Computing and Historiography, Part 2: Parasitology

The Living Archive: Apparently there's talk about turning the old Bell Labs atrium, shown here, into condos. See

[For part 1 of this post click here]

A modest amount of time spent in archive impresses upon most historians the symbiotic relations that prevail among history-makers and history-writers. I don’t mean this in the naïve sense that “winners write history,” though that may be true too. For one thing, “making history” depends on the ability to generate traces that become part of an archive or official record—even if that archive may be lost for decades and only rediscovered decades or centuries hence. For another thing, the capacity to innovate in the present is closely allied with the power to summon and exploit historical records.

For example, my dissertation The Cybernetic Apparatus: Media, Liberalism and the Reform of the Human Sciences relied on archival records generated and made available to the research public by the Bell Telephone Laboratories (formerly of AT&T), MIT, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The Bell Labs archives were in the first instances developed to serve research engineers and to a lesser extent groups including regulators, the marketing department, scientists, and ordinary bureaucratic communications. Historical records were part of doing-business, especially when it came to patent disputes. For example, an in-house museum provided engineers and lawyers with a record of devices built by the Bell Telephone System over the years. Occasionally in-house discussions meditated opening that museum to the public but, as far as I know, it was kept closed to the public. This is a good reminder: We historians and members of the public like to think that museums or archives are there to serve the public interest. But in the first instance, most of these institutions are residue of left behind by the exercise of administrative power.

These traces are not identical with the power they serve and most historians are scrupulous about teasing out the conditions and limits of their materials. But the idea of isolating and controlling for these conditions isn't realistic. Even when one contests the record, the record tends to set a certain groundwork and limit on the debate.

As an historian of computing I reflect on these parasitical dynamics but I don’t lament them. Hybridizing Nietzsche and Serres, we could imagine a certain gay historical science called Parasitology to describe this conundrum of the historian. As literary critic J. Hillis Miller notes, the term parasite was originally something positive--a guest who shared food with you. "Later on, ‘parasite’ came to mean a professional dinner guest, someone expert at cadging invitations without ever giving dinners in return.”* I think we historians who dwell in the archives do well to try and be the former kind of parasite who takes some sustenance and offers something in return.  This doesn’t mean becoming sycophantic flatters of our host (such types can only take and never actually reciprocate hospitality). But good conversation and dialogue, alternate perspectives, and suggestions for the next meeting place are all fair reciprocation. Many of the best historians of computing—Donna Haraway, Janet Abbate, Nathan Ensmenger, Eden Medina—do this by showing their tremendous respect for the integrity of their historiographic subjects while also returning something new and different to their legacy. And almost inevitably, their research suggests new visions for how computers can create new symbioses with industry, society, and culture.

But what happens if we step away from the archives and starting looking at how computer histories play out in more popular cultures? I’ll address that in my next post on some recent debates over the origins of email. 


*Quote from J. Hillis Miller. "The Critic as Host." In DECONSTRUCTION AND CRITICISM.