which constitute the basic cinematic apparatus, emerged from the struggles between the conflicting interests of these groups.[xxxix][xxxix] On the one hand a professional class attempted to control the discourse and meaning of scientific enquiry whilst on the other a lay public insisted on participation in the process. This polemical opposition was marked out as early as 1850 in The Working Man's Friend and Family Instructor which offered the following thoughts about  scientists and scientific enquiry,

Every person must have right or wrong thoughts, and there is no reason why a hedger and ditcher, or a scavenger, should not have correct opinions and knowledge as a prince or nobleman. Working men and working women have naturally the same minds or souls as lords or ladies, or queens ... if any one could have analysed or cut to pieces the soul of Lord Bacon, or Sir Isaac Newton, and that of a chimney-sweeper, it would have been found that both were made of the same divine material.[xl][xl]

The critical tone of this comment is reflected in popular science journals throughout the rest of the century, but by the early 1900s professional scientists established institutional frameworks that systematically excluded lay participation. Experimental practice progressively insisted on sophisticated instrumentation that eliminated the human observer. Some of these instruments, like the phonograph, the Xray, and the cinematographe, found their way into the public domain as spectacular entertainments  at theatres and fairgrounds. Even then they were often reinterpreted; the phonograph, which was designed as a business device became a music machine, the Xray was a huge attraction until the health risk became clear, and the  cinematographe, which had its scientific origins in projects as diverse as the study of movement for military purposes and three dimensional and colour photography, was transformed into a mass entertainment.

The cinema, like  personal computing, was not the inevitable outcome of a technology but the mediation of a scientific apparatus by audiences and producers negotiating economic and social imperatives. Exhibitors listened to the audiences as they left the seance and bought films accordingly. Producers (who were sometimes also exhibitors) often came from scientific backgrounds and were sensitive to the tensions between professionals and amateurs in the ongoing struggle for the meaning of science and technology.[xli][xli] They often responded to a perceived appetite for the visualisation of a popular criticism of science and technology by concentrating on the empirical reality of the appearance of the exotic. For the first decade of cinema there were many fantasy films, but the majority were, by far, of a documentary nature (so called actuality films) which showed the world as it appeared to ordinary people - and usually in colour. Many showed scientific and surgical procedures with an awesome honesty and often, in their brutality, an implicit criticism. The appetite for such material provided the revenues to build cinemas as social institutions that provided audiences and protocols for yet another use for the cinematographe, that is  the profoundly unscientific function of telling fantastic stories, many of which repeated the confrontation of the determinist world view of the professional scientist.

Even after a century of cinema, successful mainstream movies retain strong traces of this discourse engine in sci-fi movies, the mad scientist genres of the Cold War, as well as the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster like Terminator, Jurassic Park, Strange Days, Mission Impossible,  and Independence Day.  And, of course, Twister ,  which rehearses the polemic that was aired one hundred and fifty years ago in The Working Man's Friend and Family Instructor.  It depicts theoretical science as generally corrupt or corrupting, whilst  field  work, and especially the unassuming action of amateurs, is shown as honest and effective. In the film  relatively ordinary people, are opposed by funded scientists supported by a fleet of vans packed with instruments. This is a movie by Stephen Spielberg, a man who, evidently, knows the power of audiences better than most directors. Twister  is a film about a science that was not possible until the advent of the VCR and domestic video camera. Before 1980 only a few films of typhoons existed.  Since then, knowledge of these meteorological events has grown exponentially as ordinary people filmed them with their home movie equipment.  The film is a celebration of the power of ordinary people to control science, technology and knowledge in a an entertainment medium which has a long historyof polemical opposition to scientific elitism.

If popular culture and blockbuster films can be admitted as evidence, then there is some suggestion that the market-lead technological determinism, which is used to explain digital technologies, has a dubious  currency. The current criteria for hardware development are photographic image quality, ever greater storage and faster clock speeds. These impinge on the design concept of consumer products. Consequently interactive CD titles, designed for the popular market, for example, must work with leading edge of technology. Data transfer times, image quality, and screen refreshment rates have to match the latest microcomputers and the entertainment model of the cinema. They seldom work quite as well as they should, they are slow, and far too often, they do not work all and crash the system. This means that frequently CD Roms have a provisional air to them, get  bad word-of-mouth publicity, and sell few copies. In contrast the network of networks, which we call the Internet, is often frustrating, and irregular, yet it has an enormous constituency of active participants trying to make it work in unscientific ways. It is a hit and miss technology that uses an ugly and burdensome language called html, slow screen refreshment rates and low resolution, but it has captured a popular imagination in ways that have taken industry and dedicated media analysts like Ted Nelson by surprise.

