[SIGCIS-Members] history of software

Paul Edwards pne at umich.edu
Tue Aug 24 09:01:02 PDT 2010

A bit of cheerleading for Nathan: I had occasion to read the manuscript of this book last year, and I can tell you all that it's a great book. It fills a real hole in the literature. 

Ensmenger gives an excellent account of 1960s and 1970s attempts to professionalize programming by societies such as the Association for Computing Machinery and the Data Processing Management Association. He connects the difficulty of certifying the skills of professional programmers neatly to debates about the content (and even the name) of the field now know as “computer science,” which came to be focused on algorithms but might have ended up more like an engineering profession, emphasizing practical skills over theoretical sophistication. Another element Ensmenger considers closely is the gendering of computer programming, dominated by women in the earliest years of electronic computing but rapidly taken over by men. This is not a new topic in history of computing, but Ensmenger’s analysis of it is more nuanced and far more detailed than most others. Finally, Ensmenger’s discussion of the “software crisis” that led to the 1968 NATO Software Engineering conference — and still persists today (!!) — is by far the best and the fullest discussion of this crucial episode I have yet seen in print. 

Having lived through part of the period Ensmenger covers — my first job, in 1975, was as a mainframe computer operator and programmer — I can attest directly to the realism of his account.


On Aug 24, 2010, at 11:40 AM, Nathan Ensmenger wrote:

> Julie's query about the history of software provides me with the flimsy pretext I need to mention that my book on the subject, entitled **The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise,** is finally available.   The book is probably best described as a labor history of software development.  I have included the full book blurb below.
> The Computer Boys is available from MIT Press and Amazon, and is gradually filtering out through the rest of the distribution chain.  It might take a little time to hit the stacks at your local library, and those outside the US might need to wait a few weeks as well.  
> I am not sure that this qualifies for Julie's "must read" list, but consider it a personal "please read" invitation from a fellow member of the SIGCIS community.
> -Nathan
> --
> Nathan Ensmenger
> History & Sociology of Science
> University of Pennsylvania
> www.sas.upenn.edu/~nathanen
> **The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise**
> Of all of the revolutionary technological innovations of the 20th century, none is as widely recognized, as celebrated, or as profoundly influential as the invention of the electronic digital computer. But like all great social and technological developments, the computer revolution of the twentieth century didn't just happen.  It had to be made to happen, and made to happen by people, not impersonal processes.  
> In The Computer Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger describes the emergence of a new breed of technical specialists—computer programmers, systems analysts, and data processing managers—who built their careers around the powerful new technology of electronic computing.  It was these largely anonymous specialists who built the systems that transformed the novel technology of electronic computing from a scientific curiosity into the most powerful and ubiquitous technology of the modern era. Known alternatively as "whiz kids," "hackers," and "gurus," they were alternately admired for their technical prowess and despised for their eccentric mannerisms and the disruptive potential of the technologies they developed.  As the software systems that they built and maintained became central to the operations of our modern computerized society, they became the focus of a series of critiques of the social and organizational impact computerization.  To many of their contemporaries, it seemed the "computer boys" were taking over, not just in the corporate setting, but also in government, politics, and society in general.
> Ensmenger follows the rise of the computer boys as they struggled to establish a role for themselves within traditional organizational, professional, and academic hierarchies. Was computer programming a "black art," a legitimate science, or an industrial discipline?  Were computer specialists more like scientists, engineers, managers, or clerical workers?  What was the appropriate relationship between technical expertise and other, more traditional forms of social, political, and organizational power?  In telling the story of these influential but unrecognized computer revolutionaries, Ensmenger provides a nuanced social history of the computerization of modern society that highlights the many ways in which even the most complex technologies are nevertheless fundamentally human constructions. 
> _______________________________________________
> This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. The list archives are at http://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/ and you can change your subscription options at http://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members

Paul N. Edwards, Professor of Information
A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (MIT Press 2010)

Terse replies are deliberate (and better than nothing): five.sentenc.es

University of Michigan School of Information
3439 North Quad
105 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1285
(734) 764-2617 (office)                  
(206) 337-1523  (fax) 

More information about the Members mailing list