Director's Desk Spring/Summer 2020

Director's Desk

As of April 2020, our new name (or rather, revised full name) is the Charles Babbage Institute for Computing, Information, and Culture. “What is in a name?” Why the change? To the former question, a tremendous amount, to the latter question, we consider it very important as it far better reflects our wide-ranging interdisciplinary activity, commitments, and goals—our tremendously diverse and extensive computing/IT archival collections, our research and editing leadership, our events, our oral history program, and other initiatives.

In 1978 Erwin and Adelle Tomash founded the International Charles Babbage Society, with a small office in Palo Alto, California. Soon the first order of business was to put out a request for proposals and to evaluate contender universities to host what would become a research center and archives. With this, the center/archives became the Charles Babbage Institute: Center for the History of Information Processing. Based on the strengths and commitments of the stellar History of Science and Technology Program, College of Science and Engineering (CSE), and University Libraries, the University of Minnesota was selected, beating out many other top universities and became our permanent home beginning in 1980. CSE, HSTM, and University Libraries remain incredibly important and supportive, and CBI is an HSTM, CSE and UL partnership. Staying true to “international” in the original name and formation, CBI has always had, and continues to have, a global perspective and serves a global community.

In the early 2000s information processing seemed a rather antiquated term. The industry surged immensely with the bubble, fell with the bubble’s burst, but the stronger firms returned to grow quickly, and many others formed, expanding the scope of information technology. We in turn altered our name to the Charles Babbage Institute: Center for the History of Information Technology. In reflecting on this recently, I, our archivist Amanda Wick, and our newly formed Advisory Board, reasoned this did not necessarily capture our interdisciplinary trajectory with our research agenda, our collection efforts, and our support of researchers from many disciplines. We have not lost a focus on history, but more than ever, we serve and engage with scholars and students in a wide range of fields that include sociology, computer science, anthropology, communication, journalism, economics, STS, media studies, philosophy/ethics, political science, and law.

Our Symposium, “Just Code: Power, Inequality, and the Global Political Economy of IT” is exemplary of this interdisciplinary engagement. The co-sponsors come from five UMN colleges/college level units and number 18 separate departments and centers from CSE, UL, the College of Liberal Arts, and others. Our speakers/papers offer great gender, racial, geographical, topical, and disciplinary diversity. The May event was postponed to October 23 and 24 given COVID-19 (see related article on Just Code). It will be either a hybrid physical and virtual, or entirely virtual, symposium/conference on those dates (as we closely follow policies and evaluate what is best). Safety is our top priority. We will keep you informed and hope you (virtually) attend. If you are one of the 70 plus individuals registered for the original dates, we will include you on the list and poll you (on whether you will attend/virtually attend all or part) closer to the event.

I have collaborated with ACM/ACM SIGCHI to do a pilot oral history effort on the interdisciplinary Human Computer Interaction (HCI) field. I had fascinating oral history interviews with HCI and cognitive science pioneers UCSD’s Don Norman, entrepreneur and CEO Susan Dray, and PARC’s/Stanford’s Stuart Card. I have also signed on to do some work, partnering with the College of Science and Engineering’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, to do some research and oral histories in association with this the department's 50th Anniversary this year. Amanda continues to expand our Social Issues in Computing Collection, and bring in and add to many others that facilitate wide-ranging interdisciplinary scholarship on computer science/IT and race, gender, labor, culture, policy, business/economics, the environment, and other topics/themes.

I am pleased to announce that Amanda and I are launching a new CBI eJournal we will co-edit, Interfaces: Essays and Reviews in Computing and Culture (see related articles). Given this broad focus— in research, archives, publishing, our fellows (CBI Tomash Fellow NYU Media, Culture and Communication ABD Colette Perold; CBI IDF fellow UMN ABD Sociology Devika Narayan)—our revised name reflects who we are, who we collaborate with, who we serve, what we do, and where we are going.

These are difficult times. As we work from home, COVID-19 deaths are still accelerating and hitting daily new peaks in Minnesota. Unfortunately, our state is still on the front side of the curve in fatalities, Minnesota's partial reopening may prove premature. Our nation, this past week, passed 100,000 fatalities from the pandemic and Minnesota more than 1,000. Our thoughts go out to everyone with best wishes for wellness and safety, and in remembering those lost.

