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Exploring the early digital
Haigh T., Springer International Publishing, New York, NY, 2019. 243 pp.  Type: Book (978-3-030021-51-1)
Date Reviewed: Feb 7 2020

Early digital is the theme proffered here as an alternative to computers, or even the larger framework of computing, to understand computer history during the formative period of digitizing information. The work is in line with a host of related studies that decenter the computer by looking at its component parts without assuming they are a computer. The computer as a central identity is decentered as only one in a plethora of artifacts within computing during the early digital era.

At one time, computing history and media studies were distinct fields; but in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan predicted that telecommunications and computers would merge. Practically, of course, the fields converged; intellectually, however, scholars missed the opportunity to understand this significant development. Media studies and computer history bifurcated. Computers were thought of as a Turing machine, not as an “amalgam of networks and nodes, of software and hardware, [and] social relationships.”

The history of computing skirted established work in “science and technology studies (STS), library and information studies, business history, the history of science, cultural studies, and [in particular] research by individual computer scientists and programmers.”

This volume is indicative of an emerging academic synthesis between the converging technologies of media and computing. As understood here, “the historical reconstruction of digital computing devices, whether they were called media or computers or neither,” views them all as digital computing devices. Digital computers remain as digital machines because that is what their components are. Moreover, digital computing devices are ubiquitous and pervasive, whether they are computers, media, or a software component within other machines, instruments, control panels, or anything similar. As such, the computer as a clearly defined physical entity no longer exists. Yet computing proliferates, and media has transmuted exponentially. At the same time, media and computing converged. For example, we call a smartphone a phone, realizing its function converges phoning, media, and computing. A car is a car, and yet, with the emergence of self-driving automobiles, the machine is a collection of computing devices, including navigation devices, computing mechanics, and computing technology throughout. Computing now inhabits cashiers, hotel keys and locks, credit cards, and an abundance of other devices.

Theoretical and historical studies in this volume research the computing devices in the guts of the pervasive devices around us. The framework of this work then is to examine how digitality is a more insightful way to understand the groundbreaking impact of technological convergence.

The book originated in workshops held at the University of Siegen in 2016 and 2017. The nine chapters are from international contributors: academics from the US, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Switzerland. They are historians of computing or media studies and, as such, contribute to the innovative publishing efforts in computing history by Springer and editor Thomas Haigh.

Haigh urges “historians to take digitality seriously as an analytical category,” as computers, televisions, CD players, microwave ovens, airbags, anti-lock brakes, automated teller machines (ATMs), singing greeting cards, video game consoles, and so many other items are digitized. Digital is not immaterial, a common misconception, but material: a “history of tangible machines and human practices.”

The contributors vary in their fields of interest, but the volume is short enough to be summarized easily. One contribution in the volume describes Soviet programmable calculators, and how a complex mechanical odds-making and ticket-selling machine represented and manipulated numbers. Zatocoding digitally categorized and retrieved information by cutting notches into punched cards. Modern information retrieval was accomplished with digital electronics. Another contributor clarifies the antonym of digital as analog, not material. One submission broadens computational technology to include a golf simulator and calculating machines at dog racing tracks.

The editor and a co-author note that initially the word “program,” before its adoption and application in computer programming, simply meant a sequence of discreet activities over time. ENIAC operators varied the speed of the machine to debug hardware or configuration problems. EDVAC is examined to grasp how early practices loaded paper tape media into electronic memory. The state--British, Nazi, or US Army--was important as a procurer of digital technologies, a sponsor of research, and a regulator of labor markets. Modern information for us is digital. Eventually, the synthesis of digitality and information with the application of computer technology became nearly inseparable.

Early digital in this context means the 1930s through the 1950s, during which analog was superseded, programmable computers were invented, and electronic was associated with digital. Despite what by hindsight are transformed social practices, Haigh is reluctant to view the period as a revolution, rupture, or new epoch. Digitality is not exceptional but localized, specialized, and sporadic. Digitality appears groundbreaking and socially transformative, yet for a mass of humanity it has yet to begin.

This academic work should appeal to a wide variety of readers.

Reviewer:  G. Mick Smith Review #: CR146879 (2007-0158)
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