Questions for the Closing Plenary Session (SIGCIS Workshop, 2011)

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Our Closing Plenary this year will ask panel participants and audience members to consider questions on the theme of Cultures & Communities in the History of Computing, with an eye to exploring where the field of the history of computing has been, and where it is going. We're very fortunate to have a great line-up of speakers, including Tom Misa of the Charles Babbage Institute as moderator, Alex Bochannek of the Computer History Museum, Nathan Ensmenger from the University of Texas at Austin, Eden Medina from Indiana University, Bloomington, Andrew Russell from the Stevens Institute of Technology, and Jeff Yost of the Charles Babbage Institute.

Each participant has been asked to provide a question in advance to jump-start discussion. Click on "read more" below to see the current questions. Feel free to leave comments if there are other issues that you would like to see delved into at the closing plenary--we hope to involve the audience as much as possible.

Preliminary questions:

Jeff Yost:  Studies focused on race, class , and/or gender have been numerous and highly influential to the broader field of history for decades. Though proportionately less common, such studies have been very important to history of science and technology.  Research focused on gender in IT history has been rare (though appears to be gaining momentum), while historical studies of race and class in IT have been virtually non-existent.  To what extent do each of these three analytical categories make sense for IT history? And what opportunities exist for their application in terms of topics, sources, and methodologies?

Alex Bochannek:  Who is the audience for computing history? A recent survey has shown that the majority of visitors to the Computer History Museum self-identify as “techies”; this is despite the museum's current exhibition having been designed for the non-technical visitor as the primary audience. Public history of contemporary technology has the potential to engage a public that is seeking to understand the grand narratives of our time and to define our shared experience. Does the computer, as the ultimate black box, continue to confound the layperson or does the technology's ubiquity make it ordinary? Is the appeal of the topic therefore inherently limited to current and former practitioners in the field? Or is this simply a case of a museum serving its local community?

Andrew Russell:  Can concepts such as "culture" and "community" be as useful for historians of computing as the more familiar structuring concepts such as professionalization and technological progress?  I will suggest that the answer to my question is "yes!"  First, standard-setters cohere into distinct communities, and exhibit similar cultural characteristics--even though there is no such profession as "standardization" and standards, by definition, fix and limit technical diversity (thus slowing the unbounded pursuit of progress).  After all, computer standards must necessarily emerge from interactions between different people (engineers, managers, executives, regulators, users) from different walks of life, and in most cases cannot be the product of a single profession.  Second, to speak to Alex's question about the audiences for computer history, if we engage notions of "culture" and "community" more rigorously and regularly we will find that we have much more to talk about with other scholarly communities who are interested in computers and social change--from "mainstream" historians to our friends in "I-schools," sociology, anthropology, and other social sciences.  We may also find new ways to examine and use familiar sources, or make use of under-utilized sources such as oral histories.

Nathan Ensmenger: In the early decades of electronic computing it was perhaps possible to isolate the group of people who formed the computing "community." This was a relatively small group of people who made their living working with, studying, writing about, or building computers or computer software.   While recent scholarship has shown that this was in fact a diverse and fractious community, its members nevertheless generally saw themselves (and perhaps more importantly, were seen by others) as participating in a unique and novel endeavor.  It is during this period that the many of the distinctive cultural practices (and self-identity) associated with "computer people" emerged.   In recent years, of course, everyone has become a computer user, and it is no longer possible to clearly distinguish the boundaries of a computing community.   And yet the stereotypes and folklore that surround computer culture are constantly being perpetuated and replicated, often with significant educational, occupational, and professional implications.   How can we historicize the emergence of a distinctive computer culture without falling prey to the temptation of grand narratives?  How can we make rigorous historical scholarship compelling enough to compete with the powerful mythologies that dominate the popular history of computing.  It is easy to attract audiences to the same old self-serving anecdotes about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  How can historians provide a context for such anecdotes without losing sight of what makes them compelling in the first place? Can we continue to coherently talk about the computing community, or do we need to develop new categories of analysis?

Eden Medina: How can the history of computing contribute to present day discussions of computers and politics, including issues such as the use of social media for mobilization and protest, the politics of free and open source software in international contexts, the return to centralized data storage in “the cloud,” and, moreover, the ways that computer technologies’ global production, design, and use may actually reflect and enforce the logic of neoliberalism?