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Humanist Archives: Feb. 19, 2019, 6:34 a.m. Humanist 32.472 - commercialisation of computing

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 472.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
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    [1]    From: Willard McCarty 
           Subject: commercialisation (21)

    [2]    From: C. M. Sperberg-McQueen 
           Subject: Re: commercialisation of computing (42)

    [3]    From: C. M. Sperberg-McQueen 
           Subject: Re: commercialisation of computing (69)

    [4]    From: John Naughton 
           Subject: Re: Computing and the military-industrial complex (57)

        Date: 2019-02-18 21:24:38+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: commercialisation

I was thinking of hardware development and only repeating what the
standard histories say about what was involved in the rapid developments
and spread of computing machinery in the 1950s. But my point was really
about entanglement of many sectors and many kinds of people and about
the complexity of the story. Hacking somewhere makes the point that a
large proportion of biological research these days is done by commercial
companies. One big problem there is that research becomes proprietary
and secret. What would the history of small machines been like if the
head of IBM Florida (was it?) put the design of the PC into the public

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London;
Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney University; Editor, Interdisciplinary
Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist

        Date: 2019-02-18 19:19:16+00:00
        From: C. M. Sperberg-McQueen 
        Subject: Re: commercialisation of computing

l wrote:
> ...
> Forth was developed by people working on commercial contracts to
> develop software for various bespoke systems.  So — commercial?

Re-reading the paper on “The evolution of Forth” from ACM’s second
conference on the history of programming languages (HOPL II), I see
that my memory has failed me.  It is apparently not the case that
Charles Moore was always working as a commercial contractor on the
projects on which he developed Forth. Sometimes he was a direct
employee of various research organizations like the Smithsonian
Astrophysical Laboratory, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
(SLAC) early in his career.  The name Forth was first used in an
earlier project written in a commercial context (for Mohasco
Industries), which was canceled before completion owing to an economic
downturn.  But if I am reading the information before me correctly, it
was not as an outside contractor but as an employee of the
U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) that he deployed what
is described in the HOPL II paper as "the first complete, stand-alone
implementation of Forth" at Kitt Peak Observatory.

If we are seeking (as I was) to cast doubt on the commercial /
non-commercial distinction by pointing to programming languages
developed within a commercial context but not developed as commercial
products, then, Forth is probably a less persuasive example than C,
Snobol, Jovial, or C++.

It continues to seem to me that many other things are more important
and interesting, when thinking about a given event or development in
computing history, than whether the paychecks were made out by a
not-for-profit organization or by a commercial entity.

C. M. Sperberg-McQueen
Black Mesa Technologies LLC

        Date: 2019-02-18 19:18:00+00:00
        From: C. M. Sperberg-McQueen 
        Subject: Re: commercialisation of computing

In Humanist 32.470, Willard McCarty writes:
> Reliable histories of computing, such as the few I list below, make the
> point that in order for the very expensive technical research and
> development of digital computing to proceed, the machine had to be
> commercialised.

Like Desmond Schmidt’s casual equation of ommercial involvement in
computer research and development with commercial invention of
computing, this characterization seems to me somewhat too simple.

If R and D “had to be” commercialized, then it would seem to follow
that non-commercial R and D was not possible, and it ought to be
impossible to name important milestones of computing that did not come
out of commercial labs.  Your mileage may differ, but somehow I think
a history of computing that included PL/I, Fortran, RPG3, Rexx, and
Java but omitted Lisp, Algol 60, Algol 68, Pascal, Prolog, Perl, and
Python would be remarkably incomplete.  I’ve limited myself to
considering the history of programming languages, for concreteness,
but I don’t see any reason to expect different results from
considering other areas of computing.

Part of the problem is that any attempt to partition effort into
commercial and non-commercial effort, as if they were cleanly
separable, risks Procrusteanism.  C was developed at Bell Labs — so is
it commercial?  C was not a product — so non-commercial?  And Snobol
(also developed at Bell Labs)?  In any case, neither Bell Labs nor the
Bell System were ordinary commercial entities.

