Fold, spindle, mutilate

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“The mainframe is the eternal computing platform,” writes Rudolf Winestock in a pithy essay about the circular path of computing’s history, from time-sharing on central mainframes to time-sharing on central clouds. The “PC is dead” storyline has been around for a while now, but what’s really dying is the practice of “personal computing,” at least if we take that phrase to imply personal ownership of the means of computing—processors, software, data.

The desktop computer won’t completely disappear. Instead, the outward form of the personal computer will be retained, but the function — and the design — will change to a terminal connected to the cloud (which is another word for server farm, which is another word for mainrack, which converges on mainframes, as previously prophesied). True standalone personal computers may return to their roots: toys for hobbyists.

The original mainframe era provoked, in the mid-60s, a revolt by the young against the central, corporate control of personal information. The reduction of the self to a string of numbers stored in a database—a database that was a component of the military-industrial complex, no less—seemed to pose a threat not just to privacy but to individual autonomy, to freedom. It was viewed as a form of imprisonment. “I am not a number” became a rallying cry that rang through popular culture.

We haven’t seen much resistance to the new mainframe, or mainrack, era. In fact, most of us, and particularly the young, have been actively complicit in the shift away from personal computing and toward the corporate central-processing station, as Winestock makes clear:

Users love the web apps coded by rebellious hackers who’d never have fit in during the Stone Age of computing. Without any compulsion, those users volunteered their data to web apps running on mainracks that are owned — in all senses of that word — by publicly-traded companies. … Demanding the ability to export our data and permanently delete our accounts wouldn’t help even if we could do it. The data is most valuable when it is in the mainrack. Your Facebook data isn’t nearly as useful without the ability to post to the pages of your friends. Your Google Docs files aren’t as useful without the ability to collaborate with others. Dynamic state matters; it’s the whole point of having computers because it allows automation and communication.

To quote Woody Allen: We need the eggs.

But there’s another reason, I think, that today’s internment of the self in centrally stored data has not spurred the kind of protests we saw a half century ago. In the 60s, the reduction of the self to computable numbers found a tangible, ubiquitous symbol in the punchcard. To hold a punchcard with your name printed across the top was to see your being reduced to a series of binary punch holes, a series of inscrutable ones and zeroes. Like draft cards, punchcards served as concrete touchstones for protest. Ordered by some faceless bureaucracy not to fold, spindle, or mutilate the cards, one felt a moral obligation to fold, spindle, and mutilate them. To tear up a punchcard was to liberate oneself from, as Mario Savio famously put it on the Sproul Hall steps, “the machine.”

The machine’s interface—its outward representation of the numeric self—is no longer the cold, bureaucratic punchcard. It’s the avatar, the selfie: the lovingly curated, intangible image of the I. The cloud, and particularly its social-networking mechanism, personalizes depersonalization. It allows us to design our own representation of the numeric self. Behind the scenes, it’s still all ones and zeroes, but whereas the punchcard brought the binary code into clear view, the avatarial image hides it. The apparatus of control wears a new face, and that face is our own.

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20 Responses to Fold, spindle, mutilate

  1. One small bright spot of resistance: https://unhosted.org/

  2. Deborah

    You know, sometimes I think that the last thing I ever did with a computer that was truly useful, was the day I spent copying the dozens of lines of code from PC Magazine into our Commodore 64 computer to create a program that produced the 6 tones I needed to properly tune my guitar.

    I often feel like I’m in a cul de sac of computing. I’m aware of it, but don’t know how to break out.

    So I closed my Facebook page.

    My little rebellion.

    :-)

  3. This gives an interesting twist to Albert Borgmann’s “device paradigm.”

  4. Tom Lord

    This is pretty ahistoric, for one thing.

    The original mainframe era provoked, in the mid-60s, a revolt by the young against the central, corporate control of personal information.

    Where is the evidence of this found other than in Patrick McGoohan’s fever dream or in some vague references in rock lyrics?

    The reduction of the self to a string of numbers stored in a database—a database that was a component of the military-industrial complex, no less—seemed to pose a threat not just to privacy but to individual autonomy, to freedom. It was viewed as a form of imprisonment. “I am not a number” became a rallying cry that rang through popular culture.

