OPEN STACKS | #37 Technology: Marie Hicks and Tom Mullaney

February 4th, 2018

This week on Open Stacks, we're talking hegemonies and tech. Marie Hicks tells the story of British women codebreakers during World War II, as detailed in their book, Programmed Inequality. And Tom Mullaney talks about the century-long quest to create a tyepwriter capable of handling Chinese characters. 

It goes without saying that women have a long history in computer science. Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, worked on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine in the mid-1800s. Her mother insisted that she devote her attention to math, rather than follow in the poetic footsteps of her father (who her mother hated). Lovelace came to regard herself as an analyst and metaphysician, and the computational work as "poetical science." She envisioned that the Analytical Engine might have capabilities and uses beyond mere calculation. Here's a graphic novel based on her endeavors, for further reading.

Fast forward and across the ocean to the US in the 1940s: women were hired as programmers for the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC). This work on the software side was assumed to be low-level clerical work, while hardware was left to men in managerial positions. As the creative possibilities of coding became more clear, the field was masculinized and women pushed out of the work. Read more about that here.

In addition to gender, race of course has a significant role in the history and current landscape of computer science. 2016's acclaimed film Hidden Figures was based on the nonfiction work of the same name. The book chronicles the work of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, whose work as mathmeticians for NASA forever changed the face of the space race. Katherine Johnson, the last surviving of this group of women (now 99!), was recently interviewed by NASA:

Onward to typewriters and other rubbings of technology and script. One example of the Chinese typewriter, if you haven't seen how they work:


Chinese characters are not the only to have been thought to be incommensurate with rapidly changing technologies. Coding languages are typically written in Latin script, and left to right. Computer scientist Ramsey Nasser developed a programming language called قلب (‘alb), which is written entirely in Arabic script. He describes its applications in the video below: 

You can read more about his project on his site, where he writes:

All modern programming tools are based on the ASCII character set, which encodes Latin Characters and was originally based on the English Language. As a result, programming has become tied to a single written culture. It carries with it a cultural bias that favors those who grew up reading and writing in that cultural. قلب explores and challenges that by presenting a language that deviates almost entirely from ASCII.

Many thanks again to university press editors Seth Ditchik (Yale University Press), Tim Mennel (University of Chicago Press), and Eric Henney (Princeton University Press) for sharing their 2018 recommendations. You can find their books (or pre-order the yet-to-be published), along with Programmed Inequality and The Chinese Typewriter, in store and online.

Class Matters by Steve Fraser (Yale)

Steve Fraser twines our nation’s past with his own family’s history, deftly illustrating how class matters precisely because Americans work so hard to pretend it doesn’t. With a historian’s intellectual command and a riveting narrative voice, he examines six signposts of American history—the settlements at Plymouth and Jamestown; the ratification of the Constitution; the Statue of Liberty; the cowboy; the “kitchen debate” between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev; and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—to explore just how pervasively class has shaped our national conversation. 

Is the Cemetery Dead? by David Sloan (University of Chicago)

Is the Cemetery Dead? gets to the heart of the tragedy of death, chronicling how Americans are inventing new or adapting old traditions, burial places, and memorials. In illustrative prose, David Charles Sloane shows how people are taking control of their grief by bringing their relatives home to die, interning them in natural burial grounds, mourning them online, or memorializing them streetside with a shrine, ghost bike, or RIP mural. Today’s mourners are increasingly breaking free of conventions to better embrace the person they want to remember. As Sloane shows, these changes threaten the future of the cemetery, causing cemeteries to seek to become more responsive institutions.

Brave New Arctic by Mark Serreze (Princeton)

In the 1990s, researchers in the Arctic noticed that floating summer sea ice had begun receding. This was accompanied by shifts in ocean circulation and unexpected changes in weather patterns throughout the world. The Arctic's perennially frozen ground, known as permafrost, was warming, and treeless tundra was being overtaken by shrubs. What was going on? Brave New Arctic is Mark Serreze's riveting firsthand account of how scientists from around the globe came together to find answers.

In a sweeping tale of discovery spanning three decades, Serreze describes how puzzlement turned to concern and astonishment as researchers came to understand that the Arctic of old was quickly disappearing--with potentially devastating implications for the entire planet. 

This week's episode featured "Sleepy in the Garden" by Lobo Loco. All thanks to the artist! You can find the song and more here