Domesticity and Gender in the Industrial Design of Apple Computer 1977-1984 (MA thesis)

Citation:
2009
Issue Date:
2009-06-25
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This thesis is an industrial design history of Apple Computer, spanning the company’s early industrial design in 1977, to the first Macintosh computer in 1984. Using Lewis Mumford’s notion of ‘ideological and social preparation,’ I describe the period in question as a preparatory phase for the later ubiquity and absorptive quality of our relationship with personal computers. This study applies methodological strategies similar to those used by sociologists and design historians such as Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Jeffrey Meikle and Paul Atkinson. Their various approaches to material culture have informed my analysis of early personal computers, leading me to situate computer objects as active artefacts within a complex network of social, technological and economic relations. In examining the design and marketing of some of Apple’s most successful (and problematic) early personal computers – the Apple II (1977), the Apple IIe (1982-83), and the Macintosh (1984) my findings are that domesticity and gender were crucial points of negotiation during this social preparation for the mainstream acceptance of the personal computer. In marketing material for early Apple computers, the image of idyllic domesticity became a major context for the computer’s promotion, attempting to make personal computers appear safe for apprehensive consumers. One consequence of this dynamic was that the modes of labor and leisure became blurred, bringing the organisation and control of the office into the home, and the comfortable veneer of domestic appliances into workspaces. I use the example of 1930s streamlining in the design of household appliances as a parallel with the Apple II’s startling application of a plastic case: the concealing plastic exterior simultaneously simplified and obscured the device, transforming it from a machine into a personal appliance. In the mid-1980s the gender coding of computers experienced a shift, from keyboards being associated with feminine, ‘secretarial’ duties, to an emphasis on the mouse, and on the multifunctionality of the computer, leading computers such as the Macintosh to carry less overt gender-coding. During this period, the portrayal of men and women in Apple’s marketing imagery demonstrated a careful negotiation of mainstream anxieties and stereotypes related to computer use. Throughout this preliminary phase when society became familiarised with these peculiar computer devices, the modernist values of efficiency, rationalisation and systematic organisation reigned supreme. Apple’s personal computers, as objects, began to take on a structuring role in society, influencing users’ behaviour, movements, judgments, values and thought patterns.
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