The Internet's origins are somewhat nineteenth century. It is a military technology that is appropriated by popular culture and transformed in ways that its inventors could not have envisaged. As with  cinema in the early years, the Internet is an extraordinary heterogeneous collection of entertainment and information, determined, in part, by its audience. It provides a space for an imaginary interaction and nearly anything is possible. It is widely used for finding and retrieving specific information, but also as a vehicle for simply moving cruising through dataspace with the impulsive curiosity of the nineteenth century flanneur. To surf the 'net' is to witness the amazing generosity of a large community of participants who are prepared to expend resources realising personal imaginary worlds and making them freely available. There is currently little room for commercial production, nor does it seem likely that without a major reinterpretation of the technology as a passive entertainment  medium there ever will be. Although much of the information that is available is banal and unreliable, the Internet challenges the authority  of high science by recuperating it (perhaps sometimes crassly) into the public domain for pleasure. What may finally tip the balance in favour of convergence is not the issue of corporate strategy, the intellectual dissipation of television or the usefulness of computing, but theinterpretation of television and network computing as low resolution representations that allow for a popular participation in its meaning.

A more sophisticated, and representative understanding of how technologies acquire meaning needs to be investigated. The issue of whether there will be a convergence of  television and the PC, or if indeed television is dead will not finally be resolved by rhetoric and assertion alone.  As seems clear in the history of both personal computing and the cinema (to take two examples), what a machine is must be negotiated within a complex network of different interpretations that includes those of the user.[xlii][xlii] The personal computer is a machine that has been developed in a culture which, in some respects, considers scientific knowledge  to be the rightful domain of both the layman and professional. The recent growth of the ecology movement,  forcibly claiming control of technological development,  provides undeniable evidence of this. As a casual survey of Internet  traffic shows,  the meaning of the bricollage that  we call the microcomputer is still volatile. Investors, designers and media gurus might do well to remember  that when writing the history of popular computing  the user is made of the same divine material as Bill Gates.


[ii][ii] David Nye, Electrifying America, Social Meanings of a New Technology (Cambridge:MIT, 1990).

[iii][iii] It is perhaps significant that women are not as active as men in these narratives. Often women are allowed to help the men and invariably they embody nature and the winning of the woman assists in the understanding of nature.

[iv][iv] Thomas Schatz,  'The New Hollywood', Film Theory Goes to The Movies, Collins, J., Radner, H., Preacher Collins, A., editors (London:Routledge, 1993),8.

[v][v] Ibid.,12.

[vi][vi] See George  Gruman, MacWorld (August 1996),45.

[vii][vii] Where there is satellite and terrestrial competition is  available to consumers, cable companies often provide the incentive of cheap telephone connections in order to establish the presence of the service in the household. If the Internet becomes and established advertising medium this could well  become a standard  provision rather than a short term incentive to subscribers.

[viii][viii] For an overview of the struggle for the control of the Internet see Raymond Hammond,  Digital Business: Surviving & Thriving in an OnLine World (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996).

[ix][ix] Product information on NetVison can be found at

[x][x] Ibid.

[xi][xi] George Gilder, Life after Television: the coming transformation of media and American Life, (London:Norton,1994). For a discussion of broad bandwidth see Bandwidth Tidal wave (

[xii][xii] See for example Nigel Healey, Supply Side Economics (Oxford:Heinemann, 1996).

[xiii][xiii] Robert X. Cringely, Accidental Empires; How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make their Millions, Battle  Foreign Competition, and Sill Can't Get a Date (London: Penguin,1996),316.

[xiv][xiv] Ibid.,325.

[xv][xv] Ibid.,316.

[xvi][xvi] Ibid., 348.

[xvii][xvii] Ibid.,8.

[xviii][xviii] For an account of how the cinema developed in Britain see Michael Channan, The Dream That Kicks (London:RKP,1980).

[xix][xix] For a brief discussion of this see Michael Punt, 'English Poetry and Damp Mattresses,' Interact November 1994:12-13.

[xx][xx] For a development of this argument see Michael Punt, 'CD Rom. Radical Nostalgia? Cinema history, Cinema Theory, and New Technology',' Leonardo (September 1995):387-394.

