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Electric Dreams

Computers in American Culture

Ted Friedman

Publication Year: 2005

Electric Dreams turns to the past to trace the cultural history of computers. Ted Friedman charts the struggles to define the meanings of these powerful machines over more than a century, from the failure of Charles Babbage’s “difference engine” in the nineteenth century to contemporary struggles over file swapping, open source software, and the future of online journalism. To reveal the hopes and fears inspired by computers, Electric Dreams examines a wide range of texts, including films, advertisements, novels, magazines, computer games, blogs, and even operating systems.

Electric Dreams argues that the debates over computers are critically important because they are how Americans talk about the future. In a society that in so many ways has given up on imagining anything better than multinational capitalism, cyberculture offers room to dream of different kinds of tomorrow.

Published by: NYU Press

TItle Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

This book could not have been written without the guidance and intellectual example of the following people: Janice Radway, Jane Gaines, Lawrence Grossberg, Fredric Jameson, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Cathy Davidson, Joseba Gabilondo, and Michael Hardt were also generous with their advice...

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Introduction:The Dialectic of Technological Determinism

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pp. 1-19

Why do we think what we think about computers? A computer is just a tool. Or, more specifically, a medium—a means of processing and communicating information. It lets us do so with incredible speed and efficiency, but in principle, the hardware is as open-ended as a blank piece of paper...

Part I: Mainframe Culture

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pp. 21

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1: Charles Babbage and the Politics of Computer Memory

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pp. 23-34

As we have seen, the dialectic of technological determination is both enabling and disempowering. It clears space to imagine wild visions of the future. But it closes off our ability to question our present options, since the future is presumed to be the inevitable result of inexorable technological progress...

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2: Ideologies of Information Processing: From Analog to Digital

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pp. 35-46

So far, I haven’t discussed how a computer processes information in much detail. In this chapter, I want to turn to this more technical subject, to look at the ideological conflicts underlying a critical transformation in information processing: the shift from analog to digital, which began in the 1940s and 1950s, and which continues to this day...

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3: Filming the “Electronic Brain”

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pp. 47-78

In tracing the cultural history of computing, so far our focus has been on the discourses and legacies of technical elites: first the works of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, then the debates of engineers over the relative merits of analog versus digital computing. This is because before the mid-1940s...

Part II: The Personal Computer

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pp. 79

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4: The Many Creators of the Personal Computer

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pp. 81-101

The 1970s saw the emergence of a radically different kind of machine from the mainframes depicted in Desk Set and 2001. The “personal computer” was small, self-contained, designed for individual use, and priced for consumer purchase. It broadly expanded the public availability of computing power, and transformed American...

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5: Apple’s 1984

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pp. 102-120

From an emphasis on technology in the previous chapter, this chapter turns to the initial marketing of this new product, the personal computer. How did fledgling PC companies attempt to define a product that had never before existed? How did marketers engage and redirect the available visions...

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6: The Rise of the Simulation Game

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pp. 121-157

Following the success of the Apple Macintosh, the IBM PC, and their many imitators, the personal computer in the 1980s emerged as a full-fledged mass-consumer product, purchased for American homes in the millions.1 But once they brought these objects home, what could users do with these strange new machines? In the wake of...

Part III: The Interpersonal Computer

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pp. 159

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7: Imagining Cyberspace

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pp. 161-170

In the 1990s the personal computer became an interpersonal computer. Increasingly, computer users employed the PC not just a tool for individual information processing, but as a medium for communication. PC users of the 1970s and 1980s were able to communicate with each...

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8: Dot-com Politics

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pp. 171-185

The exponential growth in the number of internet users in the 1990s fueled a gold rush in “dot-com” stocks, up until the tech crash of 2000. This boom was paralleled by an explosion in technotopian rhetoric, as dreams of technologically driven social transformation conveniently meshed with get-rich-quick fantasies...

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9: Beyond Napster

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pp. 186-197

To this point, our discussion has concentrated specifically on computers and the computer industry. As the United States has become more and more thoroughly computerized, however, the line between computers and the rest of American life has grown increasingly blurry. In the media world, this phenomenon is called...

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10: Linux and Utopia

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pp. 198-208

On March 10, 2000, the NASDAQ stock index, which tracked many of the companies riding the dot-com boom, stood at an all-time high of 5,133. By April 14 the NASDAQ had fallen to 3,321, a loss of more than 35%. The dot-com boom was over.1 In the aftermath of the crash, many of the promises of the...

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Conclusion: Cybertopia Today

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pp. 209-220

This book began with the introduction of two related concepts: the utopian sphere and the dialectic of technological determination. Through the subsequent chapters, we’ve seen how discourse about computers has functioned as a space to explore alternative visions of the future. This space...


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pp. 221-234


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pp. 235-255


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pp. 257-273

About the Author

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pp. 275

E-ISBN-13: 9780814728666
E-ISBN-10: 0814728669
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814727393
Print-ISBN-10: 0814727395

Page Count: 286
Publication Year: 2005

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Computers -- Social aspects.
  • Computers -- History.
  • Computers and civilization.
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