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26 March 2015

A clichéd history of computing

Location: Meeting Room 10, 2nd Floor, JLB
Time: 12:30pm - 13:45pm
Speaker(s): James Sumner

It’s often seen as the historical scholar’s job to get away from the clichéd narratives and unsubstantiated received ideas of folk history. Yet clichés themselves deserve historical analysis to understand the aims and methods of their promoters, and the policy outcomes of their entrenchment. My paper applies this approach in considering how electronic computers were presented to, and interpreted by, non-specialist audiences from the 1940s onwards. A wide range of sources presented the technology as unstoppably revolutionary and iconically new – with paradoxical consistency – for well over three decades. Occasionally, therefore, computing served as a blank slate for new social, economic or educational manifestos. In practice, this rarely happened, as a smallish set of received understandings and explanatory approaches circulated and recirculated. Some clichés had origins in wider conversations, such as the longstanding fear of unemployment and deskilling; others were promoted by the industry itself, notably the GIGO (“garbage in, garbage out”) principle which was deployed to position the technology as a neutral instrument. Some encapsulations were transient, such as Leon Bagrit’s “automation” crusade of the 1960s, while some presentational features seemed inviolable: the remorseless tendency to explain binary arithmetic, to all audiences for all purposes, persisted for half a century. I will consider how much of this cliché reproduction was due to conscious shared aims, and how much to simple convention, and will also offer the beginnings of an attempt to evaluate its influence, via policy determinations, on real-world change. BIO: James Sumner is Lecturer in History of Technology at the University of Manchester. His research in the history of computing usually focuses on British cultural contexts, and has included work on the early promotional rhetoric of British computer manufacturers and the assimilation of the 1980s IBM PC-compatible platform. He has a strong interest in engaging with public audiences about historical research (for various values of “public”), and is currently involved in co-supervising a project with colleagues at the Museum of Science and Industry on the museum presentation of historic sites.

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Contact: mailto:paul.piwek@open.ac.uk