*Joy Lisi Rankin’s book on the history of personal computing looks at the technology’s forgotten democratic promise.*
“The Silicon Valley ideal,” Joy Lisi Rankin writes in *A People’s History of Computing in the United States*, “venerates grand men with grand ideas.” This narrative, she argues, is widely accepted as the status quo. [...] Rankin contends that the myth of a “digital America dependent on the work of a handful of male tech geniuses” detracts from computing’s initial democratic promise: a project made by civilians for civilians. [...] Still, the narrative of the plucky entrepreneur panders to our economic self-regard, as well as to preconceived notions of who drives technological change. The tech industry is hardly the first to be seduced by the myths of its own exceptionalism or of male genius. But as Rankin argues, the persistence of these myths obscures a more intriguing history of technological development in the United States. [...] Rankin observes that computing’s social and personal origins can be traced back to 1964, when the first large-scale computer time-sharing network was developed at Dartmouth. The earliest computers were monolithic mainframes—terribly large and, at $240,000 apiece ($2 million in today’s money), out of reach for the ordinary citizen. ... A time-sharing network allowed as many as 20 terminals to be connected to a single, centralized computer system, so that those on the network could work, collaborate, and communicate with each other simultaneously. These computers were a shared resource, built by educators and students. That made it cheaper to operate them, and shaped computing as an experience that could be physically shared with others. Time-sharing networks also marked a profound shift in the relationship between human beings and computers. Previously, one would write a program for a mainframe by punching holes in cardboard cards, each hole representing a character or symbol. These cards were given to a computer operator, who fed them into the computer, which then spat out the results in the form of more punched cards or printouts. In contrast, “time-sharing provided a much more personal experience of computing,” Rankin writes, “connecting the individual directly with the terminal, and the terminal with the computer.” Yet it also seems that time-sharing networks were too successful for their own good. Where users were once content to share computers in social settings such as labs, classrooms, and dorms, tech firms like IBM and Apple in the late ’70s imagined a different possibility: device ownership for all. Computing’s communal character was shed in favor of something consumerist and atomized. Rankin’s clear-eyed analysis of the skewed gender dynamics at Dartmouth makes for withering reading. (Today’s “brogrammers” aren’t without precedent.) [...] Eighty percent of Dartmouth’s students and 40 percent of its faculty would use the time-sharing system. But computing was hardly the social equalizer that Kurtz and Kemeny envisioned. Dartmouth’s student body was overwhelmingly affluent, white, and male; women weren’t admitted as students until 1972. [...] At Dartmouth, women worked as application programmers, computer-program coordinators, keypunch operators, and technical librarians—yet they were seen as wives and mothers above all else. [...] One of the most noteworthy developments in the shift toward social computing was the creation of the computer-assisted learning system PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) at the University of Illinois. It perhaps most closely resembled the contemporary personal computer: Its personal terminals had individual plasma screens instead of teleprinters. First used in 1963 as an educational tool to teach nursing students how to treat heart attacks, PLATO created a simulated lab environment—in the form of an interactive quiz—for students to observe and learn from. At the same time, the higher-education sector received a windfall from the federal government. The specter of the Cold War spawned numerous reforms that jump-started computing initiatives in the United States. In its early days, PLATO was touted as an instructional machine to attract substantial military funding. But as more institutions in the Champaign-Urbana community embraced the PLATO network and more of its users started creating their own programs, its appeal broadened significantly. ... PLATO soon became a haven for civic engagement, as well as for those who wanted to play games, send messages to friends, and lurk for fun. At the same time, instances of men harassing and mocking women on the network became more prevalent. ... As Rankin’s analysis shows, racism and misogyny played a part in molding digital culture from its inception. In today’s tech parlance, “community” is a slippery and overused word, mistakenly used to describe an aggregated mass of individuals rather than a group of people with shared bonds, values, and aspirations. Rankin’s chapter on the educational video game The Oregon Trail and community-driven computing in Minnesota shows that programming can create and nurture genuine physical and virtual spaces with grassroots organizing. [...] She notes that in 1968, “public intellectuals called for computing as a public utility, comparable to electricity or water”—in other words, unsexy, essential, and subject to government regulation. [...] But even the most community-minded initiatives aren’t immune to the siren song of private investment. The MECC, a key player in providing network access to schools in Minnesota, signed a contract with Apple in 1978 to provide students with their own computers. It marked the shift from a state-subsidized digital commons to an increasingly profit-driven enterprise. By the 1990s, the transition was complete. As soon as the MECC became a revenue-generating cash cow, it was sold off by the government to venture capitalists. Time and time again, we’ve seen tech investors go weak at the knees at the prospect of making a quick buck, which may prove far more alluring than sustained investment in public infrastructure. [...] “Let us overwrite the Silicon Valley mythology,” she writes, and “look beyond the narrow inspiration of our digital Founding Fathers.” ... Taming technocapitalism won’t necessarily result in a future worth fighting for, but a civic-minded vision that prioritizes people over profits is a step in the right direction. *By Gillian Terzis in The Nation.* https://www.thenation.com/article/peoples-history-of-personal-computing-joy-lisi-rankin-review-silicon-valley-bros/
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