The Cultural Myths of the Early Computer (and How They Shape the Conversation Today)

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Di Minardi

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By looking at the early history of personal computers and the myths that rose around them, we can be more critical of messaging from tech and media companies today.

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  • Early computer users at the Marin County Computer Center in California Early computer users at the Marin County Computer Center in California
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“There’s a mythology that computers would kind of save the world,” said Kera Allen, a Ph.D. student in Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology. “And whether it's true or not, it's a powerful rhetoric around the power of the computer.” 

In her final year in the History and Sociology of Technology and Science (HSTS) doctoral program, Allen is writing her dissertation on the early adoption of the personal computer in the 1970s and 80s and the cultural myths that rose around it.  

What surprised her most, she said, was how pervasive the idea was at the time. For example, she found that women in the Soviet Bloc believed computers could propel them to a better life in the same way that Black Americans in parts of the U.S. did. In her dissertation, Allen narrowed her focus to three case studies in Tunisia, Marin County, California, and Oak Park, Sacramento. 

 

Common narratives

First, she examined The Rockefeller Foundation’s decision to send two computers to Tunisia to help its Ministry of Agriculture analyze data on their food crisis. The Foundation likened it to Prometheus bringing fire to the Greeks and speculated the computers would do more good than sending food or seeds or money would. (They didn’t.)  

Then, Allen studied a personal computer center in Marin County, California, that provided an immersive world for people to interact with computers for the first time. The owners, David and Annie Fox, wanted to counter fears people may have had from watching movies like “Westworld” with killer androids or hearing about weaponized computer use in the military. They chose aesthetically pleasing computers in blue and walnut and were “almost religious,” said Allen, in the way they proclaimed computers would be a force for good in every home.  

Finally, she investigated Ida Sydnor’s alternative school program for Black children in Oak Park, Sacramento. Sydnor had noticed a digital divide in early computer access between Black and white children and started the program to ensure the kids in her community wouldn’t miss out on the opportunities she knew computers would provide. 

In all three accounts, the narrative is the same: portable personal computers would change lives and the world for the better. However, Allen sees something bleaker today, where computers are often used to reinforce the status quo rather than disrupt it. 

“There could be a world where everyone had access, and everyone was able to use computers for good, but that didn't really happen,” said Allen. There’s still promising tech and reasons for hope, she said, but “I do think mostly what we get, especially with technology in Silicon Valley, is an alignment with dominant hierarchies that are already in place.”  

 

Learning from the past

Allen likens the narrative around early personal computers to the mythos around artificial intelligence (AI) today: yes, it may save us from climate change or take us to the stars, but it also has plenty of ethical problems and built-in biases. And search algorithms are another concern, she said. In the book Algorithms of Oppression, author Safiya Umoja Noble found that search results for the term “Black girls” were much more negative than when she searched for “white girls.” But despite research like this, “there's still a lot of mythology and rhetoric around those algorithms that is very hopeful and very, like, ‘You know, these things are going to change our world,’’’ said Allen. “And I don't know about that.” 

So, Allen hopes her research can add more nuance to the conversation. By looking at the early history of personal computers and the myths that rose around them, we can be more critical of messaging from tech and media companies today that promise AI or search algorithms or any other new type of technology will save us from the problems that plague us. 

“In Silicon Valley, there’s lots of venture capital for things that aren’t profitable or don’t have revenue, and it's interesting to compare where we are now with where we were 30 or 40 years ago,” said Allen. “It’s the same rhetoric. And I hope through reading or learning my research, people will be more critical of the kind of mythological thinking around computers and computing technology and think about where we can go in the future that doesn't necessarily have to be ‘Oh, computers are perfect and will save us.’” 

The School of History and Sociology seeks to explore the past, engage the present, and define my future. Follow us on FacebookLinkedInInstagram, and Twitter to keep up with our students, school news, and upcoming events! 

 

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Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, School of History and Sociology

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  • Created By: dminardi3
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  • Created On: Oct 26, 2021 - 12:07pm
  • Last Updated: Nov 18, 2021 - 8:53am