The best laid schemes o’ mice and men : the evolution of the computer mouse

ATKINSON, Paul (2006). The best laid schemes o’ mice and men : the evolution of the computer mouse. In: DE RIJK, Timo and DRUKKER, J. W., (eds.) Design and Evolution : Proceedings of Design History Society Conference 2006. Delft, Netherlands, Delft University of Technology, 1-20.

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This paper explores the notion of social constructionism as it pertains to the process of product development – how within any group of designed objects intended to perform a similar function, a process of selection occurs by users for reasons that do not necessarily align with those expected by the designers. Through interviews with designers involved in the development of the first production mouse, and an analysis of the representation of the mouse in popular media, this paper shows how the mouse has evolved from being a physical object into a visual sign. The creation of the computer mouse is a well documented story. Developed by Doug Engelbart in the early 1960s, the mouse repeatedly proved in ergonomic tests to be the most effective and accurate device to interact with a computer screen. Yet for a variety of socio-economic and cultural reasons, it took two decades to appear as a publicly available mass-produced item as part of the first Apple Macintosh in 1984. When the mouse finally appeared on the market, its function was so unclear to users that large sections of instruction manuals were devoted to explaining it, and simple games were developed purely to help people master its use. Despite its appearance and form being so far removed from more ‘natural’ or ‘accepted’ input devices such as keyboards or pens, the mouse was fairly quickly selected by users as an essential part of computing technology. The level of this acceptance of the mouse can be gauged by its representation in popular media - the image of the mouse quickly came to signify any form of interaction with computer software or a CD-Rom. However, this paper argues that the acceptance of the mouse by computer users is a more complex story than a technologically deterministic account of ergonomic tests might suggest. The introduction of the graphical user interface and computer mouse radically altered the public perception of computers themselves, and in effect created a completely new type of machine which was suddenly a world away from what had previously been represented as merely an advanced electronic typewriter. This paradigm shift allowed male users, particularly those in authority, to display their superiority by adopting computers as tools of managerial control rather than work production, as they could clearly disassociate themselves from what was then perceived as the subordinate activity of typing. In recent years, as computing technology has progressed, and infiltrated our lives to a far wider extent, the mouse as a sign has come to represent far more than merely a link to computer technology. With the wide scale adoption of the internet, the mouse has evolved into a signifier of a less tangible yet far more significant link to the whole of the world outside.

Item Type: Book Section
Research Institute, Centre or Group: Cultural Communication and Computing Research Institute > Art and Design Research Centre
Depositing User: Paul Atkinson
Date Deposited: 06 Nov 2014 09:52
Last Modified: 19 Aug 2015 21:41

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