[xxi][xxi] A spectacular exception is Broderbund's Living Books series which are notable not only for their good design but their 'low tech' use of the technology.

[xxii][xxii] See McManus, N., 'Forever Young: The CD-ROM Market Doesn't Want to Grow Up,' Digital Media Perspective December 1994. Available from (

[xxiii][xxiii] For a discussion of the 'browser wars' see Raymond Hammond,Digital Business: Surviving and Thriving in an OnLine World (London: Hodder and Stoughton), 1996.

[xxiv][xxiv] For an account of this strategy especially in relation to Movies see Judith Wasko., Hollywood in the Information Age (Oxford:Blackwell,1994).

[xxv][xxv] For a discussion of Hyper text see Edward Barret, (editor) Text, Context, and Hypertext, Hypermedia , and the Social Construction of Information  (Cambridge: MIT,1989). See also Benjamine Woolley, Virtual Worlds,(Oxford:Blackwell, 1992).

[xxvi][xxvi] Vannevar Bush,  'As We May Think' Atlantic Monthly, July 1945:101-108.

[xxvii][xxvii] A fuller explanation of Bush's intentions have been described by Nyce, J and Kahn, P., 'Innovation, Pragmatism, and Technological Continuity: Vannevar Bush's Memex" Journal of the American Society For Information Science (1989):214-220.

[xxviii][xxviii] There was a great deal of popular coverage for Bush's idea. Time ran extensive article on him in 1945 and earlier  Life (November 1941):112-124 provided an artist's impression of what the machine might look like. It is suggested in a number of accounts that quite by chance Englebart came across one such article whilst waiting for a boat back from the Pacific.

[xxix][xxix] Ted Nelson's seminal book Computer Lib/ Dream Machines was self published in 1974. The ideas behind his Xanadu project are set out in 'Replacing the Printed Word: A complete literary system' is published in Livingston, S.H. (ed) Proc.IFIP Congress 1980, (North Holland,1980),1013-1023.

[xxx][xxx] This kind of account is generally favoured in overview histories of technology and is common in repeated in popular encyclopaedias.

[xxxi][xxxi] These long histories are detailed in Vernon Pratt,  Thinking Machines ,( Oxford:Blackwell, 1987), and in John Cohen, Human Robots in Myth and Science ,(London,:RKP,1966).

[xxxii][xxxii] The Eniac was a very 'provisional' machine intended to show the idea. Its  valves tended to burn out after two minutes, and it could only store 20 ten digit numbers.

[xxxiii][xxxiii] The programming Eniac for this demonstration took nearly two days, but this was beside the point in as far as the apparatus on show was presented as a prototype.

[xxxiv][xxxiv] Robert X. Cringely, Accidental Empires; How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make their Millions, Battle  Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date (London: Penguin,1996),64.

[xxxv][xxxv] This history is developed in Seymor Papert, 'One AI or Many,'Daedalus, vol. 113 (1984):1-19.

[xxxvi][xxxvi] Daniel Dennett, 'Computer Models and the Mind - a view from the East Pole,' Times Literary Supplement (December 14, 1984):1453-1454.

[xxxvii][xxxvii] For a sense of this see 'George Gilder, does he really think scarcity is a minor obstacle on the road to techno-utopia?' HotWired, (

[xxxviii][xxxviii] Time after time histories of the first seances repeat the falsehood that audiences ducked for cover at the image of a train approaching. There is no historical evidence for this. See Tom Ginning, 'The Aesthetics of Astonishment,'  Art & Text, volume 34,  (1989): 31-45.

[xxxix][xxxix] For a fuller discussion of these points see Michael Punt, 'Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?': A Problem of Digital Photography' the Velvet Light Trap (fall 1995):3-21.

[xl][xl] Cited by Sheets--Pyenson, S., 'Popular Science Periodicals in Paris and London: the Emergence of a Low Scientific Culture, 1820--1875, 'Annals of Science, 42 (1985):553.

[xli][xli] For a charming a readable account of an early film producer and exhibitor who was also a scientist and showman see Cecil Hepworth, Came the Dawn ( London:Phoenix House:1951).

[xlii][xlii] There is some significant work in the history of technology on these lines. See for example David Nye, Electrifying America, ( Cambridge:MIT,1990), also Weiber Bijker, and John Law,  Shaping Technology/Building Society  (Cambridge:MIT, 1992).


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