[SIGCIS-Members] Documentary Project on History of Personal Computing

Eric Gade eric.gade at gmail.com
Wed Oct 7 07:24:27 PDT 2020

Hi Pierre and James,

On Wed, Oct 7, 2020 at 3:38 AM Pierre Mounier-Kuhn <mounier at msh-paris.fr>
> wrote:
>> Hi Eric,
>> Do you consider including the history of personal computing beyond North
>> America – say, from Europe to Taiwan and the Soviet empire ?
>> Best,
>> Pierre
On Wed, Oct 7, 2020 at 8:57 AM James Cortada <jcortada at umn.edu> wrote:
>> Pierre makes an excellent point.  The PC was so inexpensive in comparison
>> to other ICTs that it became the device that spread computing over large
>> swaths of the Earth.  So, while the Americans get the credit for inventing
>> the PC, it was the Asians who did a great deal to diffuse the technology,
>> especially Taiwan, and the PC played an extraordinary role in the Soviet
>> Union/Russia from the very ate 1980s through the early 2000s--all stories
>> that are not even superficially understood.  Pierre is correct in being
>> specific about Taiwan and the Soviet/Russian piece of the story.  And that
>> was all preceded by the French experience, which arguably predates the
>> invention of the PC by many years with its phone system.  Jim Cortada

We have not really considered Taiwan or the Soviet Union specifically,
though we briefly discussed branching out to get a more international
perspective. There are a lot of avenues I would personally like to explore,
and that goes for my collaborators as well. The problem with making a
documentary is one of constant resource constraint -- money, time, and for
lack of a better term "narrative bandwidth." At the beginning of the year I
had planned on embarking on a kind of "companion research effort" that is
somewhat related to the documentary, but goes into more depth on several of
the important threads that have come up so far (this has been somewhat
derailed by COVID and other matters).

At the outset of starting the documentary project, we were particularly
interested in the transition from the research community into the "real
world," -- what the visions were for computing on either side of that
transition and how they changed. In particular we were intrigued by what
I'd call the Kay/Papert thesis of computing as a literate medium and how
this vision ultimately guided research efforts and found its way --
piecemeal -- into some of the systems we have today. This is difficult
material to convey even in writing, let alone a documentary film. But our
dozens of initial conversations and the first round of interviews did bring
some of those themes out. I bring this up because I'm aware of work that
has been done on this topic in an international context, specifically Margo
Boenig-Liptsin's dissertation on comparative computing literacy programs in
the US, France, and Soviet Union. To that end I am also interested in
projects like Minitel and the pedagogical program around the BBC Micro. Any
references either of you (or other members of this list) can provide along
these lines would be much appreciated.

However our own interests aren't the only guiding force directing the
ultimate documentary narrative. We sort of have to follow where the
interviews take us. I'm hoping that there will be some opportunity to
include -- somehow -- more of an international angle, but can't say for
sure. Again, part of this is due simply to having limited resources and

My personal research interests mentioned above are a little different and
involve a bigger picture deep history of literate media and computing's
place within it. Definitely get in touch if you have any recommendations or
interest in that as well.

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