Abbate and Dick’s Abstractions and Embodiments in our JHUP Computing and Culture Series

Gerardo Con Diaz (Con) and I are thrilled to have just published past Tomash Fellow Virginia Tech’s Janet Abbate and Simon Fraser University’s Stephanie Dick’s Abstractions and Embodiments: New Histories in Computing and Society in our new Johns Hopkins University Press Studies in Computing and CultureThe abstraction and embodiment duality, a powerful conceptual framing for this incredible volume, contributes so strongly to the history and historiography of computing and software. It plays on the old mind and body dichotomy, and how social relations are enacted in and by computing and software technology and systems. Con and I, and all of us at CBI, offer our congratulations and thanks to thought-leading historians Janet and Stephanie, and all the gifted scholars who contributed chapters.

This book achieves something extremely rare, the combination of great diversity in coverage and tight integration of framework and theme. Janet and Stephanie’s Introduction and Afterward are especially thoughtful and compelling and aid the integration. The book rings of their careful work with this wonderful group of authors they assembled. It is no exaggeration to say this is a field-transforming volume in the history of computing and software. It is also a volume in which all the chapters are strong. I select some to mention merely to give a flavor of this excellent book’s contents.

After the introduction, the book launches into the first of its two sections, Abstractions. The first chapter is CBI Tomash Fellow, University of Pennsylvania’s Zachary Loeb’s “Waiting for Midnight: Risk Perception and the Millennium Bug.” Zachary drew on CBI’s Y2K collections for this amazing chapter that adds to so many literatures including policy, risk studies, and of course history and sociology of technology. The Abstractions section has ten chapters, all of them quite different but well connected to the larger theme and executed with precision. With my interests in decentralization’s hype and realities in networking, political economy and law, and the social history of automation, I especially enjoyed MIT’s Marc Adinoff’s “Centrists Against the Center: The Jeffersonian Politics of a Decentralized Internet,” Con’s “Scientology Online: Copyright Infringement and the Legal Construction of the Internet,” and attorney Tiffany Nichols “Patenting Automation of Race and Ethnicity Classifications: Protecting Neutral Technology or Disparate Treatment by Proxy?”

The Embodiments section, also ten chapters, richly examines the many ways humans materially and virtually interact with digital devices in their design, construction, and use, along the way, exploring race, gender, and disability. It begins with republication of University of Michigan’s Lisa Nakamura’s “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Computer Manufacture,” which is one my favorite all-time articles published on the history of computing. With strong interests in AI, race, gender, and disability, I especially enjoyed MIT’s Kelcey Gibbon’s Inventing the Black Computer Professional,” past Tomash Fellow IIT’s Mar Hicks’s The Baby and Black Box: A History of Software, Sexism, and the Sound Barrier,” past Tomash Fellow Purdue’s Ekaterina Babintseva’s “Engineering the Lay Mind: Lev Landa’s Algo-Heuristic Theory and Artificial Intelligence,” Stanford’s Xiaochang Li’s “The Measure of Meaning: Automatic Speech Recognition and the Human-Computer Imagination,” and Rice’s Elizabeth Petrick’s “The Computer as Prosthesis.”

I tweeted about the volume about a month before the publication date in August. The tweet really took off, dare I utter, it went (academic community) viral? That it did is fully a testament to Janet and Stephanie and all the authors’ great scholarship (I am a Twitter newbie, only used it since January 2022—and just my luck, I join, and months later, Elon is taking over). With over one hundred retweets and 50K impressions, for a fleeting moment I felt like an influencer. Would it change me? Should I change my handle to JYO? Not a chance, I am all about keeping real. I am still Jeffrey from the Block (😉), and my Twitter account will remain the aspirational @JustCodeCulture.

As this book is terrific throughout, and every chapter a very special contribution, I want to provide a list of its incredible contributors in full in the order in which they appear: Janet Abbate, Stephanie Dick, Zachary Loeb, Marc Adinoff, Andre Brock, Gerardo Con Diaz, Tiffany Nichols, Troy Kaighin Astarte, Lisbeth De Mol, Maarten Bullynck, Scott Kushner, Michael J. Halverson, Jaroslav Svelch, Lisa Nakamura, Kelcey Gibbons, Mar Hicks, Jiahui Chan, Hallam Stevens, Ekaterina Babintseva, Xiaochang Li, Cierra Robson, Elyse Graham, Elizabeth Petrick, and Laine Nooney.

We were delighted to publish Michael Black’s great monograph Transparent Designs: Personal Computing and the Politics of User-Friendliness earlier this year and now Janet and Stephanie’s excellent volume. We have extremely exciting content for the Johns Hopkins University Press Studies in Computing and Culture in the works. Have an idea for a book, please contact me or Con.

Jeffrey R. Yost


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