University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Garbage in, garbage out? A history of representations of computers in popular media

Garbage in, garbage out? A history of representations of computers in popular media

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A variety of recent scholarship has traced the development of popular science through print media sources, exploring how characterizations of scientific phenomena evolve through interactions between authors’ agendas, audience responses, and changes in publishing culture. Studies so far have tended to focus on 19th-century cases, seeking the origins of the familiar boundaries of ‘science in public’. Here I apply similar considerations to an inescapably 20th-century phenomenon: the electronic digital computer.

The vision of computers as profoundly new and world-changing endured over a paradoxically long period, from the mid-1940s to the 1980s, in newspapers, magazines and an ever-growing range of introductory books. Although some authors harnessed the blank-slate rhetoric to revolutionary social, economic or educational manifestos, the conceptual content of the literature overall was interestingly conservative, returning repeatedly to a default stock of narratives, justifications and analogies. Some of these representations originated in wider, older discourses: fears that computers would destroy white-collar jobs were an obvious reincarnation of pre-digital tensions over mechanized deskilling. Others were consciously introduced to shape expectations: industry sources promoted awareness of the GIGO principle (‘garbage in, garbage out’) to affirm the technology as a neutral tool, doing only and precisely what it was told. Still others seem to have persisted by default without much underpinning intent: the remorseless tendency to explain binary arithmetic, to all audiences and for all purposes, endured for half a century. Ultimately, I argue, ‘computing’ in the popular imagination was only to a limited degree a product of its time.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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