Countering the Silicon Valley Mythology and Computing Citizenship

Rankin tells a history of digital culture that counters the usual origin story that is the Silicon Valley mythology. One that starts with large, remote, room-sized mainframe machines and is followed by the development on the personal computers by white men tinkering in their garages in the San Francisco bay area, then by the Internet and then another round of white men who start and develop the “fiefdoms of Silicon Valley.” Following Howard Zinn’s example in his, A People’s History of the United States, Rankin attempts to tell a bottom up history of computing, from the user up. Like Zinn, she attempts to tell a history “not about Founding Fathers and presidents, captains of industry, war heroes, and other influential white men, instead, featured people rarely seen or heard in synthetic or textbook history.” While Rankin openly acknowledges that the subjects she discusses could be considered elite, she still sees it as a counter narrative. She also touches on the evolution of computing in a space that was primarily white, male and affluent and that, in many ways, reinforced gendered expectations, racism, and stereotypes. However, she only touches the surface here and falls short of the depth of the strategy that Zinn employs. What results is still a story of primarily white men, in privileged positions and spaces. I would have like to have understood the Kiewit Computation Center at Dartmouth, for example, from the perspective of a women working there (she does share this a bit, but not primarily) or an African American or other non-white student – a deeper nod to the strategy of Zinn’s People’s History.

Rankin also emphasizes this state of “computing citizenship” — a culture of sharing for collaborative and communal goals and network access conceived of as a civic project. Both of which were critical qualities to Kurtz and Kemeny’s Dartmouth Time-Sharing System. How might ideas about good computing citizenship inform how we develop digital tools and platform in a time when our phones and watches are computers and we are constantly connected to and engaging the network? Do we have communal goals outside of enclaves like schools and universities? Zinn asserts that “nations are not communities.” How do we regain a collaborative spirit in a market that is driven by intellectual property rights and patents?

Computing Culture in Rankin’s book

A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Rankin takes a contrasting historical approach to the founding of the computer. Most historic retellings tend to focus on the founding of large tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, DARPA, and other organizations. Rankin begins the historical approach by starting with thinking about the role of Universities and students were valuable in the exploration in creating a networked system of computing. Rankin’s main argument is the book, ” highlights the centrality of education- at all levels – as a site of creativity, collaboration, and innovation” (11). This statement demonstrates how she intended to focus on how technology in the education systems was directly pushing and changing the field. What is most beneficial about this account is that it shows how the education system was helping to transform and restructure a computing field. Chapter two was the most insightful on the education system in computing was a discussion on the computing culture. In the section, it clearly shows that the field was mainly for white males and people of a specific class. Dartmouth the institution that she refers to in the texts is viewed as a privileged place and has invaluable resources. What was also interesting was the fact that a computing center on campus was created to allow students to explore more areas in the field. In many ways, the culture and environment hindered women and people of color from being active in the field of computing. I think this is something that is underlying in Rankin’s account. That the universities helped bring about change in the area, but this history and journey were missing other voices and participants. What I found most interesting was how people tried to invalidate Rankin’s historical accounts when she started speaking out about her sexual harassment experiences and even questioning the PLATO stories presented in the book. I found it harmful that they are willing to discredit her views to project one story or opinion. The book demonstrates the importance of all voices and perspectives considered in these technical fields like computing.

Rankin’s Social Networks

Joy Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States offers a compellingly annotated alternative history of the earliest days of American computing. The author makes use of a variety of scholarly, archival, and primary resources in order to construct an argument against the popular and prevailing myth of the Silicon Valley genius. Rankin does not discount the impact of Kay or Gates or Jobs, but presents a cogent narrative regarding the use of computers from the perspective of “the students and educators who built and used academic computing networks, then known as time-sharing systems, during the 1960s and 1970s” (3). Such students and educators, then, make up the majority of Rankin’s cast of characters and little-known historical figures—figures like Tom Kurtz and John Kemeny, who were instrumental in the development of the first time-sharing network at Dartmouth, as well as the development of the BASIC programming language; figures like Donald Bitzer at the University of Illinois, who along with his team at the Coordinated Science Laboratory, developed the PLATO computer system; figures like Janet Price, Diane Hills, Diane Mather, and many other women working in the Kiewit computer center at Dartmouth as “application programmers, operators, technical librarians, computer program coordinators, and secretaries” (51); figures like the football-playing, or FOOTBALL-playing, undergraduates of Dartmouth, alongside their counterparts at the University of Illinois, and the University of Minnesota; and figures like the boys and girls of such universities’ surrounding middle and high schools.

Rankin’s overall approach is one which narrativizes the characterization of these figures. Names continue to pop up from chapter to chapter as individuals reappear in the history; influences travel along networks composed, not of mere telephone wires carrying time-sharing signals, but of growing dozens, hundreds, and thousands of “computing citizens.” Inasmuch as hers is one of computing itself, Rankin’s history is a record of what we would now consider to be the earliest forms of digital social networking.

