[SIGCIS-Members] Isaacson's book

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Sun Oct 5 13:28:36 PDT 2014

Hello everyone,


I haven't read Isaacson's book yet, but have been looking at some reviews
with interest. It sounds from the review that Andy links to that the book
gets better as it goes on. On the historical part, Wisnioski notes in his
polite and generally favorable review that "Isaacson diligently attends to
this syllabus, but it curbs his trademark enthusiasm, and many of his
anecdotes are well-worn."


What I've seen in other places makes me question the diligence of Isaacson's
attention in the earlier chapters, like that of Jane Smiley in her attempt
at a popular history of early computing a few years ago.  According to a
profile in the New York Times the book starts and ends with Ada Lovelace.
Isaacson credits her to the extent of observing that


"Ada Lovelace defined the digital age," Mr. Isaacson said in one of several
recent interviews about the book..

"If it wasn't for Ada Lovelace, there's a chance that none of this would
even exist," Mr. Isaacson added as he waved his hand in the air, gesturing
as if to encompass all of Silicon Valley and the techies sitting around us.


Given that Babbage's project was itself apparently unknown to computer
pioneers of the 1940s such as Aiken, Eckert, Atanasoff  and Mauchly at the
time they conceptualized and designed their machines this claim seems to me
quite impossible to justify, however profound Lovelace's contribution to
that project was. 


He also has a chapter on the "Women of ENIAC." That has been put up as an
text and audiobook extract as a teaser prior to the launch of the book.


This chapter captures a broader trend in ENIAC's changing role in collective
memory: for about fifteen years now it has been remembered primarily as a
machine programmed by women. Even within the scholarly literature our
discussion of the place of the initial cohort of six operators has sometimes
mischaracterized the work they were hired to do and exaggerated their
contributions to the development of thinking about what ENIAC could be used
to do and how it might be configured to accomplish those tasks. That's
something I've become aware of in returning to primary sources for my
forthcoming book ENIAC in Action with Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope. Janet
started this thread with mention of some NPR interviews, and coverage in her
recent book Recoding Gender makes a definite contribution towards clarifying
these issues. In contrast, drawing almost entirely on oral histories and
memoir, Isaacson is for the most part just summarizing the consensus when he
implies that Jean Jennings and her colleagues made fundamental innovations
by, for example, realizing that the master programmer could be used to do
the exact task it was designed and built to perform: looping nested


It seems that the book is held together with a Gladwellian argument about
the collective and incremental nature of innovation, which is certainly
preferable to the lone genius view of history. However the ending of the
ENIAC extract makes me question how tightly though through this argument is:
he asserts that "all the programmers who created the first general-purpose
computer were women". That's either a very radical STS argument that a
computer is only created in use, or a sign that he did not spend much time
thinking about what creating a computer involves.


Now of course Lovelace, the "Women of ENIAC," Hopper, and a few others are
of interest to a lot of people because of their instrumental value as the
source of parables useful in the rebranding of computing as a field created
in large part by women. That's a worthy goal, and there are no wrong reasons
to be interested in history. Isaacson's book will sell maybe 1,000 times
more than anything that any of us are ever likely to write. However it would
be nice if there was a way to achieve this without pretending that a causal
chain makes Ada Lovelace essential to the "birth of the digital age" or
Jennings and her colleagues essential to the creation of ENIAC. Is there a
necessary tradeoff between historical accuracy and inspirational value, as
with the story about young George Washington and the cherry tree? I hope


Best wishes,


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