A clichéd history of computing

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talkResearch


It’s often seen as the historical scholar’s job to get away from the clichéd narratives and unsubstantiated received ideas of folk history. Yet clichés themselves deserve historical analysis to understand the aims and methods of their promoters, and the policy outcomes of their entrenchment. My paper applies this approach in considering how electronic computers were presented to, and interpreted by, non-specialist audiences from the 1940s onwards. A wide range of sources presented the technology as unstoppably revolutionary and iconically new – with paradoxical consistency – for well over three decades. Occasionally, therefore, computing served as a blank slate for new social, economic or educational manifestos. In practice, this rarely happened, as a smallish set of received understandings and explanatory approaches circulated and recirculated.
Some clichés had origins in wider conversations, such as the longstanding fear of unemployment and deskilling; others were promoted by the industry itself, notably the GIGO (“garbage in, garbage out”) principle which was deployed to position the technology as a neutral instrument. Some encapsulations were transient, such as Leon Bagrit’s “automation” crusade of the 1960s, while some presentational features seemed inviolable: the remorseless tendency to explain binary arithmetic, to all audiences for all purposes, persisted for half a century. I will consider how much of this cliché reproduction was due to conscious shared aims, and how much to simple convention, and will also offer the beginnings of an attempt to evaluate its influence, via policy determinations, on real-world change.
Period26 Mar 2015
Held atThe Open University, United Kingdom