*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


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

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

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.*

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