A Social history of Computing
December 4, 2020 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Hi, AskMe. :) This is going to be kind of broad, but I'm wondering if anyone has resources about the adoption of computers over the past few decades. Books or articles preferred, I don't get as much from video content.

I'm just fascinated by how computers went from giant mainframe machines to things which are able to fit in a pocket. How did the Internet/online services come into the "mainstream, what was the reaction or experience like?" I'd be interested in first-person accounts, detailed descriptions, anything anybody is able to provide. I realize this is open to a lot of interpretations but I'd love to find out what exists out there.
posted by Alensin to Computers & Internet (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The works of Sherry Turkle would be one good place to start.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:38 PM on December 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

This is looking at a fairly narrow slice, both culturally and temporally, but you might be interested in In the Age of the Smart Machine, by Shoshana Zuboff. She focuses on the transition from paper-based records and manual controls to digital records and computer-mediated control, and how people adapted to those changes. The book is fairly old at this point, but should still be interesting. Some of her other writing might be relevant as well.
posted by adamrice at 12:39 PM on December 4, 2020

The quest to democratize computing surely starts in 1964 with BASIC. There's a book if you want a deep dive.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:46 PM on December 4, 2020

The two standard big histories:

A History of Modern Computing by Paul Ceruzzi

Computer: A History of the Information Machine by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray

Both are comprehensive and well-written. My favorite is Ceruzzi. Cambell-Kelly and Aspray emphasize the earlier history and have a lot of interesting material on pre-electronic data processing in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Another book which is more journalistic and worshipful to its subjects but still covers a lot of important history:

The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal by M. Mitchell Waldrop

All three books emphasize the 1950s through the 1970s, when modern computing took shape: mainframes to minicomputers to microcomputers, batch to timesharing to personal computers, and the beginnings of computer networks. The first two books have recent editions that cover the beginnings of the web.
posted by JonJacky at 12:55 PM on December 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Soul of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder is a terrific non-fiction account of the early days of micro computing and the people who were behind it.
posted by General Malaise at 12:57 PM on December 4, 2020 [6 favorites]

The Soul of A New Machine is a pretty interesting non-fiction book about the development of a microcomputer in the early 1980s, just as computers were transitioning from room-sized machines into PCs. The focus is more on the development of a computer than the wider social impact, but it has lots of very detailed descriptions of what it was like to design and build computers back then, what they were capable of, who used them, etc.
posted by TurnKey at 12:58 PM on December 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I will never tire of recommending “Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing” by Mar Hicks. Very focused on the UK from 1950-80, but covers the gender shift away from women in tech over that time.
posted by scruss at 1:04 PM on December 4, 2020

John Markoff's What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry and Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism both have a lot of useful and interesting information about the conceptual, social and technological innovations that produced personal computing and brought it into the mainstream.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:29 PM on December 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

Soul of a New Machine is written about my dad.

This is a little on the later side but "In the Beginning Was the Command Line" longish essay/short book by Neal Stephenson is very readable. I haven't read When Computing Got Personal: A history of the desktop computer but it's on my long "to read" list along with Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet
posted by jessamyn at 1:50 PM on December 4, 2020 [10 favorites]

Seconding The Dream Machine.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late is good, but IMO Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet covers the same topic better (more technical detail, better analysis of the political conflicts that led to the internet in its current form).
posted by ripley_ at 3:20 PM on December 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Joy Rankin's recent book A People's History of Computing in the United States is really good.
posted by EllaEm at 3:52 PM on December 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

This might be slightly oblique to what you're looking for, but Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch is a recent book that looks at the unique ways language is used on the internet. I thought of it in answer to your question because there is a long chapter which discusses the adoption of the internet by different generations at different ages at different times, and how that shaped the way they use the internet in their lives.
posted by mekily at 5:11 PM on December 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Here's an answer that may seem orthogonal to your question but I think may not actually be: The New Hacker's Dictionary, by Eric S. Raymond. (Link is to the 1996 edition, but there are several editions, including some that are free and/or online.)

Because I have an interest in words and etymology, and an interest in specialized reference books, I once read this book cover-to-cover (in multiple sittings!). In doing that, and reading the stories behind all kinds of computer terminology, I learned more about computers and computing than I ever have from any other single text. It's a really lively book, honestly.
posted by Dr. Wu at 5:25 PM on December 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I hate to be pedantic, but Soul Of A New Machine has nothing to do with microcomputers. The book is about the birth of the Data General Eclipse, a mini-computer released in the late 1960s. It’s a thoroughly engaging account of the design and manufacturing process.

Much more relevant to the history of the microcomputer is Steven Levy’s Hackers, surely the ur-text of the social and technical changes that led to modern computing and the one that many of the books mentioned here advance from.
posted by lhauser at 6:44 PM on December 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America by Paul Edwards is a deliberate counter-history to the more conventional histories I recommended upthread.

Research and development in computing was dominated by the military from the 1940s through the early 1960s and they have continued to have a big role and strong influence ever since, especially in some specialities, notably artificial intelligence. This fact is soft-pedaled in many histories; this book confronts it directly. It coniders how military thinking and computing have influenced each other, and how both have influenced politics, ideas, and even pop culture. It is heavy going compared to the other books recommended in this thread, but is thorough on important matters that are not discussed elsewhere.
posted by JonJacky at 9:29 PM on December 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

A Brief History of the Future by John Naughton is eminently readable, thoroughly engrossing, and doesn't require any technical knowledge.

It's very hard to understand the progress of computers without understanding at least a bit about the internet, the world wide web, and generally how computers are interconnected. This will tell you that story in a very human way.
posted by underclocked at 8:37 AM on December 5, 2020

Seconding Hackers. When I had Steve Wozniak sign my copy he said that it was the most accurate of any book he had read about that time period.
posted by Wild_Eep at 1:31 PM on December 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

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