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American Studies after the Internet

From: American Quarterly
Volume 64, Number 4, December 2012
pp. 861-872 | 10.1353/aq.2012.0044

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June 1945: The height of the war in the Pacific, Allied forces in Germany had only just assumed control of the recently defeated nation, and in the United States, citizens continued to mourn the loss of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, their wartime commander in chief. In the midst of this global tumult, six women were summoned to the U.S. Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, where they were assigned to the top-secret “Project X.” As the women would soon discover, Project X was the code name for the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) project, an enterprise that would culminate in the world’s first electronic, digital, and programmable computer. Upon its completion, in 1946, the ENIAC machine was immediately deployed to calculate the firing tables required for the precision targeting of the Army’s long-range ballistic weapons. However, the “ENIAC girls,” as the women who operated the machine were known, would be acknowledged for their pioneering role in the history of computing—for they were the world’s first computer programmers—only fifty years after the fact.1

The surprise of this story is not only how strongly it resonates with many of the issues engaged by American studies today—such as the gendering and valuation of labor (or lack thereof) and the rise of the U.S. military-industrial complex—but also that it has only recently begun to be mined for its significance as the starting point of today’s digital culture. It suggests, moreover, how the fields of American studies and the digital humanities, so often viewed as disciplinarily, methodologically, and ontologically distinct, are in fact deeply intertwined. For decades, the creation of digital tools and the application of digital methods was the purview of “humanities computing,” a close-knit field of dedicated practitioners. Renamed the digital humanities in the early 2000s, the field has since been extended to encompass what Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes in her contribution to Debates in the Digital Humanities as the array of “changes that digital technologies are producing across the many fields of humanistic inquiry” (12).2 But if the digital humanities is to become an umbrella term for a generalized epistemology of the digital, it is of the utmost importance that we understand the origins and implications of the digital itself.

The origins of the digital humanities are most often traced to 1949, when an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Roberto Busa, approached IBM with an idea of employing a computer to compile an index verborum of the complete works of Thomas Aquinas—nearly eleven million words of medieval Latin.3 This story, replete with anecdotes about punch-cards trucked through narrow, sixteenth-century streets, establishes intellectual ambition, technological resourcefulness, and a not insignificant amount of whimsy as the foundational values in the field. The story of the “ENIAC girls” reveals a more complex prehistory, however—one that, as Nathan Ensmenger’s Computer Boys Take Over and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Programmed Visions each demonstrate, is shot through with contradiction. Indeed, the history of the digital humanities, in both its original and its expanded meanings, is also, necessarily, a history of gender, labor, empire, and—as I discuss below—race. And the ideological and conceptual systems that underpin each of these terms are, in ways that have not yet been sufficiently acknowledged, informed by our ideas about and experience with the digital.4 When Tara McPherson, at the 2011 American Studies Association annual meeting, posed the question, “Why isn’t American Studies more digital?” she thus referred not only to the field’s relative lack of engagement with contemporary digital tools and methods but also to the as-yet-uncharted space in American studies for the variety of forms of scholarship that might engage the history illuminated by the women of ENIAC and digital culture more generally conceived.5

The Computer Boys Take Over—the title, Ensmenger tells us, reflects an indirect homage to the first computer “girls”—offers a glimpse of what this history might reveal. Framed as an account of the development of the software industry, Ensmenger charts the rise to cultural prominence—and to corporate power—of the computer programmer. He explains that...

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