The Guardian review of ‘Computer’

The Guardian, Saturday October 2nd.
Review by Steven Poole

Computer, by Paul Atkinson (Reaktion, £16.95)

Facebook is only one of the world-shattering applications of what people used to call “electric brains”. Atkinson tells the story of the computer as a designed object, from fearsome room-sized mainframe to desktop to laptop to PDA to smartphone and iPad. He presents some tempting cultural hypotheses – such as that, for example, the mouse enabled male executives to use computers in the office without embarassment (because the previous keyboard-only input method was associated with typists, and therefore women), or that “pen computing”, the doomed next big thing of the 1990s, failed because writing with a stylus on a tablet computer looked as though you were using a clipboard.

The many illustrations (often old ads) are fascinating and often funny (1980s businessmen tripping off to work with massive “portable” computers), or reveal obscure aesthetic precedents (1983’s Orb computer looks suspiciously like the first iMac). Atkinson’s writing is careful rather than showy (and he uses too many exclamation marks), but he does allow himself a nice pun, lamenting at last the boring design of modern machines: “the Personal Computer became an Indifference Engine”. I seem to hear mine yawning even as I write this.

The original of this review can be accessed on The Guardian website


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