Regulating the Computer: Institutions, Information Processing, and State-Market Boundaries in the First Three Decades of the Digital Age

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:20 AM
Governor's Square 15 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Andrew Meade McGee, Carnegie Mellon University
As a product of the post-1945 American military-industrial complex, the electronic digital computer bears the fingerprints of both private sector firms and the federal state apparatus. Institutions – civilian policymaking agencies, branches of the armed services, corporations, and research universities – propelled the development, dissemination, and societal acceptance of the computer as a tool for management, research, and broadly optimistic “problem solving” activities. Concurrent with the emergence of the “Age of the Computer” were spirited debates in the pages of newspapers, in corporate board rooms and university research laboratories, and on the floor of Congress over how computer technologies ought to be regulated. This paper explores how from the 1940s through the 1970s, the first three decades of the digital age  -- and the height of institutional mainframe data processing -- assorted technologists, political actors, businessmen, and ordinary citizens expressed their hopes and hesitations regarding the institutional situating and regulatory environment in which large-scale computing should operate. Even as questions of efficiency, privacy, security, centralization, and access accompanied the proliferation of mainframe computers through American society, those closest to the machines and their associated information management practices grappled with the degree to which powerful information processing technologies should be subject to governmental regulation or the vagaries of the market.