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Take Back the Net: Joy Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States #WomenInSTEM @larafreidenfeld @nursingclio

Women holding parts of the first four Army computers. ( Historic Computer Images/Wikimedia Commons)

Via Nursing Clio: Lara Freidenfelds discusses A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Rankin. (Harvard University Press)

Rankin shows that it was the hippie ‘60s and ‘70s, not the corporate and consumerist ‘80s and ‘90s, that first gave shape and possibility to connectedness via computing. She gives us a new origin story for computer-based connectedness, anchored in the worlds of college and high school education and student participation rather than Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. In this origin story, ordinary Americans were “computing citizens” before Silicon Valley turned us into “computing consumers.”

As Rankin describes, early postwar computers, while stunning innovations, were inaccessible to most of the world, and inconvenient even to those who were permitted to use them. These gigantic mainframes lived in major research universities and government research offices. Anyone who wanted to run a program on one of them had to translate their program into punch cards, physically deliver the stack of punch cards to the computer’s staff, and wait while their punch cards were batched with those of other programmers so that the computer’s time would be used efficiently. If the program returned an error, the disappointed programmer would take the punchcards home to debug and try again, perhaps weeks later. In this setup, the computer’s time was treated as much more valuable than the programmer’s.

A Sweet Briar student using an early computer in the Mary Helen Cochran Library, 1982. (Mary Helen Cochran Library/Flickr)
A Sweet Briar student using an early computer in the Mary Helen Cochran Library, 1982. (Mary Helen Cochran Library/Flickr)

There is a resurgence in documenting the role of women in programming and maintaining computers.

These networked communities were not utopias; Rankin gives a sensitive description of the ways in which 1960s gender norms played out as users interacted. Macho Dartmouth men used their computing prowess to impress their Mount Holyoke dates. On PLATO, female users sometimes complained of harassment. (Archive nerds will especially appreciate Rankin’s use of several years’ worth of preserved message board exchanges to document community interactions.) Still, these were vibrant communities in which women found ways to make their mark.

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