the book

computer-boys-cover-adjustedOf all of the revolutionary technological innovations of the 20th century, none is as widely recognized, as celebrated, or as profoundly influential as the invention of the electronic digital computer. But like all great social and technological developments, the computer revolution of the twentieth century didn’t just happen. It had to be made to happen, and made to happen by people, not impersonal processes.

In The Computer Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger describes the emergence of a new breed of technical specialists — computer programmers, systems analysts, and data processing managers — who built their careers around the powerful new technology of electronic computing. It was these largely anonymous specialists who built the systems that transformed the novel technology of electronic computing from a scientific curiosity into the most powerful and ubiquitous technology of the modern era. Known collectively as “whiz kids,” “hackers,” and “gurus,” they were alternatively admired for their technical prowess and despised for their eccentric mannerisms and the disruptive potential of the technologies they developed. As the systems that they built and maintained became central to the operations of our modern computerized society, they became the focus of a series of critiques of the social and organizational impact computerization. To many of their contemporaries, it seemed the “computer boys” were taking over, not just in the corporate setting, but also in government, politics, and society in general.

Ensmenger follows the rise of the computer boys as they struggled to establish a role for themselves within traditional organizational, professional, and academic hierarchies. Was computer programming a “black art,” a legitimate science, or an industrial discipline? Were computer specialists more like scientists, engineers, managers, or clerical workers? What was the appropriate relationship between technical expertise and other, more traditional forms of social, political, and organizational power? In telling the story of these influential but unrecognized computer revolutionaries, Ensmenger provides a nuanced social history of the computerization of modern society that highlights the many ways in which even the most complex technologies are nevertheless fundamentally human constructions.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Computer Revolutionaries
  2. The Black Art of Programming
  3. Chess Players, Music Lovers, and Mathematicians (excerpt available)
  4. Tower of Babel
  5. The Rise of Computer Science
  6. The Cosa Nostra of the Data Processing Industry
  7. The Professionalization of Programming
  8. Engineering a Solution
  9. Conclusions: Visible Technicians

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Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise