Take Back the Net: Joy Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States

Should I post a tough parenting question on Twitter, ask my Facebook community, or email a few friends who are most likely to have useful suggestions? What would be the best place to reach people to share an intriguing job announcement? These days, we have a multitude of network options, and we assume that computers will facilitate our networked communities. Until I read Joy Lisi Rankin’s new book, A People’s History of Computing in the United States (Harvard University Press, 2018), I assumed I should attribute all these ways of connecting with my communities to the work of Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the self-proclaimed Silicon Valley heroes who have taken credit for our increasingly networked world.

A People’s History of Computing in the United States by Joy Lisi Rankin. (Harvard University Press)

Rankin shows, in contrast, 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.” And with the insight provided by Rankin’s carefully-wrought historical arguments, we can begin to imagine a future in which we will once again claim our computing citizenship.

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 punchcards, physically deliver the stack of punchcards to the computer’s staff, and wait while their punchcards 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.

Replica of the Zuse Z3 in the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. (Venusianer/Wikimedia Commons)

In the early 1960s, professors at MIT and Dartmouth College came up with an ingenious new way to handle computation: a central computer could be attached to several teletype terminals and run programs input from those terminals in parallel. This was called “time-sharing.” The effect for an individual sitting at a terminal was much like having a personal computer.

Additionally, and importantly, unlike the personal computers that would make waves in the 1980s, the terminals were inherently networked. Teletype terminals could be installed remotely and communicate with the computer via telephone lines. From the beginning, the creators of these networks considered the many ways that users might communicate with each other, giving sophisticated descriptions networks’ multifarious potential. Rankin demonstrates that the creators of computing networks in the early 1960s already understood that networks would be capable of having the functions that we now know as email, message boards, and screen sharing.

As Rankin shows, these networked computer systems of the 1960s supported creative, collaborative communities of student and hobbyist programmers. One crucial network node was Dartmouth College, and another was University High School in Minneapolis. Educators at both institutions propelled the development of wide computing networks that included colleges and high schools, and tens of thousands of students.

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

From professors John Kemeny and Tom Kurtz at Dartmouth came BASIC, a programming language that was revolutionary in its focus on accessibility. The point of the language was that anyone could quickly learn how to make simple programs and take advantage of the power and fun of computing. (Anyone like me who grew up in the era of BASIC will appreciate the book’s tremendously clever cover art. I had a vivid flashback to fifth grade when I looked at it.) From Minnesota came the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a platform for the development of interactive, educational games, the most famous of which is The Oregon Trail. Networked communities of users created message boards to trade tips, jokes, and complaints as they programmed.

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.

The ideals reflected in these computing networks reflected values of the 1960s counterculture. Computing services were available free to students affiliated with the institutions that owned the computers, and the network developers envisioned a future in which networked computing would be a public utility much like telephone lines. The hardware and software was developed to prioritize ease of use by ordinary people. Managers of interactions on the networks tried to foster an egalitarian sense of inclusiveness. Bob Albrecht, another enthusiastic proponent of BASIC, created the newspaper The People’s Computer Company, replete with irreverent jokes and funny cartoons. Rankin includes a tongue-in-cheek illustration from Albrecht’s publication showing a 1960s-style march with protesters carrying signs saying “BASIC is the people’s language!” and “Use computers for people, not against them!” (p. 98).

In the 1980s and 1990s, personal computers replaced time-sharing networks. The community-oriented, public-good nature of computing was replaced, too, with a consumer-oriented computing that required individuals to finance their own participation, and simultaneously left them isolated within the privacy of individual personal computer ownership.

Networks, of course, took off again in the late 1990s, and today they define computing for most of us. Today’s networks, though, are run by private companies, and we are computing consumers. The network scandals and disasters of the last few years have left many people wondering if computer networks like Facebook ought to be regulated, and perhaps treated as public utilities. These feel like radical new ideas to most people. But Rankin shows us that these are not, in fact, novel possibilities; they are embedded in the origins of popular computing. If we grasp the obscured origin story Rankin reveals, and treat it as inspiration for the future, we may yet find a way to become computing citizens once again.

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