Our thoughts also go out to the family and friends of George Floyd, and to his memory. I happen to live on the same street, Chicago Avenue (1.8 miles due South), on which Mr. Floyd was brutally killed on May 25th by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, with the aid of three other officers. Darnella Frazier, a brave 17-year old young woman, used her phone to video record 9 minutes of the killing, despite being under threat of getting pepper sprayed by police. Since the horrific event, 38th and Chicago is a scene visited by many thousands, a site of continuous and peaceful protest. It is designated sacred ground, a shrine honoring George Floyd, and one that includes a mural/portrait, heartfelt messages, flowers. It is impressive and deeply moving, and such nonviolent protest is obviously the ideal. 

Quite extensive arson and looting have also occurred here (170 buildings burned and/or looted), and sadly destruction in other U.S. cities from Los Angeles and Seattle to Philadelphia and Atlanta. The Minneapolis Lake Street area is diverse and many minority-owned businesses have been destroyed--the burned down 3rd Prec. Police Station (Minneapolis Mayor Frey thankfully ordered its evacuation to keep people safe) is unlikely to impact livelihoods, burned small businesses will. The more focused political protests here have been attended by many thousands during the day, inspired speakers calling for justice. The arson and looting was prevalent the first four nights in Minneapolis (and as our Governor Walz and Twin Cities Mayors Frey and Carter, and Congresswoman Omar have emphasized, some/much of the destruction has been by outsiders). The arson and looting has garnered more attention in the national media, and hopefully will not obscure the social justice message. And to quote Martin Luther King, Jr., "riots are the language of the unheard." At a December 1967 press conference, racist Miami Police Chief Walter Headley stated "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." President Trump tweeted this historic, racially-charged phrase (one used in the 1968 Presidential Election by segregationist George C. Wallace) regarding Minneapolis, a phrase that puts property ahead of peoples' lives. Twitter flagged the tweet as "glorifying violence."

In July 2016 J. J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, St. Paul cafeteria manager Philando Castile was shot and killed by police officer Jeronimo Yanez in our metro during a traffic stop. Castile posed no threat. Charged with manslaughter Yanez was found "not guilty" in 2017. To follow this with most egregious acts ending Mr. Floyd's life makes us furious beyond words. Over the past decade plus, people tend to carry smartphones everywhere. This, along with standard police body cameras, brought hope that racist brutality by the police might decline--a digital deterrent might restrain at least some of the most barbaric and cruel actions by those in authority. Instead it has just brought ever increasing documentation of horrific, racist, criminal acts by current and former police that, in Minnesota and elsewhere, very rarely have resulted in prosecutions.

Also on Memorial Day Weekend, another disturbing viral video captured what arguably encouraged violence by police, but resulted in none. It must not be forgotten. Pioneering Marvel Comic Book author/editor and biomedical editor Christian Cooper went for a birdwatching walk in the Ramble of NYC's Central Park. He encountered a financial industry executive Amy Cooper breaking the law, not leashing her dog. He requested she leash the pet. She, as he caught on video and his sister posted, proceeded to call the police to say an "African-American man is threatening my life." Amy Cooper's attempt to weaponize racism, which could have led to a false incarceration or even "death by cop," is infuriating, a display of an odious and dangerous white privilege. For her racist actions, Amy Cooper was fired from Franklin Templeton. 

African-Americans have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19, in Minneapolis, and elsewhere--education, employment, access to healthcare, access to loans, access to healthy food, and other infrastructure greatly influence incidence and outcome. Yet, in Minneapolis you hear and see signs of another plague, police murdering African-Americans is "the virus." Protest against this virus of police violence/murder of African-Americans will lead to even more pronounced disparities with COVID-19 as mass congregation and protest--while essential and vital--will boost COVID-19 spread. This increased spread will be further devastation extending from Chauvin and the complicit three's acts that killed Mr. Floyd. Citizens, institutions, and especially government must do far better at addressing societal inequality--certainly policing, but also systemic education and economic disparities. The racist culture of policing, criminal justice, and incarceration must change. What has occurred brings us incredible sorrow. Again, our foremost thoughts are with Mr. Floyd's family as they grieve, as Minneapolis and St. Paul grieve, and as our nation and the world grieve.

Jeffrey R. Yost

June 2020


Back to Bits & Bytes