[SIGCIS-Members] A response to a SIGCIS Command Line panel session presentation on PLATO

Nabeel Siddiqui nasiddiqui at email.wm.edu
Mon May 22 22:14:39 PDT 2017


I began to write a response after the initial email was sent, but I deleted
it hoping that this would pass over sooner.  As others have mentioned, this
is a strange, bordering on personal, response/attack.  It is also an
immature way to handle a disagreement about a scholarly conference talk,
shows a lack of understanding of the purpose of such talks, and highlights
an obsession towards nitpicking terminology.

Conference talks are places to showcase ideas, get feedback on works in
progress, and form community.  They are not always written out before
hand.  For instance, I gave a talk at the conference that I view as a work
in progress rather than a finished piece.  I only wrote down some of my
paper and talked impromptu for the rest of it.  If someone typed every word
that I said out meticulously, I would find it extremely abhorrent and
disconcerting.  If someone then contacted the people I wrote about for the
expressed purpose of discrediting my work in progress, writing about it in
a long blog post, and sending it to all my colleagues, I would find it
hostile.

In your follow up email, you seem to imply the problem is that people have
not read your response.  I have read your article and the claims you made,
and I was present in the front row when Joy gave her, in my opinion,
excellent presentation.  Joy does not need me to defend her talk, but here
is my response to your article's points for what they are worth--I
apologize ahead of time for the atrocious grammar and spelling but it is
getting late:

*Rankin’s presentation makes assertions about the PLATO system, its
developers, its users, and its online and offline culture at the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in the 1960s and 1970s, that paint a
decidedly negative picture, one where Rankin declares PLATO suffered from
"endemic misogyny" and that she likens to a "fortress of patriarchal
heterosexual power in American computing."*

Your use of quotes for "endemic misogyny" and "fortress of patriarchal
heterosexual power in American computing" is a strange rhetorical move.
Presumably, you have put these in quotes to highlight the words Joy used,
but at the same time, they position her claims as arbitrary, perhaps spoken
by "others"--read feminists--but not those couched in "historical reality."

*(Dr. Rankin was contacted twice by email and once by phone for this
article, and offered some questions the answers to which would hopefully
shed light on how she reached her conclusions. I was particularly curious
to know if she ever met or otherwise communicated directly with any of the
PLATO people she names and talks about in her presentation. She never
responded.)*

Sounds like you contacted her purely to put on her trial.  If this article
is any indication, perhaps the reason she did not respond is the hostile
nature of your approaches towards her and her work?

*Rankin and others who spoke at SIGCIS are to be commended for revisiting
the history of computing with a fresh and different perspective. However,
whenever one revisits history, it is important to get the basic story
straight, so that any higher-level analysis avoids losing its footing.*

The first sentence here contradicts what you are saying in the second.

*Lamont told me that Earth Day had nothing to do with the Boneyard Creek
lesson. (The creek was a contentious local environmental issue long before
1970.) Lamont was a serious scholar pursuing a doctoral degree, not a
“hippie earth mother” contending with “military industrial computing cold
warriors.”*

This is a strange juxtaposition of the term "hippie earth mothers" and
"serious scholar."  I know tons of "hippie earth mothers" that are serious
scholars.  I don't know why they are supposed to be mutually exclusive.

*And despite Rankin’s attempt to attach some knowing political subtext to
Lamont’s use of the word “demonstration” to describe the act of
demonstrating her PLATO lesson to members of the public, that is all it
was, a demonstration, as in, a demo. In the world of PLATO, much like the
world of software developers today, one was constantly demonstrating, or
demoing, that which one had created on the computer. Demos went on all day
long then and they go on all the time now (ask any software company or lab
creating applications). That the English word “demonstration” also happens
to have a completely different meaning having to do with political protests
where large groups of people assemble for a redress of grievances, is mere
coincidence.*

I do not have time to get into a whole course on semiotics, but for the
purposes here, words exist in both a cultural and social context.  It is
not a stretch to assume that the political meaning of a word in one context
can have implications for other uses of the word.  In fact, this is a
common understanding accepted by numerous historians, scholars, and
linguists.  For instance, in Elaine Taylor May in *Homeword* *Bound, she* talks
about the dual meaning of the word "containment" during the Cold War.
While you may disagree with such research, dismissing it so casually
without contending with the long list of scholarly literature on it is
disingenuous.

*Would the presence of a male collaborator be an inconvenient truth,
weakening Rankin’s arguments, necessitating his omission?*

No, because Rankin's argument works more or less the same with or without a
male collaborator.  In your defense though, it is interesting to note.

