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Janet Abbate

We are told that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This is certainly true of the history of computing, at least as far as its telling is concerned.

The tragedy of the history of computing was focusing on the parts where men were the heroes. In the 1940s, computers were built by such giants as Alan Turing (even this is not true: the giants of Colossus were Bill Tutte, Max Newman, and Tommy Flowers), Konrad Zuse, J. Presper Eckert, John Mauchly, and Jon von Neumann. Mysteriously, nobody seemed to do any programming for them until decades later, when more great men came along: Backus, Dijkstra, Knuth, Wirth, Naur, and of course the even greater men like Fred Brooks who managed them to their successes.

The farce came when addressing the gender discrimination of computing was attempted not by making any repairs to the education system, to the workplace, to the culture of gendered roles of work, but by peppering the names of the great women of computing into this history. Take the same story, add women, and stir. Male speakers would rattle off lists of names of female contributors to their male audiences to show how far we had come: I know who Ada Lovelace was! And Grace Hopper! Kateryna Yuschenko! Katherine Johnson! Karen Spärck Jones! I know about as many names of women computer scientists as men whose first name is Steve, I am an ally!

Those who read the work from which that “history repeats itself” quote is paraphrased, Karl Marx’s “XVIII Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, will know that it also contains the following indictment of the “great man” view of history. Our Turings, Dijkstras, even our Hoppers and Lovelaces are not actors independent of history who saw some prophetic vision of how the world can be. They are normal members of the societies they lived in, who swept along in and contributed to the currents of history flowing around them.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Thus the true history of computing is not that there were no computers until Turing invented computers, and there were no worthwhile computers until Jobs invented the polyvinyl carbonate box with a keyboard on top. It is the history of the people who were making circuits with the thermionic valves already in use as radio amplifiers. It is the history of the people who plugged cables into breadboards to change the function of the computers. It is the history of the people who mail-ordered a Science of Cambridge MK14 home and played with it—or maybe never got around to playing with it.

That someone created JavaScript is immaterial. That millions of people decided to get jobs that other people decided to call “front-end software engineers” and make things that billions of people use to order pizza, rig elections, and send cat pictures to their nieces: now that is history in the making!

Janet Abbate uncovers that story in Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing.** This is the history of the people who were involved in computing, and how their preconceptions of what different genders were capable of advanced or retarded their contribution to this developing field. Starting with the second world war, when all programmers were women because the interesting stuff was the maths and engineering, moving through the twentieth century when the computer boys take over as they notice that there is interesting maths and engineering in that there programming stuff that they would like to take the credit for themselves.

The peak year for women studying computer science was 1984 (37% of CS grads were women). At around the same time, women were pioneering in the field of remote-working contract programmers, and in some cases (notably Steve Shirley) being found to violate workplace equal opportunities laws by creating jobs that suited the gendered expectations of women as homemakers and full-time parent.

Since women pioneered in the field of programming (Betty Snyder invented the first program that wrote another program, giving Grace Hopper the idea for the compiler), managers have had the idea that the work of programming the computer must be a simple rote exercise that can be reduced to mechanistic work, even automated away by another computer. Taking the history of computing as a whole, Github Copilot is the latest embarrassing failure in nearly a century of “automatic programming” development: an embarrassment that tries to hide the huge amounts of manual effort (from workers of all genders) that has gone into creating the so-called automatic program. Every time the managers of the industry pointed at the computer as an electronic brain that was programming itself, the curtain would be swept aside to reveal the programmers who wrote the program that wrote the program.

This has been a needfully brief tour of the ideas in a very short, very important book. Recoding Gender is part of the MIT Press History of Computing series, along with Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing by Mar Hicks. To understand why we are here today, read these books and learn how we got here.

Cover photo by the author.

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