Notes for Nathan Ensmenger The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the politics of technical expertise

Key concepts: sociotechnical system, software.

Related theorists: John Law, John Tukey.


Introduction: Computer Revolutionaries

The Computer People

Philosophy of computing bounded by mysterious technical activities ignored and avoided by nonpractitioners.

That employment in computing fields exceeds engineering and architecture is evidence the computer boys have taken over.

(1) There are now more people working in computing than in all of the other fields of engineering and architecture combined.
(1-2) Their activities are often regarded by nonpractitioners as being at once too difficult and technical to be understood by mere mortals, and too trivial and tedious to be worth the effort.

Entrenched stereotype of computer people as antisocial.

(2) So recognized is this stereotype that a high degree of proficiency in computer programming has been linked with mild forms of Asperger's syndrome and autism—the so-called geek syndrome or engineer's disorder.

Most attention paid to inventors and high profile software creators; little yet to common computer specialists.

(3) Despite their omnipresence in contemporary popular culture and sizable representation in the modern information economy, historians have thus far devoted little attention to these ubiquitous but mysterious computer specialists. . . . Little has yet been written about the silent majority of computer specialists, the vast armies of largely anonymous engineers, analysts, and programmers who designed and constructed the complex systems that make possible our increasingly computerized society. Even basic demographic information about then can be difficult to come by.

Histories of technology poorly address activities of nonelite actors, invisible technicians.

(3) Even sophisticated academic histories of technology have difficulty incorporating the actions and agendas of nonelite actors, such as end users, operators, maintenance workers, and other invisible technicians.

Bias in history of computing on the electronic, programmable, digital computer.

(4) A subtler and more significant explanation for the lack of attention paid to computer specialists has to do with the inherent bias in the traditional emphasis of the history of computing on the history of the computer. Or to be more specific, on the history of a particular type of computer: the electronic, programmable, digital computer.

The work of most computer specialists, like writers with their medium, has nothing to do with design or construction of computers; their concern is with applications.

(4-5) Whatever it is that they really do, the typical computer specialist has almost nothing to do with either the design or construction of actual computers. . . . In other words, the computer people are mainly concerned with the application of computers (and computer applications), not the computer itself.

History of computer software at heart of computer revolutions.

(5) In many respects, it is the history of computer software and not of the computer itself that is at the heart of the larger story of the great computer revolutions of the mid- to late twentieth century. . . . Whether that computer is electronic, digital, or even material is irrelevant. What matters is that it is programmable.

Most experience computers through software; it defines relationships, gives meaning.

(5) Software is also how must of us experience the computer. . . . It is software that defines our relationship to the computer, software that gives the computer its meaning. . . . Software is the interface between computer and society.

Software typically considered a consumer good, but is better understood as bundle of systems, services and support, and most software custom produced for particular corporations or institutions; compare to Sterne setting very broad bounds for ensoniment.

(6) Most of us today tend to think of software as a consumer good, a product, a prepackaged application.
(6-7) Historically speaking, however, software was not something that was purchased off-the-shelf, nor was it a single application or product. Rather, it was a bundle of systems, services, and support. . . . To this day, the vast majority of software is custom produced for individual corporations in a process that resembles more the hiring of a management consulting firm than a purchase of a mass-market consumer good.

Tukey introduced distinction between hardware and software a decade into electronic computing; software was unidfferentiated collection of tools, personnel and procedures.

Software exemplary sociotechnological system; John Law heterogeneous engineering.

(7-8) It was not until more than a decade after the development of the first electronic computers that the statistician John Tukey first applied the word software to those elements of a typical computer installation that were not obviously “tubes, transistors, wires, tapes and the like.” . . . The implication was that most users could not or did not distinguish between the elements of the software system: tools, applications, personnel, and procedures were all considered essential elements of the software experience. . . . In this sense, software is an ideal illustration of what the historians and sociologists of technology call a sociotechnical system: that is to say, a system in which machines, people, and processes are inextricably interconnected and interdependent.

Ultimate heterogeneous technology with some aspects that can be generalized and others that are inescapably local and specific.

(8) Software is perhaps the ultimate heterogeneous technology. It exists simultaneously as an idea, language, technology, and practice. . . . Certain aspects of software, such as a sorting algorithm, can be generalized and formalized as mathematical abstractions, while others remain inescapably local and specific, subject to the particular constraints imposed by corporate culture, informal industry standards, or government regulations.

Uses example of computerized accounting system to survey broad aspects of computerization including ancillary parts like reports, studies, training, organizational transformations.

