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Understanding 'How Computing Has Changed the World'
October-December 2007 (vol. 29 no. 4)
pp. 52-63
Thomas J. Misa, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota
How can we satisfactorily address the history of computing, recognizing that computing artifacts and practices are often shaped by local circumstances and cultures, and yet also capture the longer-term processes by which computing has shaped the world? This article reviews three traditions of scholarly work, proposes a new line of scholarship, and concludes with thoughts on collaborative, international, and interdisciplinary research.

1. Authors such as Lewis Mumford, Thomas Hughes, Alfred Chandler, and others have provided insight into technology's interactions with society, culture, and institutions but have not typically done extensive historical analysis of computing. Sociologist Manual Castells, in his Information Agetrilogy (Blackwell, 1996–1998), relates changes in information technology to general patterns in society and culture, such as globalization, but at a rather high level of generalization. Note: References in this article have been shortened due to space constraints. A version with complete citations is at papersMisa_Computing-2007.pdf.
2. T.J. Misa, "Retrieving Sociotechnical Change from Technological Determinism," Does Technology Drive History, M. Roe Smith, and L. Marx eds. MIT Press, 1994, pp. 115-141.
3. P.E. Ceruzzi,, "Moore's Law and Technological Determinism," Technology and Culture, vol. 46, no. 3, 2005, pp. 584-593, quote on p. 593, E. Mollick, "Establishing Moore's Law," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 28, no. 3, 2006, pp. 62-75.
4. A good place to start are the chapters by B. Lewenstein, D. Cantor, L. Hoddeson, and A. Hessenbruch (on archiving, commissioned histories, oral histories, and collaborations with working scientists respectively), The Historiography of Contemporary Science, Technology, and Medicine , R.E. Doel and T. Söderqvist, eds., Routledge, 2006.
5. My working bibliography can be found at∼tmisa/biblios hist_computing.html. Perceptive reviews of computer historiography include, for example, W. Aspray, "The History of Computing within the History of Information Technology," History and Technology , vol. 11, 1994, pp. 7-19, and P.N. Edwards, "From 'Impact' to Social Process: Computers in Society and Culture," Handbook of Science and Technology Studies , S. Jasanoff et al., eds., SAGE Publications, 1994, chapter 12. Also see Tom Haigh's "History Resources"; ResourceFile.htm. For another view, see Martin Campbell-Kelly's list of courses in the history of computing at http:/∼mck/HoC_Courses.html
6. Work by European historians of computing has both broadened and deepened in the past decade or so. One institutional manifestation is the computing history research group within the "Tensions of Europe" project; see ITITMain.htmand the discussion about Europe in this article. See also "Informatics Goes Global: Methods at a Crossroads," 45; the History of Nordic Computing conferences at http:/ Research on topics in Asia is also emerging: for example, R. Heeks, India's Software Industry: State Policy, Liberalisation and Industrial Development , Sage, 1996.
7. D. Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With, MIT Press, 2006, pp. 194-198.
8. J.S. Light, "When Computers Were Women," Technology and Culture, vol. 40, no. 3, 1999, pp. 455-483, D.A. Grier, When Computers Were Human , Princeton Univ. Press, 2005.
9. E.W. Pugh, Memories that Shaped an Industry: Decisions Leading to IBM System/360, MIT Press, 1984, E.W. Pugh, Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and its Technology , MIT Press, 1995, and E.W. Pugh, L.R. Johnson, and J.H. Palmer, IBM's 360 and early 370 Systems , MIT Press, 1991.
10. A.W. Burks, The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1988, and A. Rowe Burks, Who Invented the Computer? The Legal Battle That Changed Computing History , Prometheus Books, 2003.
11. M.S. Mahoney, "The History of Computing in the History of Technology," Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 10, no. 2, 1988, pp. 113-125.
12. For example, J.S. Small, "General-purpose Electronic Analog Computing: 1945–1965," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 15, no. 2, 1993, pp. 8-18; D. Mindell, Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing Before Cybernetics , Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002. See∼tmisa/biblios hist_computing.html#Analog-Era
13. For example, L. Owens, "Vannevar Bush and the Differential Analyzer: The Text and Context of an Early Computer," Technology and Culture, vol. 27, 1986, pp. 63-95; L. Owens, "Where Are We Going, Phil Morse? Changing Agendas and the Rhetoric of Obviousness in the Transformation of Computing at MIT, 1939–1957," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 18, no. 4, 1996, pp. 34-41.
