Computer programmer Margaret Hamilton sits in mock up of Apollo command module on display at MIT, where she headed group that programmed Intrepid’s moon landing.
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book review / science

Computers Were Supposed to Be Good

Joy Lisi Rankin’s book on the history of personal computing looks at the technology’s forgotten democratic promise.
“The Silicon Valley ideal,” Joy Lisi Rankin writes in A People’s History of Computing in the United States, “venerates grand men with grand ideas.” This narrative, she argues, is widely accepted as the status quo. According to an elite cabal of Bay Area billionaires and a group of sympathetic tech journalists, the birth of personal computing in the mid-1970s and the social experiences of computing in the ’90s can be neatly attributed to the ingenuity of a few brilliant men.

Rankin contends that the myth of a “digital America dependent on the work of a handful of male tech geniuses” detracts from computing’s initial democratic promise: a project made by civilians for civilians. Society’s optimism about technology has waned, but some can’t help but valorize self-made men. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is a case in point: He’s still celebrated by some as a visionary and self-made billionaire (never mind that he is said to have roamed the streets of New York with emeralds from his father’s mine in his pocket), even as his boorishness has damaged his business. Tesla’s price has tanked as Musk’s Twitter conniptions have led to SEC fines, and a recent, bewildering appearance on the libertarian-leaning podcast The Joe Rogan Experience left some people questioning his judgment.

Anyone who spends time in the Bay Area will begin to see how intoxicating—and damaging—the forces of tech triumphalism and boosterism can be. Last year, in San Francisco’s Mission District, where the tech boom’s effects of displacement are most acute, tenants’-rights activists blockaded tech-company shuttles with smoke bombs and a mountain of discarded, on-demand e-scooters. Still, the narrative of the plucky entrepreneur panders to our economic self-regard, as well as to preconceived notions of who drives technological change. The tech industry is hardly the first to be seduced by the myths of its own exceptionalism or of male genius. But as Rankin argues, the persistence of these myths obscures a more intriguing history of technological development in the United States.
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