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"So why is the history of computer science not being written \(in the volume it deserves\), or \(the manner favored by Knuth\)?"

\\1 Too many principals of said history are still alive, still influential, and still kicking too much to allow much in the way of historical analysis. It is much easier for a historian to stick with a subject where those who remember events are safely dead.

\\2 It would be improper to expect anyone to write informatively about ideas they cannot themselves understand. And it would be improper (as the author of the article writes) to expect a historian to understand an unrelated technical field.

This is unfortunate, because "history", the preferences of historians notwithstanding, is the story of technology. I do not believe there is any great difference between any of us and some goober fingerpainting on the walls of a cave.




Have to take issue with your analysis here. For an appropriately empty conception of technology, we can perhaps view history as "the story of technology". Whether this has much explanatory power, however, is another question. Really, though, I suspect this is just a popular contemporary bias mostly among technologists, just as in the Christian world of the middle ages history was biblical history.


Goober had to have been making good, even crucial, use of his mental abilities or we would not have ours.

So, what the heck was Goober doing with his abilities that were crucial? He found the cave, kept out animals that could hurt him, built a fire to keep it warm, built families, found food and water, make tools, weapons, and clothes, etc. Apparently found good uses for his brain.


And found the leisure time, materials and learned the skills required required to do some fingerpainting on the side (assuming the subject of the painting did not have practical or religious purposes).


Every history sees through a limited historiographical lens and centers certain questions. If we set out to answer questions like "why did Britain industrialize first?" then a deterministic model of technological progress(the "Sid Meier's Civilization" view of history) does not suffice for our history, and we end up with complex stories that weave together geography, politics, and social factors.


Certainly true, in fact it's kind of my point. Take a look at the "key sentence" from Harold Perkins' review of From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog:

"The computer and its software nervous system brought a revolution in human development as significant as the steam engine, the automobile or the aeroplane, and even more effective in shrinking the planet"

What would you get from a history of recent revolutions in human development from someone who doesn't know why steam-powered airplanes never really caught on? It doesn't matter what kind of geo-political story they can put together; the idea just doesn't work.

A Margaret Gowing told C-K about his history of EDSAC, "What you have written is clearly very good. I know practically nothing about computers, but I can tell that what you have written is good history, so far as it goes. However, let me urge you to look beyond programming technology to consider the kinds of people who were using computers and the problems that they were solving." Which is excellent advice, certainly, but part of what he comes up with years later, in his embarrassment over not following the advice the first time, is, "Jim Wilkinson investigated errors and stability in digital numerical methods and developed advanced matrix programs. These were to prove vital in understanding and preventing “flutter” for the British aircraft industry, which was still reeling from the de Havilland Comet air disaster of 1954," which makes me suspect he knows about as much about numerical methods as I do.


It looks like a kind of inverted physics envy, a cultural cringe reaction.




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