Digital Shift Ctrl: Computing and New Media beyond the US and Europe

AHA Session 264
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Regency Ballroom VI (Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Lower Level 1)
Thomas S. Mullaney, Stanford University
Computers and the Making and Unmaking of Truth in Post-Pinochet Chile
Eden Medina, Indiana University Bloomington
Islamic Emoticons and Religious Authority
Andrea L. Stanton, University of Denver
The Chinese Computer: A Cold War History
Thomas S. Mullaney, Stanford University
The Soviet Internet: How Not to Network a Nation
Benjamin Peters, University of Tulsa
The Audience

Session Abstract

This session examines the global history of computing and new media. As chronicled in the more familiar Euro-American context, the emergence and proliferation of digital computing and its technological descendants played a critical role in transforming the social, political, cultural, and economic fabric of western Europe and the United States. By comparison, scholars know far less about how such technological artifacts and systems shaped, and were shaped by, historical and cultural experiences in East Asia, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and the Middle East.

Drawing upon a diversity of historical experiences, members of this panel have identified a set of shared themes centering around the concept of “shifting control.” At one level, shifting control references emergent and disruptive new modes of epistemic, legal, and even theological authority that formed in connection with the global rise of computation and new media. Shifting control references as well the processes by which these technological systems and artifacts were not so much transferred as “translated” into social and cultural contexts often dissimilar from those of their inception – translation processes that empowered bold reconceptualizations of the technologies themselves. Lastly, shifting control references an historiographic intervention in which we move away from conventional Euro-American narratives of computing and new media, and towards ones that bring the wider world into our analytical purview.

This session comprises two clusters of papers divided into Cold War and post-Cold War periods. Thomas S. Mullaney examines the history of the first Chinese computer, which American military and industrial agencies originally planned to complete in 1959 to offer a powerful new infrastructure for Chinese character computing. It was not until the post-war period, however, that engineers in East Asia realized this technology and charted pathways beyond the dominant English language-based computing infrastructure. Honghong Tinn explores how an IBM mainframe computer, installed in Taiwan through a United Nations aid program, facilitated new ways of manufacturing econometric analysis in the 1960s. This computer proved instrumental for Taiwan, known as “Free China” during the Cold War, in the economic “war” with Communist China. Benjamin Peters studies cyberneticist Viktor Glushkov, who fought to develop a vast computer network centered in Moscow, emanating outward via tens of thousands of factory-based computer centers. The network was committed to partially automating the administrators’ management of information flows coursing through the Soviet command economy.

Situated in the Post-Cold War context, Eden Medina explores processes of computational truthmaking in Chile during the identification of human remains of victims of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). Whereas early, computer-assisted forensic analyses had established historical truths about the victims, later reinvestigations unraveled such truths and generated sweeping public debate over technology’s role in ways of knowing the past. Andrea L. Stanton examines new media in the Middle East, and in particular the history of Islamic “emoticons” within online Muslim communities – new online symbologies that have become a crucial method of cultivating a pious self, yet ones that are also contested by Islamic scholars and religious figures.

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