Academic books do not usually attract the attention of the general public, much less Hollywood celebrities. But after reading this fascinating interview with the actor Gillian Jacobs (Community, Life Partners) about her forthcoming Grace Hopper documentary, I tweeted the following quote:
GJ: I not only want to tell people about Grace Hopper, but remind them that she was not the only woman in her field in her era. Women have always been a part of tech and computing.
Imagine my surprise when I received the following reply!
Somehow I missed this review of The Computer Boys Take Over in the Digital Humanities Quarterly. Here is the money quote praising the book:
Nathan Ensmenger’s book is an impressive and engrossing historical work. He brings the crises and the peopling of computer programming alive. His historical artifacts become characters and a full picture of what this heterogeneous history looks like emerges. He adeptly weaves together competing voices in history with competing personalities to leave us with this haunting and antagonizing last line, echoed from the rhetoric of programming as created by the history: “almost thirty years after the NATO Conference on Software Engineering many programmers are still concluding that ‘excellent developers, like excellent musicians and artists, are born, not made'” .
But as tempting as it is to only highlight the positive from this review, I was also intrigued by the author Trisha Campbell‘s biggest critique:
And therein lies my only problem with the book, and it is my same problem with many academic books; the thing is socially constructed and the pages of the text helped us get there, but how do we build from this heterogeneity. Is there a method? Perhaps this will be Ensmenger’s second book.
Alas, I suspect that it will take me longer than that (and perhaps a couple more books) to figure this one out, but I increasingly share Campbell’s call to make the theory of social constructivism more practically applicable. One of the welcome benefits of having moved from a history of science program to a School of Informatics and Computing is that I interact more regularly with scientists and technologists. When I am talking with fellow humanists and historians it is (too) easy to wave away challenging questions by invoking theory; with practitioners, I have to work more to make myself clear, to figure out what I actually mean, and to be relevant. This is a good thing.
Business History recently published a review of The Computer Boys by the distinguished historian Richard John, the author of (among other things) two books that have had a lasting influence on my teaching and research: Spreading the News: the American Postal System From Franklin to Morse and Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications. A brief excerpt from his review:
Ensmenger tells the history of a neglected, vitally important occupation group. In so doing, he provides a solid foundation on which others can build to analyse how computer programming has, and has not, transformed US business, and how business managers have, and have not, met the recurrent technical demands that computer programming poses not only for everyday operations, but also for business strategy, corporate governance, and the innovative process.
John notes that the book is not itself a business history, but recognizes the significance of software development to most modern firms and the central paradox that software often poses for even the most computer-savvy corporations: namely, that “Over time, computer hardware has become progressively cheaper and faster, a fact that is well known; less well known, but no less consequential, is the fact that over time consumer software has become more expensive and less reliable.” There are historians of computing, such as Martin Campbell-Kelly and Jim Cortada, who have started to develop a business history of software, but this is still much work to be done. The Computer Boys was very deliberately designed to capture the previously invisible perspective of the computer programer; I would love to write a companion volume that deals with the business history of the software contractors of this same critical period. My current project on flowcharts represents one attempt to get started on this challenging project.
In the most recent issue of the American Quarterly, a professor of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech named Lauren Frederica Klein has published an interesting review essay that covers The Computer Boys. The full essay is behind a paywall, but if you have access is well worth tracking down. I have said before that a good reviewer can reveal things about a book that even the author might not have seen or even explicitly intended. In this case, Professor Klein situates The Computer Boys in the literature the digital humanities. This is not necessarily how I had thought of the book, but her reading of the book in this context makes sense, and has given me much to think about.
Of the other books covered in the essays, I was familiar only Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (in fact, my much-delayed copy arrived in the mail earlier this week) and Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White’s edited volume Race after the Internet. I assign Nakamura’s work all the time in my courses. The fourth book, however, was new to me: Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew Gold. All of these are worth a closer look in their own right, but Klein’s essay inspires me to think of the connections between them in new ways. As academics, it is too easy to get lost in our own disciplines.
Here is one of the particularly nice things the review has to say about The Computer Boys:
This is important work for the history of computing, and for the digital humanities as a whole. For even if Ensmenger does not position his study as a prehistory of digital culture, accounts such as his are essential if we are to fully comprehend the historical and technical complexity of today’s digital world.
One of my goals in the book was to make the history of computing relevant to scholars in disciplines other than the history of science and technology. I am pleased to see that my work can be useful in the context of American Studies and the digital humanities!
Another review, this time from the history of science journal Isis:
Histories of computing have often focused on the history of the computer and even then, more often than not, on the hardware rather than the software. Nathan Ensmenger’s book, in contrast, is a welcome investigation of the social history of the programmer, would-be professionals who were located at an important intersection: they built the tools (the software, the programming languages, the documentation) and at the same time had to carve out a place in often resentful organizations…
Ensmenger has provided our best account of this phenomenon so far.