The (In)Difference Engine

P. Atkinson, ‘The (In)Difference Engine:
explaining the disappearance of diversity
in the design of the personal computer’
Journal of Design History 13(1): 2000: 59-72.





At the time of writing there is a clear perception of all office computers as being more or less identical. Discussion with users entails repetitive rhetoric as they describe a landscape of boring beige boxes. The office PC is indeed a ‘clone’ – an identical, characterless copy of a bland original.

Through the exploration of an archive of computer manufacturer’s catalogues, this article shows how previous, innovative forms of the computer, informed by cultural references as diverse as science fiction, accepted gender roles and the discourse of status as displayed through objects, have been systematically replaced by the adoption of a ‘universal’ design informed only by the nondescript, self-referential world of office equipment.

The acceptance of this lack of innovation in the design of such a truly global, mass-produced, multi-purpose technological artefact has had an enormous effect on the conception, perception and consumption of the computer, and possibly of information technology itself. The very anonymity of the PC has created an attitude of indifference at odds with its potential.

A full text version of this article can be downloaded from here:


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