IT and Control

Early in the history of electronic digital computing, computers were large devices that filled rooms. During this phase of their evolution, the calculation to be performed by the computer was hard-wired into the circuits. Changing the calculation required technicians to physically reconfigure the circuits following the direction of the computer engineers. Lohr (2001) observed the insight that both the data and the directions for processing the data could be loaded into the same circuits had a profound effect on computing in the years after World War II. That advance led to the general computing devices that became familiar in the last decades of the 20th century and that have found their ways into pockets in the 21st century. Because of different software, the same hardware used by a business person to complete complex analysis of quantitative data can be used by a musician to record and distribute performances and by a teenager to gossip with friends both near and far. These diverse uses of computers arise from the capacity to customize and control computers that has become commonplace.

With the arrival of the operating systems for personal computers that included a graphic user interface (GUI) in the 1990’s, the metaphor of the computer screen as a desktop became common, and that term is even used to describe the default screen that loads when a personal computer boots up and is ready for use. Just as workers customize the desk at which they work with tools that help them accomplish tasks along with meaningful pictures and doodles and avatars representing themselves, those same workers customize their computer desktops. The desire to take this step to customize desktops appears to be very deeply embedded in the computer-using culture as first and second graders are frequently distracted from projects that they find engaging to change the background of their desktops. Those individuals who can perform the change are held in high esteem by their classmates, and an operating system update that replaces favorite desktop images is not well received by those students.

As computers with GUI operating systems entered the consumer market, the number of software titles expanded as well. Consumers can buy a computer and then install software so that it performs the tasks they want, and also customize the interface so that it both matches their personality and is easy to use. Further customization of a single computer is possible through user profiles—each user has a unique profile with its own customizations. On some networks, one’s user profile is stored on the network and so it is available on any workstation connected to the network.

The ability to customize a device to meet the user’s interests and needs has continued to be a feature as ICT devices moved from users’ desktops and laptops into their pockets. Since introducing the iPod in 2001, Apple Computer has been an industry leader in portable computing. With the iPod Touch and the iPhone, Apple—along with all of the other manufacturers of handheld personal digital assistants and computers—has continued the trend of customization of ICT that can be traced to GUI-based desktops and software. Users of these devices (and anyone exposed to advertisements for the devices) quickly becomes familiar with the concept of the “app,” which is a shortened version of application. Apps add functions to the handheld and are highly designed to perform a particular function, but usually allow the user to customize the information and how it is delivered. For example, an app for accessing information regarding the weather can be configured to show local weather or the conditions at any other location the user specifies.

Don Tapscott (2009) also observed that the ability to customize technologies has become deeply embedded in the digital generations, and he points to the customization of media that is consumed as an example of this character of digital generations. Whereas previous generations consumed the media that was provided by publishers or broadcasters, members of the digital generations create playlists and use similar strategies to access and consume exactly the media they want, when they want, and where they want. Tapscott also suggests this trend can be seen in non-ICT fields as members of the digital generation (only the first one, the second generation is not yet old enough) are a significant part of the customized automobile market, and that some brands of automobiles have emerged and are being marketed as customizable to this generation.


Lohr, Steve. 2001. Go To: The Story of the Math Majors, Bridge Players, Engineers, Chess Wizards, Maverick Scientists and Iconoclasts–The Programmers Who Created the Software Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Tapscott, Don. 2009. Grown Up Digital: How the ‘Net Generation is Changing Our World. New York: McGraw-Hill.