    Was seen by whom? a handful of cultural critics, perhaps?

    I’m sure that you can find examples of popular objections to the regimentation and bureaucratization of human relations but it takes some serious projection of the present on the past to see this as any kind of serious critique of centralized computing and big databases per se.

    For example, the account number anonymity and procedural treatment of customers made The Phone Company an object of popular ridicule. Sophisticated resistance took the form of “phone phreaking”, among the cohorts of Mario Savio, not some radical critique of the formation of self in the context of corporate databases.

    Like draft cards, punchcards served as concrete touchstones for protest. Ordered by some faceless bureaucracy not to fold, spindle, or mutilate the cards, one felt a moral obligation to fold, spindle, and mutilate them. To tear up a punchcard was to liberate oneself from, as Mario Savio famously put it on the Sproul Hall steps, “the machine.”

    Really? Who was tearing up punch cards?

    You seem to have a nostalgia for a popular protest that never existed.

    I don’t know how much you can trust his account but Steven Levy in “Hackers” even documents that just a couple of blocks away from where Savio gave that speech, the hippy hacker freaks were embarked on the radical project of making mainframe timesharing accessible to The People, putting a line printer terminal out on the street for an early experiment in what I guess we could retrospectively call “social networking”, by this line of reasoning. Hey, maybe back “the ’60s” what the kids really wanted was Facebook!

    The machine’s interface—its outward representation of the numeric self—is no longer the cold, bureaucratic punchcard.

    Was it ever? I thought back when it was mostly the crudely personalized automatically generated form letter, or the paper form with fill-in-the-circle choices and one-letter-in-each-box blanks to be filled out and typed in. It was the absurd billing error that was hard to correct or the frustration of a record “lost in the system”.

    As I recall, those faces of the “numeric self” were most popularly criticized as revealing more clearly a pre-existing impersonal bureaucracy. One already knew that these big powers-that-be treated us as impersonal commodities being processed by their systems of organization — the computers, through some of their absurd fallibilities, just made that a little more tangible.

    “The machine” to which resistance was owed wasn’t centralized computing or a loss of privacy — it was an overall social and economic order.

    Right there in that famous speech Mario is speaking in the present tense about bodies against the levers and gears and what he means, right there, in that specific context are the bodies crowding the police car he is standing on and deflating its tires to keep it from moving. He’s talking about his own feet, shoes removed to avoid scuffing the finish, on top of that police car to give a speech crystalizing the political significance of what those bodies deployed against the machine are doing. No punch cards were harmed or indicted in the making of that speech.

    It’s the avatar, the selfie: the lovingly curated, intangible image of the I. The cloud, and particularly its social-networking mechanism, personalizes depersonalization.

    I’m trying to make sense of what “personalizes depersonalization” is supposed to mean. Specific cases would help and if we had them we might not even need this generalization. Gee, the ads and search results I see on-line are a reflection of my on-line activity on “social networking” services, commerce sites and so forth. Is my exposure to those ads and search results what you mean by “depersonalization”?

    It allows us to design our own representation of the numeric self. Behind the scenes, it’s still all ones and zeroes, but whereas the punchcard brought the binary code into clear view, the avatarial image hides it. The apparatus of control wears a new face, and that face is our own.

    What clear view did the use of punch cards create for whom?

    I can imagine dialog from that era along the lines:

    “Are these people nothing more to you than a collection of numbers and letters on punchcards? Where is the human touch?”

    but I can imagine as well, and at least as likely,

    “Are these people nothing more to you than a collection of forms, and procedures, and rubber stamps? To be processed by your vast army of clerks and functionaries? Where is the human touch?”

  5. Nick

    Tom,

    Re: “Really? Who was tearing up punch cards? You seem to have a nostalgia for a popular protest that never existed.”

    I think you might want to look into the actual history a bit before waving away the facts. Popular culture of the 60s (and late 50s and early 70s) was rife with references to people being turned into numbers by computers, and the punchcard was a popular representation of the idea and often a symbolic (and actual) focal point of protest. For an excellent and concise overview, see Steven Lubar’s “Cultural History of the Punch Card.” The whole article is here.

