We know, perhaps too well, the innovation-centric history of personal computing. Yet, computer users were not necessarily microelectronics consumers from the get-go; rather, earlier efforts to expand mainframe computing as a public utility made elite information technology accessible to a wide audience. In A People's History of Computing in the United States
(Harvard University Press, 2018), Joy Lisi Rankin
seeks to restore this broader perspective by situating the history of educational computing within the arc of U.S. social politics in the 1960s and 1970s.
The result is a new perspective that challenges the business-dominated historiography of computing by explaining the convergence between the technical and social through efforts that began locally. As these projects expanded in scope, their advocates articulated a vision of "computing citizenship" throughout the rise of what we now call the "information age." Through a series of cases, beginning with timesharing at Dartmouth and the development of the BASIC programming language, through efforts by the state of Minnesota to make the fruits of its high-tech industry available to all, and ending with perhaps the most successful early computing network, the University of Illinois's PLATO project, Rankin makes a compelling case for a social history of computing. Historians of technology, education, and U.S. social history will all find a new resource—and perhaps a new timeline—in this beautifully researched and written book.
Mikey McGovern is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s Program in the History of Science. He works on computing, quantification, communication, and governance in modern America.