[SIGCIS-Members] Isaacson's book 2

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan bernard.geoghegan at hu-berlin.de
Mon Oct 6 14:43:03 PDT 2014

Dear All,

I've been thinking about these kinds of histories, quarrels, and 
computer historiographies in recent months, esp. in the light of the 
"debate" around Shiva Ayyadurai and the invention of email. I'm 
interested in these histories, claims, and claimants for the origins and 
development of info technologies. They are stimulating and telling 
("symptomatic" one might say) for the reason that "computer 
historiography" is not to my mind an impartial, neutral recounting of a 
series of rote facts, but rather itself a vibrant actor within the 
history of computational innovation. The Shiva case shows this pretty 
well, because the "historiography" is in some way coextensive with 
individuals staking claims that shape their ability to act in the field 
in the present (i.e. Shiva has patents, a start-up company, etc, so I 
think his belated discovery of his "invention" speaks to his present-day 
ambitions;  his enlisting of The Smithsonian etc. to back up his claims 
is an fascinating case of an actor-network theoretical aligning of 
interests in action). Same goes for the Isaacson books, because they 
also involve efforts to ally, interest, and orient readers around 
certain conceptions of where and how invention happens. These frames and 
theories of innovation converge with other agendas (figuring out how 
private markets shaped the PC revolution; granting women greater 
representation in computational histories; writing a history of 
computing focused on its ability to stimulate our passions rather than 
just crunch numbers). These kinds of frames and agendas relate 
specifically to the struggles surrounding innovation and education in 
the present; that they should bear on popular histories shouldn't be so 
surprising, nor that they would come to bear upon how the Smithsonian or 
TIME magazine decides to acknowledge innovation.

As for the kinds of cases surrounding the "ENIAC girls" invoked in a 
previous mail: Even despite the condescending instances of tokenism 
invoked by Tom, I think that when push comes to shove, actually 
distinguishing the "real" or "authentic" innovation from the cultural 
hype proves  tricky (this isn't meant as a counter-argument--Tom's 
commented on these same problems elsewhere). As works by Ensmenger and 
Jen Light and others note, the distinctions between  invention and 
innovation, hardware and software, engineers and mere programmers, 
scientific and technical labor, etc, themselves rest upon a set of 
(often naive and shortsighted) cultural assumptions over what's the 
"real" work of computing. Ensmenger in particular shows that these 
cultural assumptions have profound consequences at the very heart of 
technological development: There's a decent argument that early computer 
scientists entirely dismissed programming as a kind of subaltern variety 
of labor, contributing both to the wartime assignment of this work to 
women, and the industry-crippling software crisis that followed. This 
makes the attempt to sift though debating historical causes and factors 
enmeshed, from the outset, in  debates over cultural theory, gender, 
notions of material history and cultural labor, and so on (Schaffer 
makes a similar point in Babbage's Intelligence). The attempt to 
identify a baseline for the "real history" of a technology and its 
development never "escapes" cultural agendas, for example, re-examining 
the under-representation of women in computing, which can be credibly 
cited as a determining factor in the technological (mis-)development in 
the field.  So as I see it, the work of historiography is really about 
these ongoing battles and quarrels in our midst, each of which deploys 
alternate values and horizons for making sense of informatics--a process 
that necessarily will continue to evolve and unsettle, without much 
resolution, so long as our field remains vibrant and relevant. Isaacson 
is an actor in this field, much as we are, even as von Neumann was, even 
if there are (as Tom correctly urges us to recognize) different roles of 
vastly different import.

Moreover, I think readers approach histories like Isaacson's with the 
ability to recognize that the claims are sort of puffed up. For example, 
I don't think many readers of Standage's history of the telegraph take 
as literally true his claim that it was "the Victorian internet" nor his 
other book's claims that the 17th c. Chess-Playing Turk gave rise to IBM 
computing machines. Readers turn to these accounts for fun, diverting 
accounts that mix trivia, drama, and fragments of technical knowledge, 
as well as orientation in the varied kinds of forces that play out in 
the history of a technology. These histories, in turn, were often 
convened in response to a given topical event (anniversary, marketing 
event, product launch, someone's death). Readers recognize that, too.

I wrote about this awhile back in the IEEE Annals, in an article titled 
"The Historiographic Conception of Information," a kind of reflection on 
the status of historiography within computing. As I put it there, in 
discussing popular accounts of Claude Shannon on the occasion of his 
death, I wrote:
/‘Computer history’’ does not appear before the public as a...natural 
and unmediated accounting of clearcut facts. Instead, a historically 
specific organization//of experts, research, resources, and interpretive 
frames emerges in response to present and presumably historical events. 
This is not the meddling intervention of outside interests and biases 
upon the neutral labor of historiography; rather, these are the basic 
conditions for writing computer history. These conditions’ appearance 
prompts questions about how a retiring mathematician [Claude Shannon], 
skeptical about his personal acclaim, emerged as a recognizable and 
heroic subject of popular interest./

I guess I'm not above taking some delight in our field's status as a 
kind of joyful cultural science whose interest and relevance is deeply 
tied up with its ability to bisect pop culture, current events, and 
institutional struggles. And if our field attracts shallow excitement 
and fantastic tale telling, I'm not above welcoming this, our 
imaginative fecundity, however suspect its offspring may seem.


On 10/5/14 9:47 PM, Chuck House wrote:
> personal opinion, based on the Steve Jobs book and my interview with 
> Isaacson after his talk at the Computer History Museum, this will be a 
> relatively shallow treatment by a gifted captivating writer
> On Oct 5, 2014, at 1:28 PM, Thomas Haigh <thaigh at computer.org 
> <mailto:thaigh at computer.org>> wrote:
>> 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 
>> thathttp://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,
>> Tom
>> _______________________________________________
>> This email is relayed frommembers at sigcis.org 
>> <mailto:members at sigcis.org>, the email discussion list of SHOT 
>> SIGCIS. The list archives are 
>> athttp://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/and you can change your 
>> subscription options athttp://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members
> _______________________________________________
> This email is relayed frommembers at sigcis.org, the email discussion list of SHOT SIGCIS. The list archives are athttp://sigcis.org/pipermail/members/  and you can change your subscription options athttp://sigcis.org/mailman/listinfo/members

Dr. Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan
Institut für Kulturwissenschaft
Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.sigcis.org/pipermail/members-sigcis.org/attachments/20141006/ee2d254d/attachment-0001.htm>

More information about the Members mailing list