(8) Consider, for example, the aforementioned computerized accounting system. Much of the process of computerizing the accounting department happened without any reference to an actual computer.

Category of software ever expanding with fewer clear narratives of regular, successful historical progress than hardware; apocalyptic rhetoric of looming crises instead of Moores Law optimism.

(9) Software was an ever-expanding category that grew not only in size and scale but also in scope.
(10) Compared to the history of computer hardware, which is characterized by regular and remarkable progress, the history of software is replete with tension, conflict, failure, and disillusionment. . . . Unlike computer hardware, which was constantly becoming smaller, faster, and cheaper, software always seemed to be getting more expensive and less reliable. . . . In an industry characterized by rapid change and innovation, the rhetoric of the software crisis has proven remarkably persistent. The Y2K crisis, the H1-B visa debates, and recent concerns about the loss of programming jobs to India and Pakistan are only the most recent manifestations of the industry's apparent predilection for apocalyptic rhetoric.

Problem is not that software is hard but inherently contested, having unintended side effects for organizations using it.

(10-11) This is perhaps the most significant lesson to be learned from the history of software. There is no Moore's Law for software technology. But the real problem with software is not so much that it is “hard” (as computer scientist Donald Knuth famously declared) but rather that it is inherently contested; the problem was generally not that the software itself did not work but instead that the work that it did do turned out to have undesirable side effects for the organizations that used them. . . . What might on the surface appear to be disagreements about the particular technical challenges associated with software development were in reality local disputes about organizational power and authority and, more significant for the purposes of this book, about the peculiar character of the people involved with software development.

View software crises as socially constructed historical artifacts revealing hidden fault lines with a community or organization.

(11) Rather than treating the software crises as a well-defined and universally understood phenomenon, as they are usually assumed to be in the industry and historical literature, this book considers them as socially constructed historical artifacts. . . . As with all crises, the software crisis can be used to reveal the hidden fault lines within a community: points of tension between groups or individuals, differing perceptions of reality or visions for the future, and subtle hierarchies and structures of power relationships.

Focus on technical specialists who build software and how they constructed their occupational identity.

(12) The focus of the book is on the consultants, analysts, programmers, operators, and other technical specialists who build software, and the ways in which these specialists constructed for themselves a unique occupational identity based on their control over the nascent technology of electronic computing.
(12) The book traces the history of the computer boys as they struggled to establish a role for themselves within traditional organizational, professional, and academic hierarchies. It focuses on the tensions that emerged between the craft-centered practices of vocational programmers, the increasingly theoretical agenda of academic computer science, and the desire of corporate managers to control and routinize the process of software development. It describes the ways in which conflicts within the computing community played out in the development of professional societies, programming languages, computer science curricula, and corporate training and recruitment programs.

Skills of computer specialists combined scientific, technical and business expertise, leading them to take over in corporate, government, politics and society.

(12-13) A central theme of the book is that computer specialists possessed skills and abilities that transcended existing boundaries between scientific, technical, and business expertise. . . . To many observers of the computer revolution of the mid-twentieth century, it seemed as if the computer boys were taking over—not just in the corporate setting but also in government, politics, and society in general.

Computer became tool for management, stirring up organizational structures, and computer specialists became change agents.

(13) Their work brought them into conflict with established networks of power and authority. . . . As the computer transformed from a tool to be managed to a tool for management, computer specialists emerged as powerful “change agents” (to use the management terminology of the era. Faced with this perceived challenge to their occupational territory, traditional white-collar employees attempted to reassert their control over corporate computerization efforts.

Computer user invented by technological innovators as kind of people they expected to use computers.

(13) Finally, this is a book about the invention of the computer user. Historians have long suggested that technological innovators, including the designers of electronic computers, also invent the kind of people they expect to use their innovations.

Computer boys blanket term for postwar technical experts but especially programmers.

(14) In many respects, the term computer boys came to refer more generally not simply to actual computer specialists but rather to the whole host of smart, ambitious, and technologically inclined experts that emerged in the immediate postwar. But computer programmers were the original and exemplary computer boys, and the term programmer was applied by contemporaries to the entire range of specialists involved with computing in this period.

A Brief History of Programming

Women start the story but are quickly subsumed in male dominance of the publishing and conference attending computing field.

Connect to inspiration for Hayles My Mother was a Computer.

(14) The story of computer boys begins, intriguingly enough, with a group of women. These women, generally referred to by contemporaries as the female “human computers” recruited by the male ENIAC engineers/managers to “setup” the general-purpose ENIAC machine to perform specific “plans of computation.”

Ensmenger, Nathan. The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the politics of technical expertise. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010. Print.