- From the Editor’s Desk
Of all the buzzwords associated with the contemporary computer industry, none is so over-used and ill-defined as “the Cloud.” While its flexibility and ambiguity might be useful to marketers, it is less useful as an analytical or historical category. One of the more useful and ubiquitous ways of thinking about the Cloud, however, is as a form of “computer utility” and, as Alex Mirowski reminds us in his article “At the Electronic Crossroads Once Again: The Myth of the Modern Computer Utility,” the computer utility has a long history.1 What makes Mirowski’s exploration of this history particularly novel and illuminating, however, is his situation of the language of the “utility” in a larger economic and political history. Utilities are not just another form of infrastructure; historically speaking, being defined as a utility implied certain very specific ideas about pricing, regulation, and accountability and service to the social good. Over the course of a long history that stretches back into the 1950s, some of the actors who have mobilized the idea of the computer utility have deliberately engaged with this traditional understanding of the public utility, while others have used the term more casually or instrumentally. From time-shared networks to grid computing to the Cloud, why has the discourse of the computer utility proven so durable, asks Mirowski, and what are the implications for present-day infrastructure development, maintenance, and regulation?
As an historian who has written extensively about labor issues in the computer industry, one of the most frequent questions I get is “What about the role of unions?” In the United States, traditional labor unions were almost entirely irrelevant in the history of computer work. In other parts of the world, however, this was not the case. In their article “Computing for Democracy: The Asociación de Técnicos de Informática and the Professionalization of Computing in Spain,” Luís Duque, Jordi Fornés, and Néstor Herran provide a welcome new perspective on the professionalization of computer work. In their carefully contextualized study of the Asociación de Técnicos de Informática (ATI), they demonstrate the importance of detailed and nationally-specific histories that challenge the US-centric focus of much of the research in this area. The creation of the ATI and its early activities can only be understood, argue Dugue, Fornés, and Herran, in the context of the unique political history of Spain under the Franco regime. It was no coincidence, for example, that ATI was born in Barcelona, a center of opposition to the Franco dictatorship, and compared to other professional organizations in other parts of the world, the ATI was exceptionally engaged with political issues.
The past few years have witnessed an explosion in new scholarship on the previously hidden history of women in computing. Adding to this is a fascinating new piece by William Vogel on “‘The Spitting Image of a Woman Programmer’: Changing Portrayals of Women in the American Computing Industry, 1958–1985.” In this article, Vogel explores representations and discussions of women in the influential trade journal Datamation. His analysis makes particularly clever use of the material outside of the formal articles—editorials, cartoons, and humor pieces. Vogel organizes these representations into chronological categories, and uses this periodization to identify and highlight changing attitudes over time. He identifies a similar pattern of change in the practices and self-presentation of three major computer industry employers (Burroughs, IBM, and Control Data), and uses these parallels to challenge and to extend our understanding of women’s experiences in the computer industry during these important early decades of its history.
For decades, historians of technology have been calling for more studies of failure. Success is almost by definition exceptional, whereas failure tends to follow (and reveal) more general patterns and structures. The need to follow failure is even more pressing for historians of software. Despite the apparent ease with which software projects can be designed, developed, and modified to adapt to changing circumstances, the stark reality of the computer industry is that the majority—according to one recent study, as many as two-thirds—of...