The (In)Difference Engine

​​P. Atkinson, 'The (In)Difference Engine: explaining the disappearance of diversity in the design of the personal computer'
Journal of Design History 13(1): 2000: 59-72.


By the end of the 1990s,  there was a clear perception of all office computers as being more or less identical. Discussion with users entailed repetitive rhetoric as they described a landscape of boring beige boxes. The office PC was indeed a 'clone' - an identical, characterless copy of a bland original.

Through the exploration of an archive of computer manufacturer's catalogues, this article shows how previous, innovative forms of the computer, informed by cultural references as diverse as science fiction, accepted gender roles and the discourse of status as displayed through objects, were systematically replaced by the adoption of a 'universal' design informed only by the nondescript, self-referential world of office equipment.


The acceptance of this lack of innovation in the design of such a truly global, mass-produced, multi-purpose technological artefact had an enormous effect on the conception, perception and consumption of the computer. The very anonymity of the PC has created an attitude of indifference at odds with its potential.

A text only version of this article can be downloaded for free from the SHURA website

The full article can be accessed or purchased from the JDH website