Forth was developed by people working on commercial contracts to
develop software for various bespoke systems.  So — commercial?  But
it wasn’t developed as a product, only as a means to an end, and it
was only after it had been deployed in various forms on several kinds
of hardward that someone persuaded Charles Moore to take a snapshot of
the software infrastructure he had deployed at Kitt Peak Observatory
and make it into a product.  So … does Forth show the truth of the
proposition that computer R and D “had to be … commercialized”?  Or is
it a counter-example?

I do not wish to argue that the essential history of computing is
non-commercial.  On the contrary.  We would get an equally incomplete
history of computing if we omitted all work done in commercial labs,
or work done in product development, or the commercialization of
work done non-commercially.

But the role of commerce in the history of computing seems to me more
complex than can be captured by summaries like “computing is a
commercial invention” or “the computer had to be commercialized in
order to sustain research and development in the field.”  Commercial
interests are sometimes drivers of research, and sometimes followers.

On the issue of defense funding ... I agree with Willard that it's not
a simple issue.  I learned a great deal as a child by reading books in
a public library originally endowed by Andrew Carnegie.  That he
endowed many libraries and other cultural institutions does not, of
course, erase the business practices that enabled him to amass his
fortune.  Should the twelve-year-old me have boycotted the public
library because Carnegie’s money was dirty?

C. M. Sperberg-McQueen
Black Mesa Technologies LLC

        Date: 2019-02-18 17:22:32+00:00
        From: John Naughton 
        Subject: Re: Computing and the military-industrial complex

Brooding on your note — especially about "the matter of our indebtedness
to the military imperatives of warfare that came before
commercialisation” — I chanced upon an advance copy of ‘Surveillance
Valley: the secret military history of the Internet’ by Yasha Levine,
the jacket of which claims that “the Internet was developed, from the
outset, as a weapon”.

If true that would be an interesting proposition.  But as far as I know,
no historian of the network sees it that way.  Bob Taylor, the ARPA
official who funded the ARPANET, saw it as an administrative and
communication tool.  ARPA was funding expensive mainframe computers at
various research labs around the country.  Taylor was infuriated when he
arrived in the Pentagon as head of the IPTO `[Information Processing
Techniques Office]`, to find that he needed different log-on protocols
to access each of the machines he was funding, and he persuaded his
boss, Charles Herzfeld, to fund a solution to the problem.

“Taylor gave his boss a quick briefing: IPTO contractors, most of whom
were at research universities, were beginning to request more and more
computer resources.  Every principal investigator, it seemed, wanted his
own computer.  Not only was there an obvious duplication of effort
across the research community, but it was getting damned expensive.
  Computers weren’t small and they weren’t cheap.  Why not try tying
them all together?  By building a system of electronic links between
machines, researchers doing similar work in different parts of the
country could share resources and results more easily.  Instead of
spreading half a dozen expensive mainframes across the country devoted
to advanced graphics research, ARPA could concentrate resources in one
or two places and build a way for everyone to get at them.  One
university might concentrate on one thing, another research centre could
be funded to concentrate on something else, but regardless of where you
were physically located, you would have access to it all.  He suggested
that ARPA fund a small test network, starting with, say, four nodes and
building up to a dozen or so.”

(Hafner & Lyon, ‘Where Wizards Stay Up Late: the origins of the
Internet', Touchstone, 1996, pp. 41-2.)

Herzfeld agreed, and the network was born.

I find this ‘administrative’ rationale more plausible.  But because ARPA
was located within the Department of Defense — and was therefore a
military agency — I suppose that ‘guilt by association’ was always bound
to be hypothesised. (I think it comes up in one of Don DeLillo’s books,
maybe ‘Underworld’).  No doubt,  when the ARPANET was built and
functional, any authorised officer with a .MIL identifier could use it
for whatever military purpose they had, but I’m sceptical that that was
the the initial motivation for building the network.



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