[SIGCIS-Members] Dedicated to SIGCIS: A New History of Modern Computing

Gerard Alberts G.Alberts at uva.nl
Fri Oct 1 09:51:53 PDT 2021

Dear Tom and Paul,
congratulations on the publication of the new new book. Like for many of us, it has been a privilege for me to be present at tiny parts of your labour to create this work. Can't wait to see and feel and smell the thing in paper. Thanks also for the thoughtful introduction here. You are a master at second thoughts.

Van: Members <members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org> namens thomas.haigh at gmail.com <thomas.haigh at gmail.com>
Verzonden: vrijdag 1 oktober 2021 18:26
Aan: members at sigcis.org <members at sigcis.org>
Onderwerp: [SIGCIS-Members] Dedicated to SIGCIS: A New History of Modern Computing


I’m very happy to be able to tell you that MIT Press has now published A New History of Modern Computing, my collaboration with Paul Ceruzzi to produce a replacement for his 1998 classic A History of Modern Computing. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/new-history-modern-computing<https://eur04.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fmitpress.mit.edu%2Fbooks%2Fnew-history-modern-computing&data=04%7C01%7Cg.alberts%40uva.nl%7Caf15736a198741af551008d984f84641%7Ca0f1cacd618c4403b94576fb3d6874e5%7C1%7C1%7C637687024140113229%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000&sdata=9eGFj8BUBXV1sJoS5TiA%2FvdA85UkOsOlD1UCGx0kdnU%3D&reserved=0> MIT has produced a handsome, oversized book with plenty of space to see the detail in the many pictures. Gerado Con Diaz blurbed it as follows: "A New History of Modern Computing is an instant classic—essential to historians, curators, and interdisciplinary scholars in information and media studies. Its integrated analysis of usage and technological change is an impressive feat and a real joy to read." Paul Edwards called it "indispensable" and Valérie Schafer called it "a must-read." The price is a fairly reasonable $40, which we lobbied hard for in the hope that this is a book people might buy to read for pleasure, rather than just because it is assigned for a college course.

As you would expect from any book with both “new” and “modern” in the title, this one strives to be up to date. We have added in-depth coverage of topics neglected in previous overview histories such as communications, video games, digital media, smartphones, cloud computing, home computers, embedded microcontrollers, and operating systems that were given only glancing coverage in previous overview histories. The timeline comes right up to this year, with an epilogue covering the role of computer technology during our current apocalyptic moment. We’ve made a particular effort to take serious the evolution of the PC through the 1980s and 1990s rather than just treating the original IBM model as the endpoint of the personal computing story.

But we have also tried to come up to date in terms of reflecting much of the wonderful scholarship produced by this community in the two decades since Paul published his original book. You’ll see that the book is dedicated to the SIGCIS community, from two former chairs. Even the discussion of topics that were given thorough treatment in the original book, such as chips, timesharing systems, and early personal computing, has been greatly deepened because of all the new work we were able to draw on. We hope that the endnotes and, in many cases, in-text mentions of this work will steer readers deeper into the intellectual life of our community. I’d also like to thank the many members of the SIGCIS community who helped us by reading drafts of some or all of the book. That list include David Hemmendinger, Con Diaz, Alana Staiti, Marc Weber, Michael J. Halvorson, Paul McJones, David Brock, Troy Astarte, Tom Lean, Bradley Fidler, and Henry Lowood. Also, of course Bill Aspray and Tom Misa as the editors for the History of Computing Series. Many others helped us by answering specific questions, assisting with image permissions, or critiquing our initial plan for the book’s content and organization.

Our most ambitious goal was to reconceptualize the history of electronic computing as a series of transitions, in which particular groups of users remake the computer to fit their needs. In each chapter the computer becomes something new, such as a scientific supertool, a real-time control system, a communications medium, or a publishing platform. This lets us integrate discussion of users, applications, hardware, and software into a succession of intertwined stories which, cumulatively, add up to an explanation of why and how the computer became a universal machine. I described that objective in more detail in a 2018 working paper called “Finding a Story for the History of Computing.” (https://mediarep.org/bitstream/handle/doc/4553/Haigh_2018_Finding-a-Story_Working-Paper-Series-SFB-1187-No-3_.pdf?sequence=10<https://eur04.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fmediarep.org%2Fbitstream%2Fhandle%2Fdoc%2F4553%2FHaigh_2018_Finding-a-Story_Working-Paper-Series-SFB-1187-No-3_.pdf%3Fsequence%3D10&data=04%7C01%7Cg.alberts%40uva.nl%7Caf15736a198741af551008d984f84641%7Ca0f1cacd618c4403b94576fb3d6874e5%7C1%7C1%7C637687024140123222%7CUnknown%7CTWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D%7C3000&sdata=IvmiIXkapzZmgWX3HHVuzPAmkDyBx0VWGowwz3fQoMM%3D&reserved=0>)

In the present moment you may feel there is something inherently reactionary about imposing a grand narrative on computing, particularly when the effort is made by two white men both over the age of 45. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to further the widely repeated goal of “decentering the computer” when writing a book that tries to tell the story of said technology. Given that computing is now a part of pretty much everything, if you remove the thread of technology that holds the thing together you just finish up with the history of the world. But I am by temperament and training a slightly old fashioned social historian, and my teaching consists mostly of telling the story of the US in one survey class on the history of race and heath and another on the history of capitalism. So I’m well aware of the tension between a narrative frame based around a technology and the broader themes of US history that have now become part of general discourse. I will say that we have tried to incorporate elements of social, cultural, and political history into the narrative as smoothly as possible in ways that will not seem gratuitous to readers who are there for the technical story. While still US-dominated, the narrative does reach out more than previously to the UK with occasional visits to France and some attention to Asia in the later part. That may not seem like enough to you, but it is more than you are going to get out of a book like The Innovators (which is by far the best-selling overview history of computing).

As the saying goes, the problem with being in the middle of the road is that you get runover. The book is unlikely to produce the same excitement currently gathering around cultural history, critique of AI, or media theoretic approaches. But we were in a situation where the established overview histories were falling further and further behind the rapidly expanding and diversifying perspectives of our community. I hope that we’ve managed to close that gap, by produce something that’s engaged with newer work and broader histories while also deeply engaged with the affordances and materiality of computer technology.

A book like this gets essentially no marketing and is unlikely to be reviewed in mass-market outlets. So if you do like it, or at least like it more than The Innovators or Turing’s Cathedral which are the books that general readers are likely to stumble upon, please consider helping to get the word out by using your social media networks, putting a review up on Amazon, or just recommending it to a friend or family member who is looking for something to read. The same goes for almost all scholarly books, by the way. I sometimes think the most helpful thing we could do for each other as a community is to write a bunch of Amazon reviews and add references to Wikipedia entries.

Best wishes,


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