    Here are a few relevant excerpts:

    Punch cards became not only a symbol for the computer (MacBride24), but a symbol of alienation. They stood for abstraction, oversimplification and dehumanization. The cards were, it seemed, a two-dimensional portrait of people, people abstracted into numbers that machines could use. The cards came to represent a society where it seemed that machines had become more important than people, where people had to change their ways to suit the machines. People weren’t dealing with each other face-to-face, but rather through the medium of the punch card. All of the free-floating anxiety about technology, the information society, “Big Brotherism,” and automation attached itself to punch cards. Examining the metaphorical ways in which punch cards were used lets us understand some of the reaction and resistance to the brave new information world (Terbourgh, MacBride Chaps. 2 and 3, Gilbert 175-81, Michael).

    The first place that “do not fold, spindle or mutilate” was taken off the punch card and unpacked in all its metaphorical glory was the student protests at the University of California-Berkeley in the mid-1960s, what became known as the “Free Speech Movement.” The University of California administration used punch cards for class registration. Berkeley protestors used punch cards as a metaphor, both as a symbol of the “system” – first the registration system and then bureaucratic systems more generally – and as a symbol of alienation (Edge,Joerges fn 6). The Berkeley student newspaper recognized their symbolic importance when it put the punch card at the top of the list of student lessons. “The incoming freshman has much to learn,” the paper editorialized to new students in Fall 1965, “perhaps lesson number one is not to fold, spindle, or mutilate his IBM card” (Daily Californian Sept. 15, 1968: 8). The punch card stood for the university, and, of course, students had begun to fold, spindle and mutilate them. …

    Savio’s speech is famous, but few have realized that “the machine” he had in mind was not merely a mechanical metaphor for society; it was, at least as much, a metaphor for information technology. …

    Punch cards, used for class registration, were first and foremost a symbol of uniformity. Mario Savio wrote that individuals were processed by the university, emerging as IBM cards with degrees (Rorabaugh, photograph caption after 50). A student editorial suggested that the inflexibility of the bureaucracy and the impersonal grading system might make a student feel “he is one out of 27,500 IBM cards in the registrar’s office” (“The Big U” 8). The president of the Undergraduate Association criticized the University as “a machine. ..an IBM pattern of education” (Gartner 9). A flyer distributed by Berkeley’s W.E.B. DuBois club showed the university as a card punch machine run by big business, its product students as identical to one another as IBM cards (Figure 2). It took a professor of sociology, Robert Blaumer, to explicate the symbolism: he referred to the “sense of impersonality … symbolized by the IBM technology” (Berlandt, “Why FSM” 9).

    In an ironic twist, students began to use punch cards as symbols themselves. (After all, that was, in their eyes, the way the University saw them.) This was an attempt to claim the authority that was invested in the punch card. Punch cards were, after all, the visible part of the bureaucratic system that held power at the university. People deserved at least the same rights as punch cards. One student at Berkeley pinned a sign to his chest: “I am a UC student. Please don’t bend, fold, spindle or mutilate me” (“Letter from Berkeley” 12; Draper 225). The punch card, its protection by the Establishment guaranteed by the words printed on it, became an ironic model for emulation. But like most metaphors, the metaphor of the punch card cut both ways. An editorial welcoming new students to the university in 1964 suggested that there was small chance of surviving Registration without being “torn, mutilated or spindled by an IBM machine” (“The ‘Welcome”’12). At least one student felt she had failed: she complained, after registration, “I feel like a small number stamped on a computer card” (“Registration, Lines” 3).

    Because the punch card symbolically represented the power of the university, it made a suitable point of attack. Some students used the punch cards in subversive ways. … Students wore these punch cards like name tags. They were thought sufficiently important symbols of the Free Speech Movement that they were used as illustrations on the album cover of the record that the Movement issued (Free Speech Movement) (Figure 3). Another form of technological subversion was for students to punch their own cards, and slip them in along with the official ones. …

    Perhaps more radical, or at least with less confused symbolism, were students who destroyed punch cards in symbolic protest: the punch cards that the university used for class registration stood for all that was wrong with the university, and by extension, America. Students at Berkeley and other University of California branches burned their registration punch cards in anti-University protests just as they burned draft cards in anti-Vietnam protests (Bradley).

