[SIGCIS-Members] Isaacson's book

Jennifer S Light jslight at mit.edu
Mon Oct 6 06:29:34 PDT 2014

I reviewed an advance copy for Nature. He has nicely digested the work of many of the people on this email list and made the ideas more accessible to a non-academic audience. Hopefully a few interested readers will check out the footnotes and find their way to everyone's work. 

Jennifer S. Light
Professor of Science, Technology, and Society
Professor of Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Ave., E51-173
Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 452-2390
From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [members-bounces at sigcis.org] On Behalf Of Ceruzzi, Paul [CeruzziP at si.edu]
Sent: Monday, October 06, 2014 9:13 AM
To: 'thaigh at computer.org'; 'members'
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Isaacson's book

I read the excerpt about the women of ENIAC in a recent issue of _Fortune_, and, frankly, I thought it was a poor rehash of Jean Jennings Bartik’s excellent memoir, _Pioneer Programmer_. In a perfect world, her book would have been a best-seller.  After I read the book, I wrote up a 10-page “treatment” for a film, and circulated it to some colleagues who have Hollywood connections, but nothing came of it. I suppose now that the story has a big name attached to it, it will be made into a movie (Meryl Streep?), so all’s well that ends well.


From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On Behalf Of Thomas Haigh
Sent: Sunday, October 05, 2014 4:29 PM
To: 'members'
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] Isaacson's book

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 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/02/fashion/the-innovators-by-walter-isaacson-how-women-shaped-technology.html?_r=0

“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. http://fortune.com/2014/09/18/walter-isaacson-the-women-of-eniac/

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 subroutines.

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 not.

Best wishes,


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