Building the information society: A history of computing as a mass medium
The history of computing has often been told as a succession of paradigms (mainframes, time-sharing, personal computing, and networking), driven mainly by the technical processes of miniaturization and Moore's Law. Each of these models for the organization of computer systems, however, was simultaneously a model for the politics and social relations of a coming information society. The replacement of one model with another owed not only to technological changes, but also to changes in the political and cultural landscape, which shaped ideas about how computer technology could and should be brought to a mass audience.
In the early 1960s, on the basis of the new technology of computer time sharing, a utopian vision of a universal “computer utility” emerged. It was to be developed with the aid of planning on a national scale and deliver computing and information services into homes and offices from centralized machines. That vision faced institutional, political, and technical obstacles in the United States, and was eventually replaced by a more individualistic vision of mass computing centered around the personal computer and, later, the Internet. The political and institutional environment of France, on the other hand, allowed the utility model to briefly flourish there. By the 1990s, however, France, due to its imitation of American industrial and telecommunications policy, also embraced the decentralized, personal computing/Internet model.
The history of computing is not a simple story of the replacement of a remote, authoritarian computer centers with democratic personal computing. The computer utility vision mixed large-scale systems and military sponsorship with an emphasis on empowering individuals. It also, therefore, calls into question histories of technology that inscribe a sharp fault line between the technological approach of the establishment and that of its its opponents. This fault line cannot be dispensed with altogether—a belief in its existence was essential to the self-fashioning of the personal computing community. An even more significant fault line, however, cut across time rather than across society, dividing the widespread belief in institutions and systems of the 1960s from the 1970s libertarian reaction.
0337: American history
0585: Science history
0708: Mass communications