SIGCIS 2013 Workshop

Old Ideas: Recomputing the History of Information Technology

SIGCIS Workshop 2013
October 13, 2013, Portland, Maine

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The Society for the History of Technology's Special Interest Group for Computers, Information and Society (SIGCIS – is holding its annual scholarly workshop on Sunday, October 13, 2013 in Portland, Maine. As in previous years, SIGCIS's annual workshop occurs immediately after the regular SHOT annual meeting program, the details of which are available from

Questions about the workshop should be addressed to Thomas Haigh (School of Information Studies, University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee), who is serving as chair of the workshop program committee. Email

Registration: Registration for the workshop should be made through the registration procedure for the main SHOT meeting at SHOT does not collect an additional advance charge for the SIGCIS workshop, though we may need to collect contributions at the beginning of the meeting if SHOT requires us to cover the cost of coffee breaks and/or projector rental. When you register be sure to check the box for "Sunday Workshop on History of Computing" -- that's the SIGCIS workshop. We've been told that there is a special $70 one day registration option for those not attending the full conference -- contact if you are interested in this option as it is not available online.

Workshop Theme

Information technologists have little time for old thinking, or for anything else old. Entrepreneurs seek the new new thing, computer scientists tackle the grand challenges of future computing, and management consultants chase the next fad. Scholars in the humanities, who are professionally skeptical about the nostrums of neoliberalism, the myth of progress, and the allure of the technological fix, can nevertheless exhibit a similar weakness for the shiny allure of new technologies. In short, information technology is rarely understood as something rooted in history. Its cultural associations are with the future, not the past.

For the SIGCIS 2013 Workshop, we invite scholars to turn their attention to something different: old ideas and their relationship to information and computer technology. Perhaps to their overlooked charm, their enduring power, and their continuities with the putatively new. Such papers might

  • Reclaim from what was famously termed the ”enormous condescension of posterity” the ideas about information and information technology held by specific historical actors, explaining what they really thought they were doing and how the understood the world around them.
  • Demonstrate hidden historical continuities, by showing that technologies, ideas, or practices generally assumed to be of recent origin have a close relationship with those formerly known by different names.
  • Advocate explicitly or by example the relevance of less fashionable historical approaches, such as quantitative analysis, old-school Marxism, or micro-level studies of technical practice to understanding the history of information technology.
  • Explore connections between historical research on computing, and the burgeoning recent literature on software studies, game studies, platform studies, etc. produced by scholars in other areas of the humanities.
  • Place topics within the history of information technology into broader arcs of birth, aging, and death – whether of individuals, institutions, or social practices.
  • Illuminate the cultural work done to construct some things as old and others as new, and explain who is carrying out this work and why.

Workshop Program

All sessions will occur in the Holiday Inn on the Bay, which is also the main location of the SHOT conference. We are currently waiting to hear from SHOT which rooms we have been assigned.

  Kennebec Room (all plenary events held here) Lincoln Room
9:00 - 10:30

Opening Plenary

  • Introduction to Workshop and of Keynote Speaker by Thomas Haigh, University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee (SIGCIS Chair & workshop organizer)
  • Keynote Address, William Aspray, University of Texas at Austin, “In Search of the Many Histories of Information”

Coffee Break

Including presentation of the Computer History Museum Prize, by Jonathan Coopersmith, Texas A&M University, to the author of an outstanding book on the history of computing, broadly conceived.


New Wine in Old Bottles? Tensions Between Computer Science and Traditional Disciplines

Organizer: Janet Abbate, Virginia Tech
Chair: Chuck House, InnovaScapes Institute
Commentator: Joseph November, University of South Carolina

  • Janet Abbate, Virginia Tech, “Old Disciplines and New Infrastructures: Constructing Computer Science in the 1960s”
  • Pierre Mounier-Kuhn, CNRS & Université Paris-Sorbonne, “’Une Science Encore Incertaine’:  The Emergence of Computer Science in France (1955-2000)”
  • Irina Nikiforova, Higher School of Economics (Saint-Petersburg), "Competing Visions of New Science: Computer Science Journals in the US and Russia, 1945-1970"

(3x20 minute presentations followed by a 10-15 minute comment and general discussion)

