[SIGCIS-Members] SIGCIS and public debates

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan bernard.geoghegan at hu-berlin.de
Tue Oct 14 04:38:52 PDT 2014

Dear Colleagues,

A few thoughts following up on recent comments by Chuck, Ian, et al.

I welcome our listserv acting as a forum for debates over our 
scholarship and its circulation in the wider public, including 
difficulties & opportunities associated with wider dialogue. I thank the 
members for their varied comments and blogs which have helped me think 
through a number of issues. As our group grows and its public profile 
waxes, I think some group reflection about constructive public 
interventions is worthwhile. As was suggested earlier, this may be a 
worthy subject for discussion in Dearborn. A few advance thoughts:

In principle this group can act as a magnet for diverse scholars of 
computing -- be they students, professors, journalists, engineers -- to 
get together and exchange ideas. Perhaps we should consider ways to 
better attract and engage journalists in the work of this group. There 
are lots of legitimate questions that have been raised in the last 
couple of weeks and I welcome the opportunity to hash out such 
legitimate debates. It's no surprise to me that attempts to discuss 
these issues on Twitter devolve into polemic and that minimal character 
communications leads to perceptions of sniping and insulting. 
SIGCIS--the listserv, the annual meetings, the website--can be a great 
venue for more considered dialogue. I think keeping in mind the public 
nature of this listserv is worthwhile and that in general, we should 
adapt a tone that encourages discussion and debate. Nathan Ensmenger's 
last major post is, it seems to me, a model of a critical intervention 
that welcomes further dialogue and engagement. There are many other 
examples of such engagements that could be cited from this listserv.

Regarding Evgeny Morozov so much has been said, I don't want to say much 
more. But as an aside: I've met Evgeny Morozov, we've discussed 
cybernetics and related issues in person, and it was a very rewarding 
discussion that sharpened my thinking about current debates. I got the 
impression he's writing his texts in good faith. Going forward, 
proactive dialogues with colleagues like Morozov (before controversies 
have erupted) might lay the groundwork for a successful transmission of 
our members' work to the public. As Nathan Ensmenger and Janet Browne, 
among others have pointed out, these opportunities are enhanced by a 
respectful and considered exchange among scholars and journalists. We 
should make efforts to encourage those kinds of exchanges. SIGCIS can 
act as a gathering point for these advance and informal dialogues.

It seems to me that SIGCIS currently runs the risk of only showing up in 
wider public debates when there are errors and mistakes to be corrected. 
I think we (and Tom in particular) did a worthy act by correcting the 
record regarding the origins of email. Good on us, for real. More 
recently I think we've gotten attention (esp. on Twitter) for raising 
questions about articles that appeared in the Atlantic and the New 
Yorker. There's been talk of doing an in-house crowd-sourced fact check 
of the Isaacson book. Individually, these are worthy tasks. Collectively 
-- because these kinds of matters are most characteristic of our group's 
contributions to wider public discourse -- I can imagine that we look 
curmudgeonly or even aggressive to outsider observers or science 
journalists. Maybe not. But if so, that's not ideal for our group or for 
computer history.

As mentioned earlier, we may want to consider methods for proactively 
cultivating constructive interventions in public debates. A few 
suggestions of how we may do that:
--As already suggested, develop sources on the SIGCIS website that 
promote members' public outreach. For example, a year or two ago an 
episode of my podcast interviewed French philosopher Barbara Cassin 
regarding her book Google-Moi. Perhaps resources like this and blogs 
should be distributed via the SIGCIS page, as well. So we can magnify 
one another's work and cultivate a greater profile outside the context 
of controversies (as productive as these imbroglios may be for busting 
open the black box, there's more to computer history...)
--I can imagine that Isaacson and other authors might welcome a 
productive and constructive engagement on their writings, including 
responses. A list of corrections just posted online could, depending on 
how it was presented, sound a bit like "hey jerk, get your facts 
straight." But I imagine it could also take the form of an invitation to 
dialogue, request for feedback, and..., option three...
--inviting journalists and popular writers to present at our SIGCIS 
meetings. People like Isaacson could be invited to respond to panels on 
their books and so on. These could be recorded and circulated via 
podcast (I would gladly post such a discussion on my podcast) or 
transcribed for the IEEE Annals on the History of Computing.
--encourage officers of SIGCIS to set a tone that represents the best, 
most constructive voice our entire group. These individuals are 
especially likely to be approached or engaged on issues of popular 
debate and their comments will (more so than say, me or Chuck House) be 
taken as manifestations of our group sentiment. I'll miss the upcoming 
meeting but that may be a good occasion to pause and reflect on the role 
officers play as channels for engaging the public. For example, I think 
Tom is currently cited on Wikipedia, as President of SIGCIS, in the 
context of the Wikipedia entries concerning the history of its 
invention. Those citations resound to the greater good of our group and 
computer history. Now, we members of the group have some sense for when 
one another are serious, joking, and so on, but as our reflections 
become part of a public discourse, they must be decontexutualized. I 
wonder if it's possible to lay down some general principles for how 
officers intervene on these debates in public, if only because they may 
1) be subject to more scrutiny, 2) they will be taken as reflections of 
our group, and 3) they are somewhat more likely to be consulted, when 
and if we succeed in cultivating a more public profile.

Just a few thoughts. Have fun in Dearborn.


On 10/14/14 4:07 AM, Chuck House wrote:
> wisely stated, Dave.
> On Oct 13, 2014, at 4:42 AM, Dave Walden <dave.walden.family at gmail.com> wrote:
>> At 07:03 PM 10/12/2014, Jonathan Coopersmith wrote:
>>> There is another reason why historians don't write popular books, a fear of being labelled a synthesizer by one's colleagues.  Admittedly, that may be partially due to jealousy at the publicity and income of a best seller, but it is a real issue especially within the reward structures (such as they exist) of universities.
>> I wish there was a little more tolerance for different approaches and views.
>>    I see many things as real history work: narrow research into primary sources for narrow audiences; synthesis for broad audiences; histories with lots of technology details; personal stories written by participants in the history; writing with lots of context and historiography; writing without context and historiography; etc.
>>    I envision all these different types of history writers struggling to make a living or accomplish what they see as a worthy life in the environment in which they chose to work (each with some annoyance at the way their environment operates). I bet very few make "big bucks" from writing computing history.  Even a "best seller" in the computing history domain perhaps doesn't make enough money to enable the writer to stop working (although I suspect that a writer with a popular success can make, for a while, some additional money giving paid lectures).
>>    I see everyone having their own compulsions for writing (people who don't like to write or don't have a need to write don't write enough to matter): some people write to further their careers; some find a way to make a career of writing; some write for the joy of seeing themselves in print; some write to record what they want the world to know; etc.  (Given all the success Isaacson has had outside of writing history, I'd guess he is writing his books for some other primary reason than to live off of the book advance or royalties.)
>>    I also suspect that when members of the various tribes get together alone (professionally trained historians or amateur historians or journals historians, etc.), they all have dismissive things to say about the people not in their particular tribe and the way that other tribe writes history and the way their world works.
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Dr. Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan
Institut für Kulturwissenschaft
Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


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