    The alienation symbolized by punch cards at Berkeley was an aspect of a broader feeling of alienation, the “depersonalization” of being treated like a number, not an individual. This reaction to the demands of information processing technology can be found back at least as far as the introduction of serial numbers for prisoners and members of the military, and of Social Security numbers. The prisoner who loses his name and becomes “just a number” is a staple of country music and prison blues songs. These earlier precedents no doubt influenced reaction to the introduction of social security numbers: a cartoon shows Uncle Sam insisting that a citizen give his number when asked for his name (Figure 4). The impersonality of identification numbers became a staple of 1960s counterculture: In “I’m Goin’ to Say it Now,” his ballad of student protest based on the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Phil Ochs sang “You’ve given me a number and you’ve taken off my name.” The same feeling reached into popular culture: Prisoner Number 6 on the TV show The Prisoner repeated: “I am not a number; I am a person.” He summarized his stand against the “system” by saying, in the first episode: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own” (White and Ali 9-11 and 154-55).

    The depersonalization of the punch-card era found its catch phrase in the words on the cards; its ubiquity gave it instant familiarity. One observer of the period wrote that marijuana, the 60s escape from the rigors of the real world, let you see “the strangeness of real unfolded-unspindled-unmutilated life” (Gitlan 202). “DO not fold, spindle, or mutilate” became shorthand for a whole realm of countercultural experience. The ecological movement of the early 1970s, a child of the 1960s counterculture, picked up on it too: a popular poster for Earth Day 1970 showed a picture of the Earth taken from space with the legend “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.”

    When punch cards moved beyond the counterculture they took with them their peculiar juxtaposition of contradictory symbolism. They symbolized modern computer civilization, but also a notion of reaction against the “IBM culture.” Consider a birthday greeting card from 1968 (Figure 5). The front shows a punch card punched with large holes in the shape of candles; inside, the greeting reads “That’s I.B.M. for happy birthday!” Punching holes in the card is subversive; everyone knows that you’re not supposed to do that. Consider also the short-lived tradition of using punch cards as Christmas tree ornaments, or even, combined together, as Christmas trees (Darling). These popular uses of punch cards show the acceptance of the prime symbol of computerized bureaucracy, the welcoming of it into the home. But the cards are being subverted to uses beyond those allowed by the companies who issued them; there’s an undercurrent of disobedience in the popular use – more accurately, misuse – of punch cards.

    The same ambiguity can be seen in the ways that images of the punch card were used in advertisements for one of the more popular fads of the sixties, computer dating. [Figure 6] The punch card became the symbol of the modernity of that process. But the punch cards pictured in ads for computer dating services are always changed a little bit. One advertisement for computer dating showed Cupid holding a punch card, with his arrow shot through it; another showed fashionably dressed young men and women overlaid on a punch card (Daily Californian, October 18, 1966 14 and November 29, 1966 11). These ads, by symbolically mutilating the punch cards, suggest that the people behind the cards are more important than the cards, and that the computer behind the cards isn’t to be taken too seriously.

    And so on.

    Fred Turner also discusses the connection between punchcards and the Free Speech Movement in From Counterculture to Cyberculture:

    Hal Draper, a librarian at Berkeley in 1964, explained that for a student, “the mass university of today is an overpowering, over-towering, impersonal, alien machine in which he is nothing but a cog going through pre-programmed motions – the IBM syndrome.” As Mario Savio later told an interviewer, he and many others felt that “At Cal you’re little more than an IBM card.” For Savio and the students of the Free Speech Movement, the corporate world, the university, the military, and the punch-card universe of information seemed to be mirrors of one another. Each presented the otherwise whole and authentic individual with a world in which he or she must pare away some part of his or her self in order to participate. In the military or the corporate world, or, for that matter, in the university, people would have to learn to play assigned organizational roles. These roles, many argued at the time, might reduce their otherwise complex and creative natures to the two-dimensional dullness of an IBM card. In a sense, each of these systems threatened to alienate the individual from her or his own lived experience. It became particularly important, therefore, for the students to put their bodies in Sproul Hall, as they did in the sit-in that followed Savio’s speech. If the university was a giant machine for the abstracting of individuals into informational raw material for the knowledge industry, then how could they assert their humanity more powerfully than by laying their bodies across the stairways and office floors of the institution?

