Monday, 16 September 2019

Book review: A People’s History of Computing in the United States, Joy Lisi Rankin (2018)

This history book wants to function as a corrective to the standard narrative for the rise of personal computing. It is the third book of IT history I’ve read and have reviewed on this blog.

The first was 2009’s ‘Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age’ by Kurt W Beyer, which describes the career of the admiral who invented one of the world’s first programming languages (COBOL; see review on 1 December 2009). The second was 2003’s ‘Microchip’ by Jeffrey Zygmont, in which the author describes how a (now) important industry ended up being based in the countryside near San Francisco (see review of 29 April 2010).

Books like these add depth to what we commonly talk about in relation to computers and Rankin, for her part, also chooses to step away from orthodoxy, aiming her lens at the time-sharing ecosystem that flourished in universities in the years leading up to the years, the late 1970s, when PCs started to emerge in the United States.

Starting in the early 1960s, time-sharing formed the primary means whereby (mainly) young men used computers, machines that were accessed using “terminals” that were often teletype machines. Using the telephone network, terminals could be located distant from the computer in its specially air-conditioned room.

The first system, implemented at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, was designed to be as easy and cheap to use as the open-access stacks of the university’s library. Academics at Dartmouth also invented the BASIC programming language in order to enable novices and laypersons to learn to program computers. The liberality of the democratic-minded paradigm that motivated the men and women who participated in these projects inspired many early innovations of the digital world at tertiary education institutions.

One type of application program that was popular among students was games. Although the playing of games on time-share networks wasn’t always done without controversy, games encouraged people to spend as much time as they could on the terminals and worked like a drawcard for administrators keen to broaden the reach of the networks they managed. Popularity meant people talked about computers, and also helped with fundraising.

The paradigm was expanded when it became evident that a large number of simultaneous users could be cheaply accommodated on networks that were imagined, in PR copy and magazine articles, as utilities like the electricity grid or the telephone network. Several computer makers were involved in supplying equipment for this market, initially GE (which sold parts of its computer business to automation and controls company Honeywell in 1970), but also later arrivals Digital Equipment Corp, Control Data Corp, and Hewlett-Packard. IBM was involved in other projects, mainframes specifically, and didn’t participate in the time-sharing business as much as the other companies named here. This book does touch on earlier projects that were associated with WWII and the Cold War, in which IBM was deeply involved, but the main focus of the book is time-sharing.

Another aspect of time-sharing was the use of touchscreens and keyboards for the PLATO network build by the University of Illinois. By adding a small program, users were able to incorporate an early form of messaging to the system, ahead of email, which was first pioneered on the ARPANET network. In fact, ARPA partly funded PLATO and its originators had access to the Illinois University network in the 1960s. Users would leave notes in different locations on the central computer so that they could be seen and read by others, although the messaging service was able to be more tightly controlled, allowing, say, two people to talk to one another instantaneously from wherever they were located on the network. Here, again in the United States, is the origin of social networks and the kinds of phenomena that exist now – from anonymity to inappropriate behaviour, and from hacking to verbal abuse – were present then.

One theme that comes out in this book is the way that government funds helped establish the embryonic computer industry. A similar theme is visible in the two books I point to at the beginning of this review. The federal government through the National Science Foundation and the military, as well as state governments, put money into setting up these early time-share networks. Computer manufacturers worked closely with the universities and secondary schools that participated in the boon.

The book comes out thanks to the efforts of Harvard University Press and its providence is evident in the language used in the book, which tends, as is common with writing that originates in academia, to be heavily Latin-based. This kind of writing can tire you out as you look for reliable, Germanic word to hook onto so as to keep your balance. The book also has a large number of footnotes, so the progress counter on my Kindle edition was not wholly indicative.

The introduction could have been shorter and have done its intended job better, but this is a serious book, one based on extensive research. Some readers might want to skim the introduction and head straight to chapter one, where the narrative really starts with a man named Kurtz travelling by train from Dartmouth to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he is able to use a mainframe to test a computer program stored on a bagful of punched cards.

It is 1958 when the book opens and each chapter has a different focus in places stretching from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Hanover, New Hampshire to Minneapolis, Minnesota to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Rankin tries to see the ways that people used computers and gives priority to the individuals and the collectives involved in the situations depicted, rather than to the technology or to the institutions that bought it. This is a “people’s history” and, in this story, the participation of a range of people in the business of running computer networks is humanised and becomes broadly relevant. Personalities emerge and, in an era when computer users were more like citizens enjoying the benefits of the commons rather than mere consumers buying products, the main emotion you notice as you make your way through the story is enthusiasm.

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