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  • Stating the Field:Institutions and Outcomes in Computer History
  • Andrew Meade McGee (bio)

In the spring of 1958, then US Congressman Robert Byrd of West Virginia—later famous for becoming the longest-serving Senator in US history and practitioner without peer of the art of directing federal funds to his home state—addressed a regional chapter of the National Management Association with unbridled optimism for the potential of the electronic computer as an office administration tool:

You may wonder perhaps why I, as a Member of Congress, am so keenly interested in these management problems of automation. After all, I am not really in the field of manufacturing. I don't really understand the electronic principles of Univac. I would be the last one to try to explain to you how the IBM electronic computer works. But I think you will appreciate that, vital though these and many other problems of automation are to you in the management field, they are equally and perhaps even more fundamental problems for those of us responsible for legislation safeguarding our economy and providing for the welfare and protection of our people.1

In his speech, Byrd evidences his period's enthusiastic embrace for the seemingly boundless potential of mainframe computers to transform the collection, management, and administrative analysis of information, an atomic-age confidence in the power of automated data processing to improve everything from missile defense to corporate payrolls. Yet the savvy Congressman also acknowledges a more cautious reality: widespread adoption of the computer would transform his job, the business of governance, and likely alter in unexpected ways how the federal government would go about devising and implementing the policies that undergird American society.

In essence, Byrd presaged a question now at the forefront of scholarly studies of digital systems and information management: where precisely does "the computer" end? How far can we trace the transformative influences of information systems on a larger world? For Byrd and his contemporaries in the federal government in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, computers would alter the very functioning of various government bureaus and departments, not just because of the tangible tasks they performed, but because of expectations of what they might be supposed to do. As something legitimately new under the sun, the computer would transform the postwar American state and, as a consequence, have influence on the policies that emerged from it.

Where Does the Computer End?

Can we better understand governmental policies by tracing their relations to the computer systems that may have accompanied their inception and implementation, even if only tangentially? Can following the outcomes of work put to computers as part of their daily use really provide valid insights into the intentions or operations of the institutions in which those computers are embedded? How far and into what under-examined aspects of human society and history can scholars of computing's past legitimately press their inquiries into the computer's reach?

For a relatively young discipline, the field of computer history is remarkably expansive in its ambition. From its origins in classic studies of the material history of computers as Cold War technological artifacts through field-defining analyses of the entrepreneurs who innovated entire information industries out of their garages, the study of the computer has mushroomed over the past decade into an exhilarating, open prospect in which scholars can press boundaries of geography (broadening a previously America-centric field through compelling studies of computing in Latin America and East Asia), identity (tracing the roles of crucial, if under-examined, groups such as women in computing), and even ideology and worldview (examining how the political context of regulation can shape technological innovation or how self-identifying communities emerge among corporate software specialists).2 Historians of computing have thus far been reluctant to plunge more deeply into intensive examination of the institutions that have used computers. One of the next frontiers of computing history, however, lies down this path. We can trace the outcomes of computer processes and data management systems as they course through organizations, interrogating how policies that emerge from computer-utilizing entities might (or might not) bear the fingerprints of particular operational worldviews associated with the computer revolution.



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pp. 104-103
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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