The Dirty Bits Traveling Show

April 11, 2016     #research #media

I have been traveling and talking about my new environmental history of computing project a fair bit recently. I am particularly excited about my forthcoming talk at the University of Nevada, Reno. Among other things, Nevada is the home of the Chemetall Foote lithium mine and the still-under-contruction Tesla Gigafactory. The geo-politics of lithium carbonate (as well as of other mineral central to the digital economy) is one of the topics covered in the Dirty Bits book.

The Art of Software Maintenance

April 05, 2016     #research #media

It often surprises my students when I tell them that as much as 60-80% of all software development effort (time and money) goes into software maintenance. After all, software is not a technology that we think of as “breaking down” — at least in the conventional sense of wearing out, needing parts replaced, or requiring a new coat of paint or some additional lubrication. Nevertheless, since the mid-1960s software maintenance has loomed large in the minds (and budgets) of any organization using or developing software systems.

The problem of maintenance is a ubiquitous but neglected element of the history of technology. All complex technological systems eventually break down and require repair (some more so than others), and, in fact, as David Edgerton has suggested, maintenance is probably the central activity of most technological societies.1 But maintenance is also low-status, difficult, tedious and risky. Engineers and inventors do not like maintenance (and therefore generally do not do maintenance), and therefore historians of technology have largely ignored it.

This coming weekend I will be attending The Maintainers: A Conference, a meeting of historians, social scientists, artists, activists, and engineers, all of whom “share an interest in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world.” I will be talking about the history of software maintenance, but the conference program is full of fascinating papers and presentations.

If you happen to be in the vicinity of NYC this weekend, the Stevens Institute of Technology is going to be the place to be!

Update: The public response to the Maintainers conference has been extraordinary and international. The organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell published an essay in Aeon that subsequently got reported on and reposted across the Internet. The conference has also been covered internationally in the French newspaper Le Monde and on Australian national radio.

  1. Edgerton, David. 2007. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Hipster HoC @ SXSW

February 15, 2016     #media

On March 12 at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX, I will be presenting as part of a panel on the untold history of women in computing. If you happen to be in Austin for SXSW, come see our panel Fact Check: Tech Has Never Been Just a Man’s World at 3:30! The venue is sponsored by Capital One, and is located at Antoine’s.

Also, one of my fellow panelists will be the documentary film maker Robin Hauser Reynolds of the fabulous CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, which will be screening at the IU Cinema at 7:30 on Monday, March 7. Robin will be there and will be answering questions afterwards, so this is an excellent opportunity!

Beards, Sandals, and Other Signs of Rugged Individualism

November 10, 2015     #publications

One of the most far-reaching and influential aspects of my research on the labor history of computing has been my work on women in computing. In a recent article entitled “Beards, Sandals, and Other Signs of Rugged Individualism”: Masculine Culture within the Computing Professions, published in Osiris, the annual journal of the History of Science Society, I explore the flip-side of this history: namely, on the ways in which male programmers constructed both a professional and a masculine identity for themselves. I am thrilled to have this article finally available, in part because it has been years in the making (the original workshop on scientific masculinities hosted by Osiris was in 2012), but also because this research is so relevant to contemporary phenomenon.

2015 SIGCIS Keynote

October 06, 2015     #research

I was pleased to be asked to present this year’s keynote address at the annual Special Interest Group for Computers, Information and Society workshop. The theme this year was on infrastructures and so was a perfect fit for my new project on the global environmental history of computing.

The goal of this project is to explore the physical infrastructure that makes our online interactions possible, and to suggest that “computer power” is more than just a metaphor. From Bitcoin “mines” to server “farms” to data “warehouses,” computing requires the input of a range of materials and resources, from lithium and rare earth elements to coal, oil, gas, and uranium. Just as with more traditional forms of technological and industrial development, the information economy can be resource-intensive, pollution-producing, and potentially damaging to the environment, to humans, and to social and political relationships. In the SIGCIS presentation of this material, I outlined several approaches to integrating the methods and insights of environmental history into the history of computing.

For more information about this project and its future research agenda, see the Dirty Bits project site.

Historicizing Masculinities Colloquium

May 05, 2015     #media

On May 20, 2015 I will be presenting my work on the history of masculinity in the computing professions at the UCLA Historicizing Masculinities Colloquium.