The culmination of this approach is found in Rankin’s seventh chapter, cleverly entitled “PLATO’s Republic (or, the Other ARPANET)” (193). In this section, Rankin takes a deep dive into the remarkably well-preserved records of social communication on the PLATO time-sharing system during the first half of the 1970s. As it turns out, in spite of the popular notion of its unique sovereignty over the earliest days of the modern Internet, the ARPA behind ARPANET also funded a similar network linking PLATO computer systems around the country (202-203). Rankin uses this lesser-known historical environment in order to survey the lesser-known interactions among its computing citizenry. Within the PLATO network archives, Rankin uncovers, and forms a narrative dialogue through, early incidents of networked computer hacking (or “file stompings” [215]), in-jokes (221), development drama regarding the aestheticization of the login screen (223-224), disagreement over the role of games and gameplaying within the PLATO network (226-227), as well as instance after instance of the all too familiar harassment and belittlement of women (217ff.). This chapter seems to me to represent the core of Rankin’s approach. It delves into the most fundamental human applications of the technologies, in order to characterize them not by their processors, circuitry, or resolution (although each of these gets its due), but by the ways their citizenry used them, discussed through them, and debated about them.

Debunking the Silicon Valley Mythology: A Possible History

Rankin’s account of the history of computing within the U.S. grabs its form and method of inquiry from Zinn’s groundbreaking work that takes an untraditional path through the history of the U.S. Like Zinn, Rankin neglects the traditional forefathers, geniuses, and pioneers situated within the mythologies of computing to delve into the activities of “computing citizens”–those who used and maintained time-sharing networks at places like K-12 schools or universities. Her goal is not to dismiss the work of historians who have produced meaningful business/genius-centered accounts of computing history, however she admits that these histories, without the incorporation of the larger society outside of computing professionals, do a disservice to computing citizens who engaged heavily in networked scenarios. Rankin expresses an awareness of the more elite status that these predominantly white computing citizens held (as students, researchers, and educators), and insists that their contributions were critical and should be part of the history. Rankin’s method for exploring the work of computing citizens is to highlight pieces of the Silicon Valley mythology that are wrong or historically inaccurate, using stories to debunk the myth. An emphasis on this mythology supports her overarching argument and recurring theme of the societal loss of computing citizenship, and our current status as consumers at the mercy of geniuses rather than as the citizens of computing that we once were.

I think of technological determinism as I read Rankin’s account of computing history. The Silicon Valley mythology often places technology over agency, as referenced in Rankin’s point about the myth of internet access being the premier reason behind today’s networked society. Placing the emphasis back on the social contexts that technology existed within, and the ways that people were using technology reminds me of Gitelman’s approach to recounting history. Relationships between Gitelman’s conversation on media publics and users and Rankin’s computing citizens also come to mind.

To me, this history is still of the successes and innovations of privileged white male scholars, who are simply not the widely known faces of computing innovation. Most of the books chapters talked about their contributions, which thrived due to the support of foundations (such as the NSF) which often funded the research of white, affluent scholars at a similar group of institutions. While Rankin’s intent is not to provide an exhaustive history, but to create the space where computing histories outside of the digital Founding Fathers can be told, it would have been fruitful to spend some part of the book on networked computing efforts outside of these prestigious male schools. That being noted, I choose to say “yes” to her dedication to exploring the erasure of women’s contributions in these spaces, their battle to maintain digital citizenship in the face of a male dominated culture, and the gendering of certain technologies. Rankin’s positioning of her book as “a history, one possible out of many” still leaves the door open for historians to unearth a more inclusive story.

Individual Computing

Focusing on the periphery people ignored by the mainstream history rather than the Founding Fathers and the Great White Men, Rankin followed the basic structure of Zinn’s approach but altered with confidence that people in her book shall not be elites. Instead, the focus of her book is educational institutions and their participation during the dramatic change from room-size IBM workstation to powerful personal computing devices. She coined the term “computing citizen,” the people who have access to the time-sharing network, to replace the end users in order to emphasize the collective intelligence that shown in the process of creating our today’s digital world.

Early on her introduction, she talked about the users in her own terms and elaborated such concept in Chapter 1 where she rediscovered the importance of the people in this newly published book. Digging deep to find out the transition of computing power from institutional labs to empowered individuals, Rankin examined a top-down approach by the Dartmouth professors Kemeny and Kurtz in “demystifying the computational power and make it practical for users” ( 2018, p 33). Besides this magnificent example of Dartmouth, Rankin’s other examples such as the BASIC language pounded me like a manifesto, vividly stating “one for all and all for one” to me in this personal computing era.

However, despite the fact that her restlessly effort in building her arguments and her inclusive examples to create a more generic approach, I would still consider her book to have room for improvements because the “users” described in her book are not fundamentally different from garage hobbyist, eccentric entrepreneurs or military-funded scientists. Elite professors and students from private and public research institution can be as creative as others with the same resources.

One related concept that crushed my mind after reading this book is the haphazard and inevitability of history. Given such momentum after the breakthroughs in the 1960s, it was sure that, if not Dartmouth, somewhere would create an accessible coding language for the students. On the other hand, the location of the historical process is haphazard. The book described such a process that professors and students realized such momentum of the history to create some wow moments. I also thought that Moore’s Law would have a place in here that she might want to describe what’s the environment was during the 1960s and 1970s

Rankin’s approach is comfortable because it built the arguments and sections gradually instead of leaping to conclusion too fast. It is easily-written and well-thought with relevant examples throughout the book. I enjoyed the reading process and learned how the educational institution could spark fires in our digital era, but I would still consider it as left-wing liberalism thought that based on the elites. The characters were refreshing, but the scope was nevertheless confirmed in a traditional historical analysis approach. I am also interested in her side-walks that she discussed the political extension of the computing citizen.