Take It Personally

students imagine new apple products to study the history of the personal computer.

To study the history of the “personal” computer in Digital Culture Since World War II: The Computerized Society, students pitch their own invented new products to Apple, then write an analytic historical essay about how their new creations fit into the history of the personal computer. Much of the assignment asks students to confront a key theme in the course: that, technologically speaking, there is nothing really “personal” about the personal computer. Indeed, in many ways, it is a more complex, mystifying, “impersonal” piece of equipment than an old mainframe. There is no reason why the personal computer should not simply be called a mini-computer, which is just what the first one, the Altair 8800, was called.

Altair Popular Electronics

The “personal” emanates in the personal computers comes not from technological origins, but rather from cultural, economic, and political motivations. It is the urge to reimagine the computer as what Macintosh conceptualizer Jef Raskin called an “information appliance,” a computational device that could empower the individual as a heroic figure against the system (think of the famous Apple 1984 Super Bowl commercial for the Mac).

Reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture and other investigations of the rise of the personal computer, students must shift out of technologically deterministic historical interpretations of digital machines to a more supple sense of the technosocial dynamic in which inventions and their social context are continually informing each other.

Having to imagine their own devices as pitches to Apple for their next line of products is, of course, a bit of goofy fun, but it also reinforces this emphasis in the course on the role of the imagination and its ideological dimensions to the technologies we sometimes think, mistakenly, are the engines of history.

The analytic essays that students write have to be substantive and deeply analytic—good old-fashioned (and always challenging) historical expository writing. Yet thinking futuristically as a way to frame the essay seems, in my experience, to help students turn back and examine the past more precisely and compellingly.

Plus, who knows, maybe one of them will come up with the next innovation in personal computing (do I get a cut of the patent money, then?).

Here is the assignment:

You have been asked by Apple Computer to design a new personal computer. Your job is to draw a sketch or diagram of this machine (either by hand and then photographed or scanned into your computer, equipment available at NU Library for this if you do not possess it yourself, or by machine). Then, in 1000 words, develop an analytic essay in which you contextualize *what is significant* about your design in the context of the history of the personal computer (from its prehistory at places such as Xerox PARC to the emergence of the personal computer in the countercultural context of the 1960s and 1970s). You will not be evaluated for the excellence of your design (or your drawing skills!), but rather by how you are able to develop an evidence-based argument that connects *specific aspects* of the materials from class (lectures, readings, viewings) to an articulated and compelling position about the details of your new personal computer design and how and why they build upon and/or extend the history of the concept of “personal” computing. Be sure to refer to the guidelines for assignments in the “Expectations” section of the syllabus.

Here are what a number of my students came up with this term (click on images for larger views):

iFocus Apple pitch
Student personal computer 1
Apple Pitch 2

iStory 1
iStory 2
Exo Apple pitch
Apple Pitch NU2015
Apple pitch 3

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