Gears and fears – A reflection on Seymour Papert’s essay ‘The Gears of my Childhood’

When reading Papert’s essay I was fascinated by the way that Papert creates the link between his earliest childhood memories to his experience of learning and how these experiences shaped the way he would forever interpret the world around him. In the article he describes how his love of automobiles helped him to give context to the gears in a construction set. The gears then became a ‘comfortable friend’ for him to experiment and explore mathematical ideas. This concept of building on learning and developing strong abstract representations to think with really interests me and is something I would like to explore further here.

My own personal ‘gears’ story began with music in particular the Yamaha VSS30, a sampling keyboard used primarily by my brothers to play expletives in 8bit samples across 32 polyphonic keys, but there was more. I was fascinated by the way that audio could be looped and manipulated using effects to create new and otherworldly sounds.

The Yamaha VSS-30

I loved electronic music, I would spend my pocket money on records and cassettes with no concept of how this music was created. At no point did I consider that the sampling keyboard had anything to do with this new futuristic soundscapes that I enjoyed so much. Something so obvious now seemed inconsistent then. I would watch the BBC music show ‘Top of the Pops’ religiously, and try to figure out what was going on. I would write to my favourite musicians to try and find out how they created their sounds, if I was lucky the PR staff would send me a signed photo of the act.

Image of the band The Shamen - 1993 The Shamen – 1993

Computer technology and music weren’t two things that I had made a link with. During this time I would visit the local Bainbridge’s department store and see the latest ‘tech’. I was amazed at a computer’s ability to display a photograph, so the idea of the machine’s potential was not clear to me. It wasn’t until a few years later that I managed to sneak into a nightclub one Tuesday evening after school, I was awakened. I had recently bought the album ‘Homework’ (ironic right) by Daft Punk and they were headlining. That evening was the best homework I would ever have. I stood on the balcony in amazement as I watched visuals played via midi keyboard connected to an Apple Mac computer. On stage Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel played an array of electronic instruments the likes of which I had never seen before but most importantly, I saw people enjoying and interacting with technology in ways I had never even considered possible.

Image of a Newcastle Mayfair ticket | Daft Punk - Daftendirektour 1997 Daft Punk – Daftendirektour 1997

From that day I was hooked, analogue musical instruments were relatively inexpensive (in comparison to today’s prices) and they weren’t too hard to come across. I built a small setup of my own. I began to learn about waveforms, patterns, synchronization and sampling through play. I was inspired to learn about video, animation and sound. To this day I apply these principles to my work and not just in the context of music.

At the same point in our lives I found my love for sound, and Papert ‘developed an intense involvement with automobiles’ we both had found our favourite pastime. I was intrigued as to what an ‘Erector Set’ was so I decided to take the risk of Googling it. An ‘Erector Set’ advert from the 1930’s reads;

‘Hello Boys! Look at this giant power plant! You can build it yourself with the great new Erector!’

Image of Erector set - 1930s Advertising Erector set – 1930s Advertising

I was confronted by an uncomfortable thought what if my experiences had been determined by my sex, race or gender? From an early age Papert had ‘developed an intense involvement with automobiles’ but what if that hadn’t happened?

When considering Papert’s article ‘The Gears of My Childhood’ and reflecting upon my own experiences my initial thoughts were ‘what if Papert wasn’t exposed to cars as a child or didn’t have the opportunity to play with toy gears, or even, what if he wasn’t a ‘he’, what then?

Of course we can look at this advert today and suggest that ‘it’s of it’s day’ or ‘things were like that then’, but have things really changed that much, have they? Do we still see gender bias in ‘transitional objects’? Of course we do! How many people have missed learning opportunities by not being given a toy or ‘transitional object’ because of their sex?

If you were to walk into any major toy store you will see a pattern, the ‘pink aisle’ and the ‘blue aisle’. Where would you most likely find a ‘Meccano set’ or an ‘engineering toy’?

Research conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and WISE has found that just ’12 percent of engineers in the UK are women and they earn around 11 per cent less than their male counterparts, on average’.

I don’t want to oversimplify the issue or suggest that toys are to blame for this, but through my own experience, electronic music has the same issues. In 2020 the top 15 Highest paid DJs in the world were all men. It is widely accepted that children identify differences between the ages of two and three.

‘A modern-day Montessori might propose, if convinced by my story, to create a gear set for children.’

Seymour Papert – The Gears of My Childhood

I think this could be a positive conclusion; let us build a gear set, let us create a sewing set, let us create a whatever set! But let us not impose gender stereotypes upon these objects.

Image of 8-Bit Cross Stitch - Make Stuff North East Activity 8-Bit Cross Stitch – Make Stuff North East Activity

Nostalgia plays a pivotal part in Papert’s story, without his experience of automobiles and with gears and the ‘Erector Set’ Papert may never have discovered his ‘comfortable friend’. We may never find our own ‘comfortable friend’. I hope that as an educator one day I can help someone to find their own ‘comfortable friend’ and not be constrained by the vision that our modern patriarchy imposes.