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Stating the Field: Institutions and Outcomes in Computer History
Jan.-March 2012 (vol. 34 no. 1)
pp. 104, 102-103
Andrew Meade McGee, University of Virginia

Computers transformed the post-Work War II American state and, as a consequence, influenced the policies that emerged from them. Can we better understand those policies by tracing their relations to the computer systems that might have accompanied their inception and implementation, even if only tangentially? Can following the outcomes of daily computer work really provide valid insights into the intentions or operations of the institutions in which the computers are embedded? Computer historians can trace how institutions like states fundamentally perceive the world differently because of how computers alter their daily operations. The next frontier for computer history lies beyond the (still-crucial) understanding of the origins, development, use, and transformation of hardware and software. We must focus on outcomes, not just as output, technologically delineated data parcels that reflect a particular programming and set of inputs, but outcomes in the form of decisions made from outputted data, formulated policies that reflect institutional imperatives.

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3. For one possible framework, see S. Vaidhyanathan's description of "technocultural imagination" in The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), Univ. of California Press, 2011, p. 13.
4. For more on the US as a computer consumer, see J.W. Cortada, The Digital Hand, Vol. III: How Computers Changed the Work of American Public Sector Industries, Oxford Univ. Press, 2005. For a compelling assessment of the dearth of scholarship on federal computing, see J.P. Laprise, "The Purloined Mainframe: Hiding the History of Computing in Plain Site," IEEE Annals, vol. 31, no. 3, 2009, pp. 83–84.
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6. J. Agar, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer, MIT Press, 2003. For another example of a noteworthy work pressing the field by investigating institutional consequences of state-centered computing, see J.S. Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003.
7. For more on the institutional development of the SSA, see M. Derthick, Agency Under Stress: The Social Security Administration in American Government, Brookings Institution, 1990; E.M. Berkowitz, Robert M. Ball and the Politics of Social Security, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2003; and L. DeWitt, D. Beland, and E.D. Berkowitz, Social Security: A Documentary History, Congressional Quarterly Press, 2008. See also A.M. McGee, "'Please, Mr. Machine, Give this to a Human to Read:' Electronic Data Processing, Systems Management, and Great Society Idealism in the Social Security Administration, 1965–1974," masters' thesis, Univ. of Virginia, 2007.
8. J.C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale Univ. Press, 1998.

Index Terms:
history of computing, US federal government, institutional computing, bureaucratic structures, Social Security Administration, James C. Scott
Andrew Meade McGee, "Stating the Field: Institutions and Outcomes in Computer History," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 104, 102-103, Jan.-March 2012, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2012.14
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