Welcome to the Fall 2014 Semester!

The new semester is upon us, and our first session of I222 will meet on Tuesday, August 26 at 2:30pm in the Wendell W. Wright Education Building, room 1120 Jordan Hall, A100.

NOTE: my apologies for the last-minute relocation from the Education Building to Jordan Hall A100. This was imposed by the registrar, and they informed me only a few hours before the start of the first class.

In preparation for class, you should review the syllabus and assure yourself that you have access to the course Canvas page.  If you Tweet,  follow the Twitter feed; at the very least, bookmark this page and subscribe to the RSS feed to keep track of updates.


Final Exam Information

The final exam for the Information Society has been set for Tuesday, May 6 from 8-10 am in our usual meeting room.

The exam schedule is set by the registrar.  For more information on IU policies on exams, including conflicts, can be found here.

The architecture of the Internet

Normally I use the course Twitter account to post links to contemporary developments relevant to (but not required reading about) course material.  This one I want to elevate to the front page of the course site.

We spent both lectures this week talking about the history and architecture of the Internet, with a particular focus on what Langdon Winner called “the politics of the artifact.”

Today Vint Cerf, a key author of the TCP/IP protocol, is now suggesting that the NSA influenced his decision not to include stronger encryption in the original standard.

Primary Source Assignment

Spring break is over and we are starting our sprint to the end of the semester!   Over the next few weeks we will be working on our primary source assignment, which will provide a first-hand perspective on the history of the personal computer revolution.

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We will be talking about the projects in class, but here is an description of the project, an outline of what is expected of you, and a list of the curated document collections.

The primary source assignment is due in class on April 10.

Ceci n’est pas un ordinateur


Today in class we talked about personal computer-like devices that are not often considered as part of the history of the personal computer: computer utility terminals, the French Minitel network, video game consoles.   The point was to break out of the conventional mythologies of the personal computer — driven by histories of successful firms such as Microsoft and Apple  — and to ask new and more nuanced questions.

One of the aspect of the history of computing that is most difficult to convey in a lecture (or reading) has to done with the experience of using a computer.  This is one of the many reasons why the history of software, which as I have argued is by far the most interesting aspect of the history of computing, has proven so challenging for historians, archivists, and museum curators to get their minds around.

One way of getting at the user experience is to use a software emulator or simulator. While none of these is capable of capturing the full experience of operating a computer, they provide at least a reasonably close approximation.

A good place to start is with Spacewar! online, which runs a PDP-1 emulator via an in-browser Java application.

The Internet Archive has recently made available a large historical software collection, which includes many of the classic games we talked about in class today, including Pitfall, Pacman, and ET the Extra-Terrestrial (Worst. Game. Ever…). The Internet Archive collection also include non-gaming software such as Visicalc, which is an important early spreadsheet application that we will talk about next week.

There are other emulators/simulators you play with if you are interested, including several ENIAC and EDSAC simulators. The Computer History Simulation Project provides a multi-system simulator that covers such historically-significant (and highly relevant to this class) computers such as the IBM 1401, PDP-9, and the MITS Altair 8800. There is also a nice list at Atari Age of similar projects that covers the Apple II, TRS-80, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and other early personal computers.

The Game of Life

Today in our lecture on Simulations, Simulacra, and the Matrix we talked about the cellular automata developed by the mathematician John Conway.   You can play the Game of Life online, or download the cross-platform application Golly.  There are also versions available for Android and iOS. For more resources on Conway’s Game of Life, visit the ConwayLife wiki. For a more industrial-strength artificial life simulator, try the Avida-ED project at the University of Michigan.

Click the embedded video for the Khan Academy  Tour through Ancient Rome that we previewed in class.  For more information about Professor Frischer, the Digital Hadrian Villa project, or his I400/590 course on Virtual Heritage, see his website.

Software History

Just a reminder that the readings for this week are from the Computer book: you are responsible for chapters 6 (“The Maturing of the Mainframe”) and 8 (“Software”).   There is no reading response for this week.  In addition to doing the readings, you should start preparing for the mid-term exam.

In our lecture of the significance of software, we talked about software as a heterogeneous technology, by which we meant that software is inextricably linked to a larger socio-technical system that includes machines (computers and their associated peripherals), people (users, designers, and developers), and processes (the corporate payroll system, for example).

One indication of the socio-technical nature of software is its durability: despite the fact that software is, in theory, almost infinitely flexible, in practice software systems are difficult to modify.  An excellent example of this is the challenge of software maintenance.  You can find a brief discussion of what the software maintenance tells us about the heterogenous nature of software on my blog about the history of computer programming.  This is not required reading, but you may find it useful.

The major thrust of this past week’s lectures has been that computerization requires more than just computers:  the rapid pace of development in computer technology in the 1960s (in terms of price, performance, and reliability) revealed the difficulties inherent in integrating computers into organizations.   The software crisis of the late 1960s is a reflection of a series of challenges associated with software development.

The big take-home point to remember:

There is no Moore’s Law for software.

On Tuesday we will talk about and prepare for the mid-term.  On Thursday, you will take the exam.