The Shock of the Old


A couple weeks back I discussed Matthew Lasar's article on Ars Technica about the invention of the PC. Lasar has done it again this week with an excellent piece on the surprising persistence of old technologies.  Tech pundits, Lasar notes, are very quick to declare technology dead or obsolescent, when the latest, hot thing comes along:

Sherry Turkle on Furbies


WNYC's Radiolab is a show dedicated to making difficult scientific issues accessible and interesting for a popular audience. I sometimes assign segments of episodes to my history of technology students to reward them after particularly dry or difficult readings, so the recent episode on AI, called "Talking to Machines" caught my eye.

Not only does Sherry Turkle weigh in Furbies, but the episode also hearkens back, again and again, to Turing's early questions about what human capacities computers can replace (or improve). Particularly how imitation can function as effectively as the "real" thing in many cases we might not expect, like when an AI researcher unknowingly falls in love with a chatbot... twice. Over and over again we see Turing's "polite convention that everyone thinks" being cautiously extended to hardware and software, often with surprising results.

Living technological change

There was an article in the New York Times recently that summarized findings of scientists studying the effects of light on sleep/wake cycles. One of the most interesting findings, for historians of computing, was the fact that the bright, bluish light put out by modern computer screens very effectively suppresses the body's ability to generate melatonin, and therefore to sleep well and regularly. Disturbed sleep, however, was not the only effect observed. In fact, the studies go on to describe how the suppression of melatonin production can lead to everything from mood disorders to obesity.

This raises the perennial question of how we live through our technologies, and how we are molded by them, not just socially and economically, but even at very basic biological levels.

Science Fiction and the History of Computing

Science Fiction and Computing Cover

David Ferro recently posted on the SIGCIS mailing list about the release of his and Eric Swedin's new edited volume, Science Fiction and Computing. This is a sequel, of sorts, to a workshop at the Society for the History of Technology meeting in Tacoma last fall.

IBM Turns 100, and Creates a Stir

The IBM Personal Computer

Journalists across the Web (mostly) celebrated the 100th birthday of IBM last week, on June 16th. See for instance, coverage at The New York Times, Wired, and Forbes. My history of computing colleagues at the IT History blog also covered the story, with a business history perspective from Joel West.

Preserving individuals' on-line efforts at capturing bits of computer history

There are many excellent individually maintained websites that give bits of computer history, for instance,

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