14. T. Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine, Little, Brown, 1981, pp. 29-32, D. MacKenzie, Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change , MIT Press, 1996.
15. L. Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Basic Books, 1999, J.P. Kesan and R.C. Shah, "Shaping Code," Harvard J. Law &Technology, vol. 18, no. 2, 2005, pp. 319-399.
16. The essay is at , 2 Mar. 2006.
17. M. Campbell-Kelly and W. Aspray, Computer: A History of the Information Machine, Basic Books, 1996, A.D. Chandler Jr., and J.W. Cortada, eds., A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present , Oxford Univ. Press, 2000; P.E. Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing , MIT Press, 1998, second ed. 2003; M. Riordan and L. Hoddeson, Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age , Norton, 1997.
18. J.W. Cortada, Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865–1956, Princeton Univ. Press, 1993, p. 109.
19. J. Agar, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer, MIT Press, 2003, M. Campbell-Kelly, From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry , MIT Press, 2003; J. Yates, Structuring the Information Age: Life Insurance and Technology in the Twentieth Century , Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2005.
20. A.L. Norberg and J.E. O'Neill, Transforming Computer Technology: Information Processing for the Pentagon, 1962–1986, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996, D. MacKenzie, "The Influence of the Los Alamos and Livermore National Labs on Supercomputing," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 13, no. 2, 1991, pp. 179-201; J. Abbate, Inventing the Internet , MIT Press, 1999; A. Roland and P. Shiman, Strategic Computing: DARPA and the Quest for Machine Intelligence, 1983–1993 , MIT Press, 2002; S.W. Usselman, "IBM and Its Imitators: Organizational Capabilities and the Emergence of the International Computer Industry," Business and Economic History , vol. 22, no. 2, 1993, pp. 1-35.
21. K. Flamm, Creating the Computer: Government, Industry and High Technology, Brookings Institution, 1988, Nat'l Research Council, Funding a Revolution: Government Support for Computing Research , Washington, D.C.: Nat'l Academy Press, 1999; contents.html.
22. See T.J. Misa, "Revisiting the 'Rate' and 'Direction' of Technical Change: Scenarios and Counterfactuals in the Information Technology Revolution," paper presented to the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), 2006; papersMisa_Rate-2006.pdf.
23. P. Edwards, "Making History: New Directions in Computer Historiography," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 23, no. 1, 2001, pp. 86-87, For an exploration, see A. Tympas, "From Digital to Analog and Back: The Ideology of Intelligent Machines in the History of the Electrical Analyzer, 1870s–1960s," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing , vol. 18, no. 4, 1996, pp. 42-48.
24. P.N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, MIT Press, 1996.
25. Recently business and technological historians have strengthened their common concerns, with such figures as JoAnne Yates and others playing prominent roles. See the symposium discussion built around Yates, "How Business Enterprises Use Technology: Extending the Demand Side Turn," Enterprise and Society , vol. 7, no. 3, 2006, pp. 422-455.
26. See, for example, M.S. Mahoney, "Boys' Toys and Women's Work: Feminism Engages Software," Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology, and Medicine , A.N.H. Creager, E. Lunbeck, and L. Schiebinger, eds., Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001, pp. 169-185.
27. See the work by Yates in Ref. 25 and Usselman in Ref. 20; and J. Fagerberg, D.C. Mowery, and R.R. Nelson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Innovation , Oxford Univ. Press, 2006.
28. See, for example, M.S. Mahoney, "Software as Science—Science as Software," History of Computing: Software Issues, U. Hashagen, R. Keil-Slawik, and A. Norberg, eds., Springer Verlag, 2002, pp. 25-48.
29. In 2005 the National Science Foundation established an Office of Cyberinfrastructure to deal proactively with designing, building, and using computer networks across the research enterprise; see
30. For analysis and cases attempting this twofold analysis, see T. Misa, P. Brey, and A. Feenberg, eds., Modernity and Technology , MIT Press, 2003; T. Misa, Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Present , Johns Hopkins Univ., 2004.
