Remembering Mike Mahoney

Mike Mahoney

Tom Haigh's recent announcement of the completion of his edited volume of Mike Mahoney's work seems a good time to put down some brief thoughts about the brief time that I knew him. My last meeting with Professor Mahoney (as I called him then, and still think of him) was on Wednesday, July 16th, 2008, just two days before the heart attack that led to his death. I came in to hear his comments on my dissertation proposal (at the time I intended to study efforts within U.S. state and local governments to break down bureaucratic barriers via computerization). The notes from the meeting evince the workings of a sharp, incisive mind, ever seeking to pare ideas down to their essence, discarding all nonsense and baloney. At we began to wrap up, Mahoney emphasized (or so I wrote) that what the history of computing needs to absorb is one key idea: "what computers can do is what people want them to do." In a neat recursive move, he drew an analogy to software development itself: Look at the spiral model of software development, he said. It assumes that when software developers meet their customers, neither side knows exactly what the product should be. Only through an intricate dance of technical prototyping and social interaction do both sides come to agree on both the problem and the technical solution. Moreover, Mahoney elaborated, the various social groups within the customer bring lingering disagreements and uncertainties to the table, which may be assigned (whether they like it or not) some technical solution in the process of software development. So it goes, he implied, with all aspects of computer technology. He urged me, in my study of the history of computing, to bring to light the places where these dynamics of negotiation emerge most clearly, to show the reader of my dissertation the "spiral" of computerization in action. Only after the spiral winds to its conclusion do technological solutions get locked into place, and does the role of the computer get decided. After Mahoney's death, I chose a quite different direction for my dissertation than the one I had planned as of July 16th, 2008. I have had excellent advisers who have aided me tremendously in finding my way. Still, as I have navigated this rocky road, I have missed the guiding hand (and guiding mind) of Mike Mahoney.