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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Cybernetic Child Psychology: A Genealogy of the User
by Lockett, William, Ph.D., New York University, 2019, 397; 22622737
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation offers a history of the personal computer (PC) by developing a genealogy of the user. I argue that the user construct that was ultimately built into PCs was modeled largely upon the preliterate children who variously formed the experimental subjects of a particular strand of cybernetic psychology in the 1950s and 1960s. Crucially, cybernetic psychologists gravitated toward preliterate children defined as “deprived” and “retarded.” Deprivation and retardation were code words for “black,” in some cases, and for “brain damaged,” in others. The invention of the PC is partially a story of the domestication of African American “subculture,” as reformers called black life. Contrastingly, that domestication process also attracted researchers who developed life-long commitments to working with collaborators from black neighborhoods in Chicago, Pittsburg, and New York and who contributed to the enrichment of special needs education. In addition, researchers making computer systems for children established a research program centered on the nature of children’s prelinguistic intelligence. The prominence of game-based logics in contemporary digital cultures originated in this heterogeneous field of research practices. Researchers used games to formalize and manipulate pre-linguistic, non-propositional (and therefore analog) modes of intelligence using digital tools.

This dissertation presents materials from an overlooked archive of 1960s prototype PC equipment. Specifically, it documents experimental systems used to study language and numeracy acquisition processes. As a contribution to previous scholarly work on computers in educational settings, archival findings included herein pertain to computers used specifically as research tools in investigations of elementary techniques of alphabetization and numeracy. Namely, 1950s electromechanical puzzle games embedded in study carrel isolation booths; computerized brain visualizers used to evaluate symbol-manipulation capacities in “delinquent” adolescents; 1960s robotic models of primordial forms of intelligence; and a 1970s home-computer graphics terminal built by programmers from the pinball industry. This dissertation presents these archival findings as a sited media history of user testing facilities: study carrel, brain imaging, infant robots, arcades. I conclude that researchers used ludic logical forms to transform electromechanical teaching equipment (and, later on, microchips) into a patchwork of peripheral devices that modeled and manipulated the learning process.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Gitelman, Lisa
Commitee: Galloway, Alexander R, Feldman, Allen, Mills, Mara, Martin, Reinhold, Robles-Anderson, Erica
School: New York University
Department: Media, Culture, and Communication
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 81/4(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Communication, History, Science history
Keywords: Computer History, Critical Theory, Cybernetics, History of Psychology, Media Studies, Philosophy of Science
Publication Number: 22622737
ISBN: 9781687984999
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