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Reviewed by:
  • Wege in die Digitale Gesellschaft: Computernutzung in der Bundesrepublik 1955-1990 [Towards a digital society: Computer use in West Germany 1955-1990] ed. by Frank Bösch
  • Corinna Schlombs (bio)
Wege in die Digitale Gesellschaft: Computernutzung in der Bundesrepublik 1955-1990 [Towards a digital society: Computer use in West Germany 1955-1990]
Edited by Frank Bösch. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2018. Pp. 326.

The volume unites contemporary history scholarship with the history of computing, technology, and business. The result is a densely researched compilation of studies on computerization in West Germany, in areas such [End Page 1248] as law enforcement and the military, banking, insurance, local utility companies, the printing industry, computer networking, and personal computer uses by hackers, crackers, and chess players. The contributing authors provide original insights into the histories of data security and automation, also raising important comparative questions internationally and between the two Germanies. They paint a picture of a slow but steady diffusion of computing, not a revolutionary overhaul.

The authors provide a compelling historicization for current debates about national security and privacy by investigating computing in law enforcement. Contextualizing their studies in West Germany's student protests and the Red Army Faction's left-wing domestic terrorism in the late 1960s and 1970s, they expand the historiography of computing that so far has mostly discussed the counter culture movement as an inspiration for personal computing. In their chapter on data sharing systems in West Germany and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, Constantin Goschler, Christopher Kirchberg, and Jens Wegener ask how the use of data files versus paper records affected transparency practices in democratic states in light of perceived national security threats. Rüdiger Bergien reveals that in West Germany from 1967 to 1989, federal law enforcement agencies accessed civilian databases including health insurance, unemployment offices, and motor vehicle records. But while new data security officers objected to the misappropriation of data for unintended purposes, law enforcement officers standardized data to overcome technical obstacles, caused for example by different formats for names in various databases. The studies disclose a history of conflict between data privacy and national security.

In addition, the volume addresses the effects of computer automation on work, particularly in offices. In a notable chapter on computing in the printing industry in the 1960s and 1970s, Kim Priemel examines union responses to technological change. He contributes to growing evidence that union leaders were more supportive of new technologies than the rank-and-file union members who feared for their jobs and in some cases voted down conciliatory union contract proposals. Several chapters allude to the essential role of data entry for computerization: Janine Funke explores how insufficient data impacted the reliability of military simulations; Thomas Kasper argues that lacking data entry hindered the computerization of pension insurance; and Kim Priemel shows how unskilled typists (women) and electronic technicians threatened to replace skilled printers and typesetters (men). These observations invite further studies on labor, gender, skills, and control in computer automation.

Finally, the authors contribute to the internationalization of computing history by decentering the United States as the model of computerization. Like Eden Medina in her seminal work on computing in Chile, they examine local conditions where computers were introduced. As Frank Bösch points out, West Germany was among the countries where civilian organizations [End Page 1249] played a more eminent role in computerization than the military-industrial-academic complex. Even the army, as Janine Funke reveals, used its first computers for materials logistics, and only later integrated computers into weapons systems and operations research, mostly through NATO cooperation. The West German legacy of state monopoly and government regulation in telecommunications also impacted computer networking. As Matthias Röhr shows, the postal service favored the hierarchically organized BTX and OSI services and standards over the internet and its de facto standard protocol TCP/IP, rendering computer networking costly to West Germans and delaying its wider use.

While the international comparisons highlight local differences, East and West Germany had surprising similarities. Martin Schmitt argues that computerization in savings banks was centralized in both Germanies, albeit for different reasons. And Julia Erdogan finds similar subcultures of young male hobbyists...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 1248-1250
Launched on MUSE
2021-01-07
Open Access
No
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