Thoughts on A People’ History of Computing in the Uniter States

My afternoon walks have found Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States playing through my ear buds. It was an interesting and thought-provoking listen. (I’m facing the challenge of blogging about it without being able to return to the pages.)

The work is presented to challenge the narrative that computing went from the laboratories where ENIAC and the other first digital electronic computers were created, through the innovators and Silicon Valley, and onto our desktops through the vision of Job and Gates, where they could finally be connected to the ARPAnet turned Internet. Rankin’s challenge is grounded in the stories of shared time computing centered at Dartmouth College, BASIC, initiatives in Minnesota, and PLATO. My hometown was even mentioned as one of the high schools connected to Dartmouth, and I do recall (in about 1980) using computers in converted storage room and knowing to stay away from those that were “connected to Dartmouth.”

Rankin differentiates those projects that created computing citizens rather than computing consumers.  That difference resonated with me and seemed to suggest something we have forgotten about computers. The idea of the computer consumer is quite familiar. We purchase devices and software and use it to access information we consume. Even in the world of social media (or perhaps especially in this digital world) where we “create content and community,” much of the traffic is explicitly commercial, and users (and their data) are commercialized.

Even in schools, we use Chromebooks to access systems where we use systems in the ways we the designers intended. While we can create some media, the platforms that allow us to control what the computer does seems absent from the educational technology I have seen for the last 20 years.

Rankin’s concept of computer citizens is grounded in ideas about the nature of humans’ interaction with computers that were common in the 1960’s ad 1970’s but have been forgotten. First, computer citizens access personal computing rather than personal computers. The early time-sharing systems were built around teletype machines connected to computers via telephone lines. One dialed in, wrote programs and interacted with processors at some distant location, and saw output returned from that distant computer. Surely, we have rediscovered that with modern cloud computing, but the nature of the computing has changed.

Computer citizens gain access computers through their membership in a group; in the early days of computing, this was probably a school. That school (often through grants) provided access to all members at no additional costs. If the last year has taught us anything, it is that access to personal computing (devices and networks) should be public infrastructure just as our roads, fire protection, and similar structures and services. We all benefit from roads and we all benefit when others have access to digital networks.

Computer citizens use BASIC and similar tools to write their own programs. Interestingly, I recall rejecting the first computers I first used as it seemed easier to just “do the math” rather than to write a program to do it. Once the math got more complex and the pile of problems got bigger (when analyzing data as an undergraduate science student), I finally understood. One of the first projects that I undertook when beginning to get serious about educational technology was writing a simulation of Mendelian genetics which reminded me of the PLATO projects that I heard Rankin describe. Fundamentally, the difference seems to be how the computer behaves. Computer consumers make the computer display things that already exist; computer citizens use input, logic, and models of the real world or their imaginations to determine what their computers display.

Computer citizens use the systems to communicate, not simply consume. Part of this communication is deciding how the system is managed and what constitutes appropriate use of the system. As one reads (or hears) Rankin’s descriptions, we learn the conflict between “game players” and “real users” has been around (and unresolved) since… well forever in the history of personal computing. We also learn flame wars are also not new, nor are those who seek to “file stomp.” What seems to differentiate computer citizens from computer consumers is how they react and participate. Citizens actively engage with the managers to try to affect decisions, while consumers accept the decisions made by others or reject them as unfair rather than seeking to build a case for their style of participation.

Computer citizenship seems a worthy goal if we seek to craft systems (technological and social) that align with what Rankin argues is our history. I’m not one to suggest we need to “return to the good ‘ole days,” but maybe we need to look to this computing past as we build the computing future.