[SIGCIS-Members] History of gendered terms, e.g., "motherboard"

Paul N. Edwards pne at umich.edu
Wed May 24 07:51:10 PDT 2017


Interesting discussion. OED does not speculate on this connection; first use of “motherboard” it lists is 1965.

It’s worth noting that some of the gendered terms in engineering are very clear and literal metaphors, not specifically human though definitely mammalian.

“Mother ship,” like “motherboard,” refers to a larger thing from which smaller, but similar dependent units (smaller ships, subsidiary circuit boards) are launched, to which they are attached, and from which they draw sustenance (fuel, electricity). 

“Female” and “male” connectors refer to sockets and plugs respectively, also quite literal, also not particularly human but mammalian.

This is not to say that such metaphors aren’t sometimes deployed in objectionable, human-oriented ways, but it would be silly to ignore their value as readily understood descriptors of physical structure and/or relationships.

Best,

Paul


> On May 24, 2017, at 9:43 , mike willegal <mike at willegal.net> wrote:
> 
> My guess is that the term, Motherboard, was derived from the term Mothership, which is still in common usage by the general population, and according to several online dictionaries originated in the 19th century.  Note that when techs and engineers refer to Motherboards, they normally use the gender neutral pronoun, "it".
> 
> cheers,
> Mike Willegal
> 
>> On May 23, 2017, at 1:51 PM, Mark Priestley <m.priestley at gmail.com <mailto:m.priestley at gmail.com>> wrote:
>> 
>> Hi Caitlin,
>> 
>> I'm not sure if this is the sort of thing you're looking for, but some CS pioneers were rather keen to use the master-slave metaphor to talk about human-computer relations. Eg:
>> 
>> Jack Good reported that: "Turing used to refer jocularly to people who are forced to do
>> mechanical operations as slaves."
>> 
>> Bardini quotes Engelbart: "Think ahead to the day when computer technology might provide for your very own use the full-time services of a completely attentive, very patient, very fast symbol-manipulating slave who has an IQ adequate for 95% of your today's mental tasks."
>> 
>> And there's this <http://markpriestley.net/pdfs/Huskey.pdf> unfortunate Newsweek caption about Harry Huskey.
>> 
>> I think probably links back to earlier tropes about robots: eg in Capek's RUR, the rebellious robots are precisely slaves. I've got an unpublished conference paper I wrote a few years back about this which I could dig out if you're interested.
>> 
>> Cheers,
>> Mark
>> 
>> 
>> 
>> 
>> On 23 May 2017 at 18:29, McMillan, William W <william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu <mailto:william.mcmillan at cuaa.edu>> wrote:
>> Caitlin, this is an interesting study!
>> 
>> I'm not sure, though, if "today's engineers" would very readily coin gender-specific terms for parts of computers.  These terms go back a long way.
>> 
>> The "master-slave" terminology has going for it that the relationship between, say, a bus arbiter and connected devices is, in truth, a master-slave relationship.  The other connotations make it hard for me to use the terms in class, but it's difficult to find synonyms.  Controller-controlled?  Decider-doer?  Kind of awkward.  (Suggestions welcome!)
>> 
>> In contrast to the gendered terms, in describing the tree data structure, the relationship between nodes has always been parent-child, back at least to Knuth's volumes, not father-son, mother-son, or the like.  Same with object/class hierarchies.
>> 
>> - Bill
>> 
>> ________________________________
>> From: Members [members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org <mailto:members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org>] on behalf of Wylie, Caitlin Donahue (cdw9y) [cdw9y at eservices.virginia.edu <mailto:cdw9y at eservices.virginia.edu>]
>> Sent: Monday, May 22, 2017 8:11 PM
>> To: members at SIGCIS.org <mailto:members at SIGCIS.org>
>> Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] History of gendered terms, e.g., "motherboard"
>> 
>> Dear all,
>> Do you know of any studies of gendered language in computing? I’m intrigued by the way today’s engineers throw around words like “motherboard” and “daughterboard”, and also “master” and “slave”, without being aware of how those words sound to non-engineers (like me). I’d be interested in learning about historical or sociological studies.
>> 
>> Thank you!
>> 
>> All the best,
>> Caitlin Wylie
>> _______________________
>> Caitlin D. Wylie, Ph.D.
>> Assistant Professor
>> Program in Science, Technology and Society
>> University of Virginia
>> wylie at virginia.edu <mailto:wylie at virginia.edu><mailto:wylie at virginia.edu <mailto:wylie at virginia.edu>>
>> http://www.eands.virginia.edu/faculty-staff/wylie/ <http://www.eands.virginia.edu/faculty-staff/wylie/>
>> 
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Paul N. Edwards
Professor of Information <http://www.si.umich.edu/> and History <http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/>
Distinguished Faculty in Sustainability, Graham Sustainability Institute <http://graham.umich.edu/>
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Starting July 1, 2017:

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