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  • Computing and the Big Picture: A Keynote Conversation
  • Jennifer S. Light (bio)

Remarks to the SIGCIS annual meeting “Computing and the Big Picture,” November 9, 2014, Dearborn, Michigan. Provides an overview of computing history in several fields and calls for greater conversation across these research streams.

Hi everyone, thank you so much for the invitation to speak with you.

In reflecting on how to approach today’s topic I decided it would be fun to depart from the standard presentation where I tell you about my research and then connect it to the conference theme. Certainly it does; my faculty appointment in urban studies and planning reflects how my work ties computing history to narratives in that field.

But I thought it would be more productive to follow the model of Bill Aspray’s keynote last year and talk more generally about the many scholars connecting their computing histories to a diverse set of historical narratives and to reflect on the challenges and opportunities in this state of affairs.1

As I told Andy Russell when he invited me to kick off today’s session, this topic is near and dear to me, because for over a decade I’ve taught a grad seminar on computing histories with similar objectives. The class helps students to master some basic content, guided by the idea that computing history is written in multiple disciplinary contexts and beyond the academy. It also helps students think strategically about how the present configuration of research opens opportunities for their future original work.

Like any good course, the syllabus makes an argument, and it’s one that can be articulated in the language of the “big picture” guiding today’s sessions: at the same time that it celebrates computing histories [End Page 125] that build bridges to other historical subfields—what we’ve called the big picture—it observes a lack of conservation among the many scholars writing computing history and calls for greater bridging work so as not to lose sight of the big picture of computing history itself.

As I’ve engaged in these discussions with my students, I’ve often wondered what colleagues at other institutions think about how the kinds of computing history done by folks at SHOT and SIGCIS should sit in relation to other disciplines and, also, to the ever-expanding terrain of computing history in other fields. Are we like some scholars in women’s studies, for example, who hope our subject eventually disappears because it has been seamlessly integrated into inquiry across disciplines? I suspect the answer is no! Do we take the view there will be a growing need for our subject in light of the ever-expanding uses of computing? That scenario seems more likely. If it is, I think it’s worth asking not only how we can speak to other disciplines but also how we can engage with and what we might learn from other scholarly communities of computing historians to enrich our work.

I’ve called my presentation a keynote conversation because I’d like to take up some of these questions as a group. To frame our conversation I’ll take about twenty minutes to talk at you, using my grad class as a guide. I’ll briefly review five major genres of computing history and note the big-picture historical narratives with which they engage. Of course, it’s not a complete list of who is doing computing history, and I hope we’ll discuss others in the conversation period. I picked these five in the hopes that everyone would encounter authors both familiar and new and to help me make some observations about the opportunities this state of affairs presents each of us as individuals seeking new ideas for research.

Then I’ll open the floor to talk as a group about the issues I’ve raised and about related issues you may want to talk about. For example, this is a great opportunity to return to ongoing discussions about academic and popular computing histories on the SIGCIS listserv situated in a larger context.

Category 1: Historians of Technology

So let’s start with the first group: folks in this room...


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pp. 125-132
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