*As for the role gender played in the PLATO lab, and in the development of
the Boneyard Creek lesson, Lamont says there was none. “It wasn’t what your
gender was, it was what you were doing. Nobody seemed to care whether I was
a male or female.”*

Research on gender, race, class, etc. have continuously shown that
statements where identity markers are downplayed tend to perpetuate
dominant structures that benefit, usually white, straight, upper to
middle-class, males.  The hiding of gender during this time period only
lends more credit to Rankin's argument that gender was seen as taboo,
downplayed, and irrelevant.  Given the broader historical context of
attempts to prop up the nuclear family during the post-World War II era and
similar rhetoric to downplay both the Civil Rights, LGBT Rights, and
women's rights movements during this time, it is reasonable to assume that
PLATO perpetuated similar patriarchal norms.

*What evidence gave Rankin the ability to know what Donald Bitzer
“thought,” when she declares that he “thought, what could be better than
having a bunch of nurses…”? We do not know. What evidence gave Rankin
insight into Donald Bitzer’s motivations? We do not know. It must be
compelling evidence because Rankin not only knows what “Donald” (note the
first-name basis) was thinking, but she declares that “nurturing, soft
femininity” was “precisely [emphasis added] what Donald sought to make
PLATO more broadly appealing.” What document proves this? What interview?
We do not know.*

I do not know why I am supposed to "note" the first name, but it is common
practice when discussing two people with the same last name.  Also, the
rest seem to be nitpicking terminology.  I do not believe that Joy or
anyone around her believes that she knows what Donald Blitzer "thought" in
a telepathic sense.

*Is Rankin arguing that it would have been better if the nurses been kept
away from PLATO? *

No...

*How did Rankin manage to get a wholly different story about Maryann
Bitzer? We do not know. What we do know is that the story and the
motivations of the Bitzers that Rankin presents in the SIGCIS talk appear
to be based on speculation as I cannot find any documentary or oral history
evidence that Donald and Maryann Bitzer set out to exploit nurses — not to
mention their own marriage — in some nefarious patriarchal scheme to
promote PLATO. The assertion is frankly absurd.*

We can not both "not know" how Rankin got a different story about Maryann
Blitzer and "know" that her story is based on speculation. They are
self-contradictory.

As for the argument that heteronormative marriages exerted privilege during
post-World War II America strikes me as so blatantly obvious that it
doesn't require a lot of defense.  Nonetheless, there is numerous works in
queer theory that provide a more thorough understanding if you are
interested, see the works of Michael Warner in particular.

*How does the fact that these two people were married have anything to do
with anything? Has Dr. Rankin ever met the Bitzers? What is she basing her
case on? We do not know. Unless Rankin has compelling documentary evidence
to the contrary, her assertions must be seen as regrettably inaccurate,
amounting to strange and possibly defamatory insinuations, and standing on
questionable ethical ground.*

See above.

*The reader is invited to read the response above by a user named “al” of
group “mflu” and identify what makes it an example of the sexism that
Rankin alleges was “pervasive” on the PLATO system. Rankin correctly points
out that Ruth “had clearly explained in her original post that she wanted
to remain on the Users List so that her collaborators could easily each
her.” But is that sexism?*

Given the responses I read, yes.

*Could it have been possible that “AL” (are those initials, or someone’s
name? we do not know) might not have read or remembered that detail in
Ruth’s original note? Is there a person alive today who has participated in
online communications who has not skimmed someone else’s forum posting,
social media newsfeed, or email? Occam’s Razor would suggest that even
forty-three years ago, “AL” simply skimmed Ruth’s note, then skimmed the
gist of the rest of the replies, and posted his or her note (at 12:48 am in
the middle of the night). That was completely normal in the daily PLATO
experience. There were too many notes to read, and it could take many hours
if you did not skim. (Something that only by interviewing actual PLATO
users would one likely discover.) Encountering a wall of text on PLATO —
and face it, a long note like Ruth’s (and “AL”’s) are walls of text — was
no different forty-three years ago than it is today. This article you are
reading right now is a gigantic wall of text, after all (and I am impressed
you’ve gotten this far). Occam’s Razor suggests a simple case of TL;DR on
AL’s part, and the consequences that arise from TL;DR, not any sort of
learned patriarchal hatred of women or even simple rudeness. Unless Rankin
successfully contacted the mysterious AL and got a first-hand explanation
(I was unable to figure out who AL is so I could not), we do not know.*

I don't even know what to make of this.

