Computer History – the pitfalls of past futures
Preprint by David Gugerli and Daniela Zetti
The historicization of the computer in the second half of the 20th century can be understood as the effect of the inevitable changes in both its technological and narrative development. What interests us is how past futures and therefore history were stabilized. The development, operation, and implementation of machines and programs gave rise to a historicity of the field of computing. Whenever actors have been grouped into communities – for example, into industrial and academic developer communities – new orderings have been constructed historically. Such orderings depend on the ability to refer to archival and published documents and to develop new narratives based on them. Professional historians are particularly at home in these waters – and nevertheless can disappear into the whirlpool of digital prehistory. Toward the end of the 1980s, the first critical review of the literature on the history of computers thus offered several programmatic suggestions. It is one of the peculiar coincidences of history that the future should rear its head again just when the history of computers was flourishing as a result of massive methodological and conceptual input. The emergence of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, which caught historians totally by surprise, led to an ahistorical, anthropological, aesthetic-medial approach to digitization. The program for investigating the prehistory of the digital age was rewritten in favor of explaining the development of communication networks. Computer systems and their concepts dropped out of history. This poses a problem for the history of computers, insofar as the success of the history of technology is tied to the stability of its objects. It seems more promising to us to not attribute the problem to the object called computer or to the “disciplinary” field, but rather to focus entirely on substantive issues. An issue-oriented technological history of the 21st century should be able to do this by treating the history of computers as a refreshing source of productive friction.