31. A.D. Chandler and J.W. Cortada, A Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present, Oxford Univ. Press, 2000, D.R. Headrick, When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700–1850 , Oxford Univ. Press, 2002.
32. Thanks to Alex Pang of the Institute for the Future, Palo Alto, California, for this formulation.
33. This attention to distinct lines of research as well as different companies that experienced both leadership as well as problems certainly distinguishes A.L. Norberg, Computers and Commerce: A Study of Technology and Management at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company, Engineering Research Associates, and Remington Rand, 1946–1957 , MIT Press, 2005.
34. Early computing in the former Soviet Union is investigated in, for example, G.D. Crowe and S.E. Goodman, "S.A. Lebedev and the Birth of Soviet computing," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 16, no. 1, 1994, pp. 4-24, and A. Fitzpatrick, T. Kazakova, and S. Berkovich, "MESM and the Beginning of the Computer Era in the Soviet Union," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 28, no. 3, 2006, pp. 4-17. For years Soviet computing depended on the reverse engineering of IBM machines; see N.C. Davis and S.E. Goodman, "The Soviet Bloc's Unified System of Computers," ACM Computing Surveys, vol. 10, no. 2, June 1978, pp. 93-122.
35. D. MacKenzie, "The Influence of the Los Alamos and Livermore National Labs on Supercomputing," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 13, no. 2, 1991, pp. 179-201.
36. Valuable studies of computing in the Cold War context include A.C. Hughes and T.P. Hughes, eds., Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After , MIT Press, 2000; S. Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics , MIT Press, 2002; A. Akera, Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers, and Computers During the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research , MIT Press, 2007.
37. A. Saxenian, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, Harvard Univ. Press, 1994.
38. S.W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford, Columbia Univ. Press, 1993, R.S. Lowen, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford , Univ. of California Press, 1997; R. Knox Bassett, To the Digital Age: Research Labs, Start-Up Companies, and the Rise of MOS Technology , Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002; L. Berlin, The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley , Oxford Univ. Press, 2005; C. Lécuyer, Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930–1970 , MIT Press, 2005.
39. V. Ruttan, Is War Necessary for Economic Growth, Oxford Univ. Press, 2006.
40. J. Cortada, The Digital Hand, Oxford, 2004–2008, three volumes; J. Yates, "How Business Enterprises Use Technology" in Ref. 25; E. von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation , MIT Press, 2005.
41. For example studies, see C. Malone, "Imagining Information Retrieval in the Library: Desk Set in Historical Context," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing , vol. 24, no. 3, 2002, pp. 14-22; Edwards, Closed World ; T. Friedman, Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture , New York Univ. Press, 2005; J. Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry , Viking Penguin, 2005.
42. See T.J. Misa and J. Schot, "Inventing Europe: Technology and the Hidden Integration of Europe," History and Technology, vol. 21, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1-19, E. van der Vleuten and A. Kaijser, eds., Networking Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Shaping of Europe, 1850–2000 , Science History Publications, 2006; and M. Hård and T.J. Misa, eds., Urban Machinery: Inside Modern European Cities , MIT Press, forthcoming in 2008.
43. See the European Science Foundation's Eurocoresannouncement at http://www.esf.orginventingeuropeand the new project's Web site at .
44. See D. Brock ed. Understanding Moore's Law: Four Decades of Innovation, Chemical Heritage Press, 2006.
45. S.E. Goodman, "The Globalization of Computing: Perspectives on a Changing World," Comm. ACM, vol. 34, no. 1, 1991, pp. 19-21, quote p. 19.
46. See the Basel Action Network's The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-Use and Abuse to Africa , 24 Oct. 2005; .
47. W. Aspray, F. Mayadas, and M.Y. Vardi eds. , Globalization and Offshoring of Software: A Report of the ACM Job Migration Task Force, ACM Press, 2006.
48. J. Cortada, "How Did Computing Go Global? The Need for an Answer and a Research Agenda," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 26, no. 1, 2004, pp. 53-58.

Index Terms:
Charles Babbage Institute, computers and society, digital computing, information age; historiography, history of computing
Thomas J. Misa, "Understanding 'How Computing Has Changed the World'," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 52-63, Oct.-Dec. 2007, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2007.68
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