Considering that you have written a huge blog post about the way that Joy
reads modern Internet norms into the past, it is strange that you claim to
know how the author of a random post over forty years ago "skimmed" it.
Also, it comes off as dismissing the behavior.

*Asking women who used PLATO in the 1970s will tell you that invariably the
callers were teenagers running amok on the system. Imagine handing out
mobile phones to teens in the 1970s, phones that had a feature that listed
all the people who also had phones, with an easy facility to call them
immediately. It does not take much imagination to figure out what would
happen next.*

Are teenagers not supposed to be responsible for their actions?  I wish my
parents had known this when I was a teenager.

*To judge how people communicated in an online forum in 1974 through an
extremely narrow gender-studies lens of 2017 not to mention a lens that is
accustomed to looking at the world of today where billions of people spend
many of their waking hours online, an online world where norms and customs
about online behavior, including notions of what to expect from others
online, have long been established and etched into unspoken law (but are
still widely ignored), is to mischaracterize how things were in the
historical period under examination, and ends up potentially misleading
present-day people hoping to gain some insight into the history of PLATO.*

See my response to your paragraph on skimming posts.

*It must be mentioned that Dr. Rankin describes “Al, Don, and Bruce,” three
users who responded to Ruth’s note, as “white adult men.” How did she
arrive at that conclusion? It could not be from simply reading the text of
an archive of a 43-year-old computer message forum thread: no such
information is to be found there. Therefore, one must ask, what information
did Dr. Rankin rely on for that assertion? Did she contact the three of
them, if still alive all now theoretically in their sixties or older, and
verify their skin color? We do not know.*

Given the screen names, the demographics of PLATO, and the responses, it is
a fairly well supported assertion.  It is the same assertion you make when
you describe the original responder to Ruth's posts as men.

*This is not the first time a PhD has criticized, if not outright
condemned, the PLATO system. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Douglas
Noble was pursuing his PhD at the University of Rochester where he did his
dissertation on the PLATO system, resulting in a subsequent book, The
Classroom Arsenal, based on the dissertation. He relied on articles,
documents, and oral histories at the same university archive that Dr.
Rankin used, but, when asked in an interview I conducted in 2012, he
admitted that he never met or interviewed or otherwise communicated with
any PLATO people directly, including Donald Bitzer.**

I basically have no idea what Douglas Noble has to do with any of this or
why his anti-war activities are relevant to Joy's conference talk.

On Mon, May 22, 2017 at 11:01 PM, M. Hicks <mhicks1 at iit.edu> wrote:

> Yes--I heartily agree with Chris. Joy and others who are working on
> ignored or suppressed issues are welcome in the SIGCIS and our group
> benefits greatly from their work.
>
> I vividly remember how, when I came to my first SIGCIS in 2005 (at the
> insistence of of dissertation advisor), I was scared stiff that folks would
> think I wasn't doing "real" computing history because I was focusing on
> women, and labor, and had a feminist approach. I was relieved to find this
> was not the case, and I was endlessly thankful for Jen Light and Nathan
> Ensmenger, who came up to me and heartily welcomed me to the group not in
> spite of what I was working on but rather because of it. Over the years
> many other SIGCISers have been invaluable supporters of my work and have
> helped me in all aspects of my career. And yet, until recently, my topic
> and approach made me somewhat of an outlier, and I was always slightly
> nervous.
>
> Things have changed over the years and I hope the SIGCIS has gotten to be
> an easier place to be for folks who are telling new stories that we need to
> hear. As Vice Chair USA of the SIGCIS, and one of the organizers of Command
> Lines, I want to publicly go on record as saying Joy and scholars like her
> are welcome in the SIGCIS and folks who are trying to write histories that
> center previously-ignored or suppressed issues should not be subject to
> attempts to suppress their work within our group.
>
> Joy Rankin is a member of the SIGCIS and a careful scholar. She does not
> deserve a response like your Medium post, Brian, which quite frankly reads
> like a personal attack coming from someone with different political views.
> Many of your points miscategorize her work and misunderstand what she's
> said. What you've posted, Brian, is also pretty ironic, given that Joy's
> whole point is that this history has been suppressed. She is trying to
> correct the record and enhance our understanding.
>
> Those of us who work on previously "hidden histories" contend with a lot
> of doubt and a lot of pushback. The SIGCIS is here to support them as they
> do their work, not tear them down.
>
> In solidarity,
>
> Marie Hicks
> SIGCIS Vice-Chair (USA)
> Co-organizer of Command Lines (with David Brock, Laine Nooney, and Andy
> Russell)
> ______________________
> Marie Hicks, Ph.D.
> Asst. Professor, History of Technology
> Illinois Institute of Technology
> Chicago, IL USA
> mhicks1 at iit.edu | mariehicks.net <http://www.mariehicks.net/> |
> @histoftech <http://twitter.com/histoftech>
> *Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost
> Its Edge in Computing* (MIT Press, 2017)
> www.programmedinequality.com
>
>
> On May 23, 2017, at 3:36 AM, Sarah T. Roberts <sarah.roberts at ucla.edu>
> wrote:
>
> I couldn't agree more. Thank you, Chris.
> ---
>
> S a r a h  T.  R o b e r t s,  P h. D.
>
> Assistant Professor
> University of California, Los Angeles
> Department of Information Studies
> Graduate School of Education & Information Studies
> https://is.gseis.ucla.edu/
>
> Blogging periodically at
> http://illusionofvolition.com
>
> On May 22, 2017, at 19:06, Christopher Leslie <chris.leslie at nyu.edu>
> wrote:
>
> Dear Brian,
>
> I am perplexed by your lengthy attack on Joy Rankin's presentation. The
> author of a book, you castigate a scholar's 20-minute presentation. Most
> incredibly. Yyu criticize her for being ignorant of history, but at the
> same time, you do not consider your ignorance of gender studies to be a
> problem. This is the exact problem with privilege that SIGCIS and other
> groups are contending with.
>
> It's no longer a secret that there were a lot of women in computing. From
> Jennifer Light to Hidden Figures, we are sure that women were there.
> Recently, Marie Hicks has given us a solid study of how the women were
> filtered out through procedure and system. It is not that computing was
> from the start hostile to women, but it does seem as if as it developed it
> became so. This is in line with what other feminist historians of science
> have noticed (cf. Schiebinger's comment about the number of female
> astronomers). An analysis of this process is sorely needed.
>
> By the way, only a man could say that an attack on a woman was not
> important because others spoke up to protest. You might be interested in
> the rich and growing literature on microagreessions and how they impact
> diversity in STEM. Given the pervasive interest in enhancing diversity in
> computing and STEM more generally, I am uncertain why you feel PLATO or
> other projects have something to lose by contending with the experience of
> women in the field.
>
> I applaud Rankin and others for their solid work in this difficult area.
> Their findings are not, as you suggest, anomalous misreadings of history.
> Contending with the pervasive and persistent sexism (and other isms) in
> STEM will be the challenge of the current generation of scholars. I feel
> lucky to be at NYU, where such conversations are at least entertained
> without polemical attacks. Your screed, though, shows how far the
> profession has to go.
>
> Chris Leslie
>
>
>
> On Mon, May 22, 2017 at 8:03 PM, Brian Dear <brian at platohistory.org>
> wrote:
>
>> The link below is my in-depth response to a presentation given by Dr. Joy
>> Rankin entitled “Performing Gender on PLATO” at the recent SIGCIS Command
>> Line conference held at the Computer History Museum this past March.
>>
>>      https://medium.com/@brianstorms/performing-history-on-
>> plato-4c501b8f2068
>>
>> Many assertions were made in that presentation that concerned me greatly
>> and I felt it necessary to not only write up a detailed response based on
>> my own decades’ worth of research into the history of the PLATO system and
>> its community, but also I sought out and included comments from former
>> PLATO people who were named in Dr. Rankin’s talk, about the presentation
>> and the claims made therein. Every single PLATO person I contacted shared
>> the same concerns.
>>
>> I welcome thoughts from fellow SIGCIS members.
>>
>> - Brian
>>
>> Brian Dear
>> PLATO History Project
>> Santa Fe, NM
>> brian at platohistory.org
>>
>>
>>
>>
>>
>> _______________________________________________
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>
>
>
>
> --
> Christopher S. Leslie, Ph.D.
> Co-Director and Lecturer, Science and Technology Studies
> Faculty Fellow in Residence for Othmer Hall and Clark Street
> Chair, IFIP History of Computing Working Group 9.7
>
> NYU Tandon School of Engineering
> 5 MetroTech Center, LC 131
> Brooklyn, NY 11201
> (646) 997-3130
>
> _______________________________________________
> This email is relayed from members at sigcis.org, the email discussion
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> _______________________________________________
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> _______________________________________________
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