Director's Desk Fall/Winter

CBI Director Prof. Jeffrey Yost.
CBI Director Prof. Jeffrey Yost.

The global pandemic has temporarily changed the location of most of our work, but not the core of what we do—to work tirelessly to advance the understanding of computing’s past through our own research, and especially, facilitating the research of many others globally with our events, editing, our world-class archives, and assistance and advice on projects and resources. This truly has been a momentous year for CBI. We changed our full name to the Charles Babbage Institute for Computing, Information, and Culture to reflect strategies we have well underway to focus more on interdisciplinary research, collecting, events, oral history, and service. Core among these, was a symposium, “Just Code,” in which we pivoted from a physical event in Minneapolis in May to a major online symposium in October.

On 23 - 24 October we held the online symposium “Just Code: Power, Inequality, and the Global Political Economy of IT."  The event was conceived and co-organized by me (Jeffrey Yost) and past CBI Tomash Fellow UC, Davis’ Gerardo Con Diaz. Over 340 people attended, mostly students and academic scholars from around the world (dozens of countries from five continents), and also researchers from government, industry, museums, and libraries. It not only was the largest audience for a multiday one-time event in the history and social study of IT, but to my knowledge, it was the largest in the nearly century-old history of science! As an article in this edition of Bits & Bytes discusses, the audience and participants from the widely completed post event survey, like those at our recent CBI Advisory Board Meeting, gave the event the highest marks and offered glowing praise.

Just Code’s speakers included a highly talented and diverse group of interdisciplinary scholars (historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and communication, STS, and informatics scholars) from a wide range of global institutions (Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Penn, Kyoto, Edinburgh, IIT, NYU, Indiana, Minnesota, etc.). The event focused on how code (software) and codes (policy, practice, culture) in computing have reinforced and often accelerated racial, ethnic, gender, class, disability, and other inequalities. The papers explored such critical topics and themes as predictive policing and race; postcolonialism and race in India; platforms, control, and resistance in China; surveillance capitalism; IT and disability; coding education and inequality; psychopathology and the human computer interface; coding culture in Mexico; IT labor and gender; and water rights, data analytics, and environmental racism. We (Yost and Con Diaz) will edit a volume of the same title with revised papers for a top university press.

Further facilitating publishing on a wide range of social, cultural, and scientific history of computing, I continue to co-edit (with University of Amsterdam’s Gerard Alberts) the Springer History of Computing Book Series. Also important on the interdisciplinary study of IT publishing front, CBI Archivist Amanda Wick and I launched (in June 2020) a new journal entitled, Interfaces: Essays and Reviews in Computing and Culture. So far we have published articles on the long history of mobile work and IT devices at IBM; COBOL programmer shortages and problems with (and historical context to) the unemployment insurance infrastructure accentuated by the pandemic; the AT&T Picture Phone of 1970 as a pre-cursor to our "Videocon/Zoom" world; a forgotten Babbage transcript; and on its 20th anniversary, a history of the Y2K crisis. Exceeding our high expectations, comments upon, interest in, and downloads have been/are tremendous for this new publication that concentrates on the interdisciplinary study of the past to illuminate issues in contemporary society. We urge you to submit a short essay to us on any topic on computing and culture (2,000 to 3,500 words). Please send submissions or inquiries to Amanda or me.

Amanda continues to collect important and diverse archival resources to facilitate path breaking research globally, and recently acquired a large and rich collection of gray literature particularly conducive to the social and cultural study of AI and machine learning, the Chris Reutershan Papers on Artificial Intelligence. As always, she and I aid with course instruction (now through Zoom) as well as helping students and scholars globally with advice on their projects and our collections.

I have been busy conducting oral histories (ones in February and March in person in California, and now by video conferencing) with pioneers in Human Computer Interaction for the ACM. I also partnered in a collaboration with our own Computer Science and Engineering Department on its 50th Anniversary for an oral history series with some of the early faculty members of the department. This has introduced a valuable new model to do some oral histories as consulting (that become CBI oral histories) when a particular organization and our interests align with research-grade oral histories. Melissa has been busy transcribing oral histories, as well her other tremendous work at the heart of our administration (she was particularly critical to the smooth running of our first online symposium and is now working with the College on a major website transformation for CBI).

We also remember Gideon Gartner, a pioneering IT research and advisory services entrepreneur who was tremendously generous to our research and archives programs. I had the privilege of conducting a lengthy oral history with him. He also donated his invaluable Gartner Group Records collection to the CBI Archives.

The University of Minnesota has been and continues to be hit hard by the pandemic, as Minnesota and Minneapolis have among the highest incidence and mortality numbers per capita for a state/city in the U.S., particularly pronounced with this second wave. It has impacted our work less than other areas of the University of Minnesota and the city of Minneapolis but has had major economic impacts on university revenue overall. 

As we explore and expand advancing and facilitating the interdisciplinary research and study of computing through research, editing, events, archives, oral history and other initiatives we need your help and support more than ever! If an existing CBI Friend, please be certain to help us out again this year and please consider donating one level up in our friend’s categories. Please also let us know if we can answer any questions or assist with possible bequests/planning. If new to CBI or new to the CBI Friends Program, please consider becoming a CBI Friend, making a donation online in any amount you feel comfortable.

We leverage your support through our work and infrastructure to help so many others to advance the study of computing, research that transforms understanding of computing in our world. We are so grateful to you for your support and thank you in advance! Wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season!

Jeffrey R. Yost