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

thomas.haigh at gmail.com thomas.haigh at gmail.com
Fri Oct 1 09:26:38 PDT 2021



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 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


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.”


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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