Toy Boys

The Guardian Media 100 is a list (published July 9, 2007) of the most influential media figures in Britain. At the top is Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google ($3.1 bn profit last year). In the photo accompanying his entry Schmidt sits at a table flanked by Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Schmidt is in shirtsleeves and a tie while the other two wear black tee-shirts. The table is made of black glass or something like that and on it are arranged a number of figures and objects made from brightly coloured Lego bricks. The reflectiveness of the glass creates an inverted image of the scene so that everything seen is doubled.

One can discern among the Lego items some funny, smiley little men, a red and white panda, a steam engine and a clutter of what look like chickens or ducks. The Google founders are smiling too but absorbed in moving the Lego objects around. Eric Schmidt is not touching any plastic but he has a benign, amused and possibly hesitant expression. There might even be a hint of disgust there but this would be inappropriate.

Clearly the photographer has had an ‘idea’ for the setup and it has not been resisted by the subjects. But why? Why the imagery of the nursery? Do we believe that these guys are just big babies?

Maybe they are. The West Coast digital scene has, from its earliest days, had one foot in the playroom and the other in the business of creating order. The original Apple guys, Jobs and Wozniak, famously built the prototype in Jobs’ bedroom and garage thereby distancing themselves from the suits in corporate computing and aligning themselves with a notion of creativity as something that happens in a young man’s special place. The pioneers saw no basic antipathy between the digit and the plaything and wrested the computer from its chaste redoubt in the belly of IBM.

Smiley faces beamed from screens, in black on white, and the cute little beige box boinged, gonged or beeped when it wanted you. Young men, already engrossed in the stark facticity of line command PCs, were alerted to a new style of playfulness at odds with the visually drab medium of the Bulletin Board System (BBS). They didn’t flock to buy the box in 1984 but a novel quality, toyness, was detectable in the new machines’ potential for rendering graphics.

The computer as image generator, the programmer as manipulator of its graphical user interface. The images were crude but they sucked harder than text. Not only did they compel more compellingly, they made the screen into a window rather than a chalk board. Five months after the release of the 128K Macintosh, William Gibson published ‘Neuromancer’, a science fiction novel, providing a set of proposals that cast the computer as builder of virtual universes and the user as their author and explorer. The latter would connect his cortex to virtuality by means of an umbilical cable leading from the computer directly to a jackpoint in his neck.

Despite Gibson’s noir tastes, the cyberspaces thus accessed were boxfresh and edenic, they contained conflicts that were instantly neutralisable (you simply pulled the plug out ) and their microbes were, at the end of the day, only ones and zeroes. Toyland was open.


Anxious to be seen as hip while emerging into public consciousness from the worlds of code and control, the designers and programmers and money people all eschewed the pallor and asexuality of hackers and caffeinated kids and plumped for bean sprouts in gaily coloured corporate campus cafeterias whilst sporting chinos and deckshoe leisurewear. Nerd was the new black and then, a few decades later, primary were the new colours of the Google logo.

Given the occult association between digits and toys, is it possible that, in certain digital empires, there may emerge a sensibility so shot through with embedded childishness that the amassing of private data and the capitulation to censorious father figures will be seen just as a game, like Hide and Seek, Spies or Piggy in the Middle?