Old Ideas on Control and Communication

Chair: James Gallo, Science & Technology Policy Institute
Commentator: John Laprise, Northwestern University in Qatar

  • Julie Cohn, University of Houston, “’The old was analog.  The new was digital’: transitions from the analog to the digital domain in electric power systems.”
  • Christopher Leslie, New York University, “A Missing Link: Placing International Teleprinter Networks into the Prehistory of the Internet”
  • Joy Rankin, Yale University, “The Time-Sharing Movement: Building Educational Computing Networks in Minnesota 1965-75”

(3x20 minute presentations followed by a 10-15 minute comment and general discussion)


Lunch with IEEE History Committee

Lunch in the hotel will be provided by the IEEE History Center and we will be meeting jointly with the IEEE History Committee and the members of other SIGs. The plan is for an informal event, starting with a short presentation on the committee's activities and a recap of some of the issues raised in the Presidents' roundtables. This will be followed by informal discussion among all those present on the general topic of how engineers and historians of technology can work together.


Work in Progress

Session Leader: Andrew Russell, Stevens Institute of Technology

  • Bernadette Longo, New Jersey Institute of Technology, “Giant Brains, or Machines That Think." (Withdrawn)
  • Trevor Croker, Virginia Tech, “Cloud Computing and the Physicality of the Internet.”
  • Jacob Gaboury, New York University, “Image Objects: Computer Graphics at the University of Utah."
  • Thomas Haigh, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, "Actually, Turing Didn't Invent the Computer."

(Short presentations, approx 5 minutes each, to introduce precirculated papers, to be discussed in turn by workshop participants)

Old Ideas and New Technologies

Chair: Lars Heide, Copenhagen Business School
Commentator: Steven W. Usselman, Georgia Tech

  • Barbara Hahn, Texas Tech University, “Punch Cards and Industrial Control: Old Devices with New Relevance”
  • Mary E. Hopper, Digital Den Inc., “Wisdom from Athena: A Paradigm for Precognition”
  • Rebecca Elizabeth Skinner, “The Impasse and the Breakthrough: The Pregnant Pause of the early 1950s, and the Birth of Artificial Intelligence Computing” (Withdrawn)
  • Ulf Hashagen, Deutsches Museum, “The Computation of Nature, Or: Does the Computer Drive Science and Technology?” (Withdrawn)
  • Dan Feldman, IBM, "The Netezza Performance Server: Market Disruption Through Deep Hardware and Software Co-Design"

(3x20 minute presentations followed by a 10-15 minute comment and general discussion)

3:30-4:00 Coffee Break  

An Ancient Continent as a New Frontier: Discovering that Computing has a History in Asia  (Closing Plenary)

Chair:Jeffrey Yost, University of Minnesota (Charles Babbage Institute)
Commentator:  James W. Cortada, University of Minnesota (Charles Babbage Institute)

  • Ross Bassett, North Carolina State University, “Rethinking the Victorian Internet:  The Mahratta and the Rise of Technological Nationalism in Poona, India, 1881-1901”
  • Ramesh Subramanian, Quinnipiac University, “Old Ideas: BBSs and the Emergence of Online Communities in India”
  • Ling-Fei Lin, Cornell University, “The Origins of Laptop Contract Manufacturing in Taiwan and the Transnational Learning Years, 1988-2001”

(3x20 minute presentations followed by a 10-15 minute comment and general discussion)

5:30-6:45 Time to recover
6:45 Meet in the lobby of the conference hotel to walk to an optional group dinner in a neaby restaurant. We have a reservation for 7pm at Local 188, a nearby restaurant.

CFP Material is Below -- For Reference Only

Deadline: June 30, 2013

(Following description of workshop theme)

If none of the above fit your work, even with some creative twisting, then despair not: we also accept new ideas! SIGCIS has a tradition of welcoming all types of contributions related to the history of computing and information, whether or not there is an explicit connection with the annual theme. Our membership is international and interdisciplinary, and our members examine the history of information technologies and their place within society from a variety of scholarly perspectives including the history of technology, business history, labor history, social history, the history of science, science studies, communications, gender and sexuality studies, computing, disability studies, and museum studies.

