Director's Desk Summer 2021

Reflecting on the past academic year at CBI, work settings changed, but dedicated service to local and global stakeholders, events, publications, oral history projects, collection development, editing, and outreach propelled our mission—advancing interdisciplinary computing/software studies and infrastructure—stronger than ever!

 Portrait of CBI Director, Prof. Jeffrey R. Yost
Prof. Jeffrey R. Yost,
CBI Director  

We held our largest event in our history—albeit virtually—with 345 attendees/participants for our 1.5-day interdisciplinary symposium “Just Code: Power, Inequality, and the Global Political Economy of IT.” About one-quarter attending/participating were University of Minnesota faculty, students, and staff, and three-quarters hailed from higher education and cultural institutions spanning the country and globe. This included those from 5 continents and roughly 30 countries—evaluations were stellar! Gerardo Con Diaz and I have been busy moving the Just Code book project forward, which is under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press. Thanks to our “Just Code” Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant, it will be an Open Access book. With the participation from many talented, interdisciplinary scholars who spoke at the event, complemented by an equally diverse and distinguished group of other top scholars we recruited, we anticipate an exceptionally impactful volume on IT, and power imbalances and biases (race, gender, class, and disability).

We were also grateful for the tremendous response to our newly launched Tomash Fellow Lecture (held on May 5th, we plan to make it an annual event). Tomash Fellow, Columbia University’s Aaron Mendon-Plasak, ABD (History Dept.), treated an audience of 140 from a dozen countries to a terrific virtual lecture on the social history of pattern recognition and machine learning (ML)! We look forward to a lecture in the coming year from incoming Tomash Fellow Zachary Loeb, ABD, History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania. We congratulate Zachary on the fellowship and his tremendous dissertation project on the history of Y2K. We also welcome UMN Geography, Environment, and Society’s John Kendall as a CBI Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow (researching environment and culture, with modeling and ML, in Permian Basin fracking), and Yale’s Bo An, ABD, Media Studies as a Visiting Doctoral Fellow (studying computer science education and political economy in China).

At CBI we devote ourselves endlessly to advising on research projects, secondary literature, and our collections—helping scholars, students, and others both locally and globally. Long substantial, it accelerates every year and is incredibly rewarding. We do our best to assist and we also learn much along the way. This continued unabated virtually. And with UMN classes remote, Amanda and I served as guest lecturers over Zoom for class sessions in HSTM and other departments and programs.

Tremendous response to our events, commitment to world-class service to graduate students and other researchers, unequaled archives and oral history programs, publishing and editing (Amanda Wick and me, and our Senior Research Fellows), and a new CBI Website (thanks to Melissa Dargay) have allowed us to more than triple our base of stakeholders in the last 18 months!

Our Faculty Advisory Board met virtually rather than in person. The Board consists of members from HSTM, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Library and Information Science, Sociology, and now Anthropology. We are delighted to welcome highly distinguished UMN Anthropology Prof. Karen Ho to our interdisciplinary Advisory Board!

In seeking key lessons for CBI gleaned from the pandemic, some work is vital locally and in person, but much is possible to do very well virtually. Virtual events can have tremendous local and global impact and importance. Taking this latter lesson to heart, I am absolutely thrilled to announce CBI’s next major event, and it, like “Just Code” will be a global, interdisciplinary, virtual symposium—“Automation by Design: Politics, Culture, and Landscape in an Age of Machines That Learn”  (Program Committee: Jeffrey Yost, CBI and HSTM, UMN; Gerardo Con Diaz, STS, UC-Davis, Honghong Tinn, HSTM and ECE, UMN, and Colette Perold, ​Media Studies, Univ. of Colorado).

We welcome applications from scholars from history, STS, Sociology, Anthropology, Rhetoric, Geography, Media Studies, Policy, Communications, Philosophy, and Information Studies. The CFP is published in this Summer’s Bits & Bytes. Accepted authors agree to submit their work by the deadline, and revised papers for consideration for a major academic press volume following the event. Given pandemic times and (re)adjustments, we are providing much advance notice—April 2022 deadline for proposals, December 2022 for papers, and Friday-Saturday February 17-18, 2023 for the event.

The CBI Archives remained opened with safety procedures in place through much of the first half of 2021, but onsite visitors were far fewer in number. Remote users and scanning skyrocketed and we temporarily (for 2021) switched Norberg Grants to help offset scanning fees rather than travel.

On the oral history front, my two sponsored/contracted projects (for ACM SIGCHI in HCI and for UMN  Computer Science) switched from in-person to Zoom interviews. I have conducted more than 350 oral histories in-person over the past 22 years, traveling the country and the world, and that was our standard mode. I am pleased to say Zoom oral histories have worked exceedingly well, the technology and adoption has caught up to the point where many if not most of CBI’s future oral histories will be done by videoconference to save on time and expense, it does not sacrifice quality. We believe this will open many new opportunities to CBI and serving our stakeholder community.

I am so grateful to CBI Senior Research Fellow Bill Aspray, who designed, and is nearing completion of, a major oral history project to interview (by Zoom—further confirming this mode) first-generation computer historians. These interviews with Paul Ceruzzi, Martin Campbell-Kelly, CBI Senior Research Fellow Jim Cortada, JoAnne Yates, Peggy Kidwell, and others add so much to our understanding of computing historiography. Some oral histories have been added to the Digital Conservancy/CBI Oral History Collection already, others will be added soon. Also, we have a few long existing oral histories with the field’s pioneers, such Bernie Galler, Annals’ founding editor, and Arthur Norberg, CBI’s Founding Director. The latter is a multiday interview that Bill and I conducted more than a decade ago.

If you have not yet read Jim Cortada’s engaging, humorous, and insightful essay on “Letterman’s Top 10” on IBM Culture, please check it out as the latest in a diverse set of essays in Interfaces, which also includes a fascinating recent essay by Univ. of Pittsburgh English Department Professor Annette Vee on the history and context of NFTs and art. Amanda and I are so pleased with the interdisciplinary and global response to Interfaces and are so appreciative to the many readers emailing with accolades. Interfaces richly serves research, outreach, and education.

Jeffrey R. Yost