Summer reading for historians of computing -- suggestions needed.

Please consider helping the community sharpen its engagement with new ideas. Back in graduate school I read feverishly in labor history, business history, history of technology social history, organizational sociology, etc in preparation for my oral examinations. My classes covered still more eclectic topics, ranging from a "greatest hits" of literary theory to nonparametric methods. Over the ten years since I physically left Penn I've been focused on an ever more specialized set of literatures, primarily the burgeoning history of computing field, which I know in ever more depth. In general I've also been doing more writing and less reading. This is probably pretty typical of the intellectual career of a tenured academic, though as I don't have an opportunity to teach any courses related to my interests it may be a little more extreme.
Last summer I finally read Latour's Science in Action properly for the first time (lying outside a dacha on the outskirts of Kiev) and enjoyed it rather more than I'd expected. That hardly puts me on the cutting edge of intellectual fashion, but it did remind me of the pleasure of reading a really nicely constructed and provocative book of general interest.
So, putting these two thoughts together I wondered what top grade new work might have appeared over the past ten years. I'm thinking of books of implicit rather than explicit relevance to the history of computing, either offering new intellectual perspectives or just serving as models of craft. Scholarly books that could be read for pleasure rather than duty. I'm sure suggestions would be of general interest to the SIGCIS community, as it heads to the beaches, lakes, mountains and dachas of the world.
Please propose your suggestions as comments below, including the book and a short description of why it deserve to be read widely by historians of computing.


That's a great question, Tom.The obvious suggestion that occurs to me, though I imagine list readers know all about it already, is James Gleick's The Information, a wide ranging tour of information as idea in linguistics, logic, telecommunications, cryptography, quantum theory, and genetics. Oh, and the history of computing.Less obviously tied to the history of computing but still great summer (or fall, or spring, or winter) reading for people with interests both historical and scientific, is the burgeoning field of "big history". David Christian's Maps of Time is to me the most impressive synthesis, but McNeill & McNeill's The Human Web and Daniel Lord Smail's On Deep History & The Brain are also,Rob 

Great idea, Tom!  My first suggestion is David Edgerton's Shock of the Old.  This is a book about the surprising persistence of old technology, but more importanly about what a surprisingly small slice of technological history involves innovation, at least as conventionally defined.  Of course the focus on users in the history of technology is at least 25 years old, but it has still mostly focused on the role of users in innovation - not in actual use, maintenance, and re-use after the innovation is done (after 'closure', in SCOT terms). Edgerton's book is especially relevant to computing, given the huge weight of near-invisible labor (except around the Y2K crisis!) that is involved in keeping old software working. 

Rather father afield (and near the edge of the time limit) is Peter Galison's Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps.  Although classified as a science book, it is really a book about how the emergence of relativistic physics is inseparable from the spatial politics and temporal technology of early twentieth century empire.  It's a very interesting model for how to intertwine science, technology, and political/cultural history.  And a very good read.      

  • Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan: I recently got turned onto John Dewey's "The Public and Its Problems," which dates to 1927. A pleasure to read, features a kind of quasi-"networking" theory of modern democracy towards the end, and also something that has been popping up in theoretical literature lately as some of the actor-network theorists and thing theorists turn towards American pragmatism. Markus Krajewski's  recently published German-language book "Der Diener," a history of the figure of the servant, from 18th c. literature to contemporary notions of computer servers, is also a bizarre and fascinating invitation to reconsider how we think about computation and culture.

  • David Alan Grier: I would say that the most informative author that I have read in the last two years beyond LaTour who was also new to me and Henry Adams to whom I return regularly, was Immanuel Wallerstein. I read all of his World Systems Theory books. I found them fascinating and engaging, though they always left me with the feeling that he was overreaching.

  • Deborah Douglas: Sherry Turkle's work is an outstanding example of the kind of reading that is both pleasurable and sets of Roman candles in your mind.  Obviously, "Alone Together" is the most recent but I think earlier works ("Second Self," "Life on the Screen," and "SImulation and Its Discontents") continue to reward readers.
ceruzzip's picture

I am reading Kevin Kelly''s What Technology Wants. Nowhere as academic as the others posted thus far, but Kelly is writing as one who has been an active participant, and he offers a lot of insights that I have not seen elsewhere. We've all seen Big Picture overviews that have failed, in one way or another, and that perhaps makes us all wary whenever a book like this appears. But I honestly belive this one succeeds.


This past year, I taught a required semester-long course for our doctoral students in information studies on things they should know from other areas of humanistic and social study of science and technology to prepare them to be good scholars in information studies. Of course, history is just one area within information studies, but I think there is value for historians to know this material.  Probably most of you are already familiar with many of these books.  Below is the list of the books we read in the class (yes, I work the students hard!).


Required Readings

Wiebe Bijker et al., ed., The Social Construction of Technological Systems (MIT, 1989)

Andy Clark, Mindware (Oxford, 2000)

Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother (Basic Books, 1989)

Michael Crotty, The Foundations of Social Research (Sage, 1998)

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minnesota, 3rd ed., 2008)

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Theory and Reality (Chicago, 2003)

Karin Knorr-Cetina, Epistemic Cultures (Harvard, 1999)

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 3rd ed., 1996)

David Noble, Forces of Production (Oxford, 1986)

Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back (Vintage, 1997)

P.E. Vermaas et al., ed., Philosophy and Design (Springer, 2009)

Walter Vincenti, What Engineers Know and How They Know It (Johns Hopkins, 1993)

Geoff Walsham, “The Emergence of Interpretivism in IS Research,” Information Systems Research (2001) 6: 4, 376-394. Available online at