Suggested Formats for Submissions:

Proposals for entire sessions and individual presenters are both welcome. We hope to run special sessions featuring dissertations in progress and other works in progress. The workshop is a great opportunity to get helpful feedback on your projects in a relaxed and supportive environment. All proposals will be subject to a peer review process based on abstracts.

Individual contributions can fit one of a variety of formats:

  1. Traditional 15 to 20-minute presentations followed by a question and answer session. In this case, a one-page abstract (maximum 400 words) will be reviewed and included in the electronic conference program. Abstracts should address the paper's topic, argument, evidence used, and contribution to the existing literature. A full version of the paper should be sent to the session commentator at least 2 weeks prior to the meeting. We welcome proposals for entire sessions (3-4 papers that elucidate a common theme) or for individual presentations.
  2. Dissertation proposals. We intend to continue SIGCIS's tradition of hosting special sessions that feature dissertations in progress so that scholars can receive critical feedback in a relaxed and supportive environment. Interested students should submit a dissertation proposal (for projects in the early stages) or draft dissertation chapter together with table of contents of the whole dissertation (for those nearing completion), which will be pre-circulated in the electronic conference program if accepted. Participants will be encouraged to read this prior to the session. You will have five to ten minutes to introduce the material, leaving the bulk of time available for discussion.
  3. Works in progress. This is your chance to receive informal and expert discussion of draft dissertation chapters, journal articles, or book chapters. Submit a one page abstract (maximum 400 words) including discussion of the current state of the work and any specific kinds of feedback you are seeking. If your proposal is accepted you will need to supply the draft for discussion by 1 September for inclusion in the electronic program for the workshop. You will have five to ten minutes to introduce the material, leaving the bulk of time available for discussion.
  4. Proposals in other formats are also welcome, such as round table discussions, "works in progress" proposals for early-stage research projects, demonstrations of software of interest to historians of computing and information, or "author meets critics" sessions.

SIGCIS follows traditional practices for the submission of papers for professional historical conferences, specifically: selection based on abstracts rather than full papers; no pre-circulation or publication of full papers (with the exception of dissertation proposals as noted above); and the requirement that presenters share their full paper with the session commentator at least 2 weeks prior to the meeting.  Presenters are encouraged to submit their work the SIGCIS Member Contributions collection.

Submission Procedure

All submissions should be made online via the SIGCIS website by June 30, 2013. People already scheduled to participate on the main SHOT program are welcome to submit an additional proposal to the SIGCIS workshop, but should make sure that there is no overlap between the two presentations. However program committee may choose to give higher priority to submissions from those not already presenting at SHOT. The same person should not be included as a panelist or speaker in more than one proposal to the SIGCIS Workshop, though it is OK to appear both as a speaker/panelist in one session and a chair or discussant in another.

Individual submissions should be made at Note that this requires a one page curriculum vitae as well as the proposal itself in the form described above.

Proposals for complete sessions should be made at

They should include:

  • a description of the session that explains how individual papers contribute to an overall theme)
  • the names and email addresses of each presenter)
  • an abstract and title for each presentation (in the form described above)
  • a one-page c.v. for each presenter and other participant (including commentator or chair if named)

Travel Support

The top financial priority of SIGCIS is the support of travel expenses for graduate students, visiting faculty without institutional travel support, and others who would be unable to attend the meeting without travel assistance. The submission page includes a box to check if you fall into one of these categories and would like to be considered for an award. These is no separate application form, though depending on the volume of requests and available resources we may need to contact you for further information before making a decision. Details on our travel grant program are at Any award offered is contingent on registering for and attending the workshop and, for participants in work in progress or dissertations in progress sessions, on fulfilling the deadlines set for providing work in progress to be shared on the workshop website.

Funding sources include donations from SIGCIS members at our annual meeting, income from the Mahoney Fund and support from MIT Press for our annual book auction. Please note that SHOT does not classify SIGCIS presentations as participation in the SHOT annual meeting and so acceptance by SIGCIS does not imply eligibility for the SHOT travel grant program.


For information on previous SIGCIS workshops in 2009-2012, please visit the "Activities and Events" section of the SIGCIS website at expect to follow a similar format this year. There is an informal dinner in the evening after the workshop.