Thirty Years On: Lessons from the Home Computer Boom

I wonder how many senior academics would feel comfortable rereading their PhD? Equally, I wonder how many current research students can imagine revisiting their work in twenty or thirty years? This is precisely what I did recently, having come to the somewhat chastening realisation that I was so old that what had once been a cutting-edge sociology project might now have a second life as social and intellectual history.

Technology, Consumption and the Future: The Experience of Home Computing (Brunel University) was submitted in 1992 but was based on fieldwork conducted in the late 1980s. I started to reread it with what might be politely described as mixed feelings, not least as this meant putting myself back into the (very mixed up) head of my twenty-something self. I had made a terrible meal of my PhD: the one viva question I could not answer was ‘why did it take you so long to finish?’ Barely a week goes by that I don’t feel a twinge of guilt for the indignities that I put my late, great supervisor Roger Silverstone through. Moreover, for a variety of reasons (some understandable some not) although I applied the arguments developed in the thesis elsewhere (notably in McLaughlin et al Valuing Technology 1999) I never published on home computing (except here).

Even in the 1980s most people thought my approach idiosyncratic; I saw home computing as a way of studying consumption processes and exploring the form and appeal of nostalgic accounts of a future where technology ended the flux of modernity. Underlying this was a deep cynicism (sometimes productive and sometimes completely wide of the mark) about the potential of home computing. My approach is also dated by a wilful disinterest in the technical aspects of computers and computing. I must admit that I hardly touched an actual home computer during the research – although I had worked in the computer industry before I started it – so convinced was I of my mission to assert the significance of the ‘social’ over the ‘technological’.

In my defence, much of the reading that I did in the 1980s predated the emergence of Science and Technology Studies which would have provided a ready-made way into the socio-technical. I had to work hard to find a language and literature with which to discuss technology as culture and early chapters of my PhD range widely over topics as diverse as cargo cults and the lost history of the gas refrigerator! It also took me a long time to switch on methodologically; encouraged by my supervisor (who was developing an approach that came to be known as the ‘ethnography’ of domestic media use) I agonised as to how to find ‘ordinary families’ to interview about home computing. Thus many of my early informants were passed over as atypical hobbyists. I missed a trick, for example, in not continuing early fieldwork with a group of New Age enthusiasts for computer communication. Here is a quote from one of them promoting the possibilities of technology, taken from the programme of the 1987 Festival of Mind Body and Spirit:

” … individuals will extend their minds by connecting their computer to other computers serving as distributor of shared information and memory banks of unforeseeable wealth …. We will dial computers like we choose radio stations and TV channels, and we will create electronic communities around each machine: a green network, peace people, health enthusiasts – everyone will have ‘their’ machine and community, and everybody can move from one community to another: it happens all in our minds, from the comfort of our home or office – on the road towards the global village.”

I am not quite sure why I was so easily convinced that I should abandon this fieldwork in favour of tramping the suburban streets of Uxbridge and Ruislip in search of ‘real’ home computing but that’s what I did, diligently conducting over fifty semi-structured qualitative interviews.

So regrets I have a few but then again the resulting thesis has some interesting elements. For example, I was determined to locate the emergence of home computing in a wider account of the form and influence of predictions of what was then termed the Information Technology (IT) Revolution. In the 1970s and early 1980s these predictions had a strongly millennial tone: some of the buzz phrases of this period now sound very dated – ‘an end to work’, ‘leisure society’, ‘the computer society’, ‘wired society’, ‘the electronic cottage’, ‘teleworking’, ‘family computer’ ‘educational computer’ and indeed ‘home computing’. As the Janus-faced rhetoric suggests, hopes and fears about the future impact of IT emerged out of the economic, political and cultural crisis of the 1970s. International prophets such as Alvin Toffler, Donald Macreae, and Zbigniew Brzezinski saw IT as offering a route from current malaise to future stability. In late 1970s Britain predictions of the IT Revolution had taken on a particular resonance in a setting where public discourse was dominated by talk of crisis and decline. Prime Minister Jim Callaghan organised a special screening of an apocalyptic Panorama television programme Now the Chips Are Down for his cabinet and senior civil servants. As I write in the thesis, this was part of a pattern that persisted into the Thatcher era and helped shape the early production, consumption and academic study of home computing in Britain: the arrival of information technology was often presented as a crucial watershed in economic development – a one-off test of a nation’s economic, intellectual and perhaps even moral strength. As the 1980s continued discussion of home computing was still linked to hopes of economic renewal and fears of social decline (typically focused on the family and or ‘community’).

What became known as the British home computer boom lasted for the first half on the 1980s. Given the global character of contemporary digital culture it is hard to remember how distinctive different national paths to adoption of IT were at this time. The British boom was dominated initially by ‘microcomputers’ made in the UK and marketed explicitly as ‘home computers’ (remember that this predates the PC): older readers will recall the Sinclair and Acorn micros. The pace and scale of early adoption of these micros was unmatched anywhere else in the world but by 1985 when I began my project, some commentators were talking about the end of the boom, of dashed expectations and some were questioning whether the home computer had a long term future. When I conducted the bulk of my interviews in 1987 and 1988 many of those I spoke to were looking back to the heyday of the home computer boom and forwards to a new era of computing.

One of the contributions of the thesis was to describe the home computer boom as a ‘public event’ and locate micro users’ experiences within other developments such as government initiatives to promote IT awareness and literacy as a challenge to the (non)problem of supposed resistance to new technology. 1982 was, for example, designated ‘IT Year’ and there was considerable investment in computers in schools. The public event of the boom can also be tracked via extensive media coverage (including a growing specialist consumer press) and in the growth of numerous computer clubs held in schools, libraries and shops. As my interviews confirmed, many of the users of the home micro were responding to prophecy, convinced that their purchase was equipping them or their children for a future shaped by IT.

For all its initial commercial success, the home computer was a shifting and contested product. The early British micros were, in Leslie Haddon’s phrase, ‘self-referential’: limited memory and storage meant that their only function was to explore what a computer was. As the market matured most machines still relied on cassettes for data storage and plugged into the household television. Many of those I interviewed wrote (or often more precisely copied) programmes in Basic code rather than purchase ready-made software for gaming or home accounting or other uses. A key theme of my interviews was the way in which people’s narratives of their ‘computer careers’ often focused on the process of ‘finding a use for’ their micro. Their exploration of the capacities and possibilities of the micro often encompassed playful (and frequently painstaking) attempts to bring visions of a computerised home of the future to life. This process sometimes ended in disappointment but, through it, differing conceptions of what was useful emerged. My analysis placed the users in a cycle of cultural production in which shifting and competing conceptions of what a computer was for took shape: the ‘home computer’ was beginning to evolve into ‘the word processor’ and ‘the games machine’.

Given that Digital Sociology is all the rage, and I also learn that there is now something called Media Archaeology that teaches us that digital technologies develop through the dialectic of the new and the old, perhaps it is a good time for other sociologists also to revisit the home computer boom.

David Skinner is Reader in Sociology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. His current research focuses on the changing politics of ‘race’ knowledge and expertise with particular reference to data and databases. You can follow him on twitter @DavidIanSkinner.

Categories: Digital Sociology, Research Profiles

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