Computing and Historiography, Part 1

Motte oder Wanze [Moth or Bedbug]. Circuit Diagram. 1952. Norbert Wiener. From Mensch und Menschmaschine.
sigcis debate origins email evgeny morozov Shiva Ayyadurai

How does the work of building computers relate to the writing of computing history? At first glance, this seems an easy enough thing to describe: Scientists, engineers, and industries invent or innovate while historians and other observers report on these events. This is a more or less linear model of cause and effect, where work with computers is an ostensible “cause” or “source” for writing computer history. But I think this model is so reductive as to be false. It seems to me that the reception or interpretation of computational history is itself a participant in the shaping and consolidation of computational innovation. Recognizing this relation has important consequences for a number of issues in ‘informatics proper’ (design and protection of intellectual property, raising capital, and workplace diversity are three areas I will touch on in coming posts) as well those societies that would like to identify social well being with technological innovation.

I wrote about these interrelations among innovation and historiography awhile back in the IEEE Annals on the History of Computing, in an article titled “The Historiographic Conception of Information.” As I put it there, “Computer history’ does not appear before the public as a...natural and unmediated accounting of clear-cut facts. Instead, a historically specific organization of experts, research, resources, and interpretive frames emerges in response to present and presumably historical events. This is not the meddling intervention of outside interests and biases upon the neutral labor of historiography; rather, these are the basic conditions for writing computer history.” I might underscore that these experts and their resources often occupy a place within the field of computational invention and innovation itself. There are few historians and effectively no sources that are not in one way or another already inscribed in debates that originate in the alignment of interested parties. To pick a more everyday example, Wikipedia may strive for neutrality but we know its entries come about through an often contentious and combative process, where advocates and sources are inscribed within a vortex of conflicts that editors do their best to sift through. But the vortex of conflict is constitutive and constructive of the statements finally judged "neutral" and "authoratitative", rather than a simply negative condition to be eliminated or suspended.

Conversely, the tales told by historians and others ricochet back on the rights, privileges, and initiatives that take place in laboratories and firms developing computers. This kind of ecology of reciprocal and recursive causes is operative from the first instance in computing fields. Long before working computers were brought to market, their “inventors” like Charles Babbage were shopping around non-functional devices telling fabulous tales about their origins and implications, well aware that such stories would shape the resources (Babbage sought state funding for his device) they ultimately had for continued development, as well as their standing in scientific communities (which also generated networks & resources).

In the past year or so a number of debates have unfolded on the Special Interest Group Computers, Information and Society (SIGCIS) listserv, prompting me to reflect on these matters again. Although nominally a sub-group within the larger and broader Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), in recent years SIGCIS has emerged as the world’s leading association for historians of informatics and computing. Members and subscribers hail from around the world, it counts engineers, historians, philosophers, amateurs inventors, and computer enthusiasts among its members, and its satellite meetings coordinated with the SHOT annual conference have becoming a noteworthy attraction in their own right. And I proudly count myself as a member. So when this group argues about the meaning of computer historiography, I think there may be lessons to be learned. It occupies a striking convergence of interests and voices concerning memory in general and about computing in particular.

A recurrent topic of the SIGCIS debates is the sourcing and citation of computer history. Controversies surrounding popular journalists fast and loose (and possibly plagiaristic) use of computer historians’ writings are a recurrent theme of debate. Nathan Ensmenger, to my mind a scrupulous actor and observer of such events, comments on one instance here.  The fact that such controversies exist is pretty notable. As far as I know, email listservs for historians of the late medieval English literature, early modern science, or even the history of biology are not plagued by constant complaints that their stories become un-credited fodder for journalists at the Washington Post or the Atlantic. By and large, academic historians write for specialized audiences about debates of marginal interest for popular audiences. (I don't have a gripe with that and I've written more than my share of gloriously specialized texts--can aimed for immediate and ubiquitous dissemination, then most of our statemens would be either totally banal or mere flattery for present taste; and as Nietzsche suggested, only mediations out of sync with popular thought have a power to change it over the long run.) That historians of computing find themselves in a different situation tells us something about the peculiar investment popular writing and the popular imagination has in stories about the emergence of informatic and digital technologies. I'll have occasion to touch on that in the coming days/weeks too.

In the next few days I am going to offer a few more blog posts discussing these debates and some of the lessons they offer about computers, society, and historiography. My second post (you’re reading the first right now) will offer a few reflections on the types of materials I and other historians interested in computing often work with, and their implications for how histories of computing get written. My third post will examine what recent debates over the “invention of email” suggest about the difficulty of writing the history of computing. And my fourth post will examine the difficulty unpacking some objections to Walter Isaacson’s treatment of women and gender in his recent and popular book The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. This debate in particular shows the exceptional impossibility (and epistemological undesirability) of parsing so-called “cultural issues” or “ cultural identity” from the history of computational invention and innovation. For more on these debates, consider subscribing to the SIGCIS listserv or perusing its online archives. And if you’re really interested in the substance of these debates you can consult blog posts here, here, here, and here. (Some of my previous comments on these debates--and why they provide an occasion for strategizing a more robust engagement with journalists--can be found here) Anyway, hope you’ll come back in a day or two to read more.