Understanding 'How computing has changed the world'

Thomas J. Misa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


How can we satisfactorily address the history of computing, recognizing that computing artifacts and practices are often shaped by local circumstances and cultures, and yet also capture the longer-term processes by which computing has shaped the world? This article reviews three traditions of scholarly work, proposes a new line of scholarship, and concludes with thoughts on collaborative, international, and interdisciplinary research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)52-63
Number of pages12
JournalIEEE Annals of the History of Computing
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2007

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
29. In 2005 the National Science Foundation established an Office of Cyberinfrastructure to deal proactively with designing, building, and using computer networks across the research enterprise; see http://www.nsf.gov/dir/ index.jsp?org5OCI.

Funding Information:
The theme of information and society shows ample signs of continued interest and conceptual innovation. Recent works here include Jon Agar’s The Government Machine, Campbell-Kelly’s pioneering book-length study of the software industry, and JoAnne Yates’ Structuring the Information Age.19 Agar’s work especially breaks new methodological ground, providing an extended evaluation of the computer as ‘‘a materialization of bureaucratic action’’ (p. 391) with wide-ranging examples drawn from the 19th-century British Civil Service, turn-of-the-century statistical reformers, and post-1945 welfare state. Agar surveys the cryptography, radar-based air defense, social-statistical surveys and national registry, as well as the wartime logistics, personnel records, and operations research of World War II, and aptly calls it an ‘‘information war.’’ Each of these works, in providing a benchmark to evaluate a major social, economic, and political change (the coming of the information age), are obviously promising in the effort to understand ‘‘how computing changed the world.’’ A third thematic tradition—in addition to the pioneering machines and the information age—can be discerned with the work of historians who take up the question, How did (certain) institutions shape computing? This is a pronounced shift in emphasis, if not an entirely novel dimension. These accounts move to the background their treatment of individual computing machines or the contours of the information society, foregrounding instead the governmental, engineering, or corporate institutions that brought them about. The US military services, the National Science Foundation, and IBM have received particular attention. Among exemplary works in this tradition I would number Arthur Norberg and Judy O’Neill’s institutional study of the wide-ranging ARPA initiatives in computing; Donald MacKenzie’s studies of supercomputing; Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet; Alex Roland’s critical evaluation in Strategic Computing; and Steve Usselman’s work on business strategies and learning processes within IBM.20


  • Charles Babbage Institute
  • Computers and society
  • Digital computing
  • Historiography
  • History of computing
  • Information age


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