Stereotypes and the first laptop

An interesting article over at the Atlantic on how gender stereotypes and the keyboard might have made it more difficult for the first laptop to catch on.

‘This is an amazing fact. We had this product. It was designed for business executives. And the biggest obstacle, one of the biggest obstacles, we had for selling the product was the fact — believe it or not — that it had a keyboard. I was in sales and marketing. I saw this first-hand. At that time, 1982, business people, who were in their 40s and 50s, did not have any computer or keyboard in their offices. And it was associated with being part of the secretarial pool or the word processing (remember that industry?) department. And so you’d put this thing in their office and they’d say, “Get that out of here.” It was like getting a demotion. They really were uncomfortable with it.’

Though Hawkins doesn’t quite say it. There is a distinct gendered component to this discomfort. Typing was women’s work and these business people, born in the 1930s and 1940s, didn’t scrap their way up the bureaucracy to be relegated to the very secretarial work they’d been devaluing all along.

Of course, it also cost something like $20,000 in today’s currency–still, this makes me wonder what interesting cases for agnotology we might find in forms of practical knowledge.

3 thoughts on “Stereotypes and the first laptop

  1. I know professors who still have their e-mails printed out by their secretaries. Then they read the e-mail on paper and speak the reply into a dictaphone. The secretary then types the e-mail reply.

    Some elder lawyers also refuse to do their own typing.

  2. I think there was actually another reason for the aversion to the keyboard in some professional offices. When I first worked as an engineer, it was forbidden on the basis of the corporation’s agreement with the union for an engineer to do her own typing. The secretaries were part of the union, and the engineers were not — any attempt by an engineer to do a union members work was politically loaded.( It had legal consequences for the corporation, too.) I was an excellent typist, and often could have knocked out what I needed easily right away, but was constrained to wait until a secretarial professional could get to it, then had to proofread the typewritten sheets produced, point out typos, and send it back for corrections. To insist on doing your own typing was not interpreted as an act of humility, but of willfully violating union rules. The same went for punch card machine operators and engineers who wrote computer programs: the engineer was not permitted to use the punch card machine, but wrote every line of code out on a special form, then submitted it to a union member holding the position of punchcard operator. I suspect that the story of the use of PCs by professionals probably involves the parallel history of the decline of union power.

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