    For a little more evidence of what the punchcard represented to the Free Speech Movement in particular, this is from an FSM newsletter in 1964:

    At the beginning, we did not realize the strength of the forces we were up against. We have learned that we must fight not only Dean Towle, Chancellor Strong, and President Kerr, but also the Board of Regents with their billions of dollars and Governor Brown with his army of cops. But neither did they realize the forces they were up against. …

    The source of their power is clear enough: the guns and the clubs of the Highway Patrol, the banks and corporations of the Regents. But what is the source of our power?

    It is something we see everywhere on campus but find hard to define. Perhaps it was best expressed by the sign one boy pinned to his chest: “I am a UC student. Please don’t bend, fold, spindle or mutilate me.” The source of our strength is, very simply, the fact that we are human beings and so cannot forever be treated as raw materials — to be processed.

  6. Tom Lord

    Nick that essay seems to confirm what I’m saying: that the role of “the punchcard” was sometimes used as a mere symbol, a handy metaphor for the regimented bureaucracy of powerful institutions. Neither the punch card nor the use of the computing systems it represented were the real target of the protests.

    In that political cartoon from Cal, showing students turned into IBM cards, the Regents have a leash on Clark Kerr who manipulates a Hitler-fascist and a strict school-marm administration. You really think the focus here is on the abuse of computing?

    You wrote:

    The original mainframe era provoked, in the mid-60s, a revolt by the young against the central, corporate control of personal information.

    That’s bogus.

    Do you think that if the Regents had capitulated to some protest and said, “Ok, we won’t use computers to administrate the university anymore,” that protesters would have declared a victory and gone home? Do you think that even the Regents themselves were thinking of the computers at that time as anything more than a marginal improvement in the efficiency of operations?

    “Do not fold, spindle, or mutulate” is a tempting symbolic foil because taken out of context it is syntactically domineering (clipped, imperative voice) and at the same time effete. It symbolized the absurd tyrannical impulse of the institutions at the same time it was all *about* the weakness of those institutions and the possibility of resistance. “Don’t fold”, you say? Well, don’t mind if I do! What happens now? (And in practice what happens is that to complete your registration you have to go get a fresh card.)

    The revolts were provoked by things like military conscription; the university’s restrictions on free speech and academic freedom; a hegemonic celebration of conformity and hierarchy in human organization; that kind of thing.

    Punch cards were a handy prop. Today you can find symbols like a facebook “like” icon or the screen of “smart phone” used in the symbolism of protest.

    Neither side, back then — neither the protesters or those protested against — were seriously contemplating the kind of problematics we’re looking at today; at least not with any more specificity than could be found in, say, George Orwell.

    ———————————————————–
    In a less critical mode:

    I think you are trying to say that, back then, crude technological limitations made it more obvious when populations were being told to help a dominant power use computing to administer the administered. Carry your papers. Show your ID. “Do not fold, [etc.]”.

    Today computing is often used without any such reification. There is no precious punch card or ID number which we must not mutilate to assure the smooth workings of the machine — identity can inferred quietly without our help; the databases don’t need us to be careful with their inputs.

    Making that point and exploring what it means doesn’t require a bogus ahistoric interpretation of 1960s protest, though.

  7. Nick

    “Do you think that if the Regents had capitulated to some protest and said, ‘Ok, we won’t use computers to administrate the university anymore,’ that protesters would have declared a victory and gone home?”

    Of course not. Don’t be silly. The computer was certainly not the main target of 60s protests, but it was one target and, as Fred Turner pointed out, it was deeply entwined, at least in the beginning, with the other targets. As the historic record makes clear, critical references to punchcards as symbols and methods of depersonalization were all over the place in the Free Speech Movement as well as elsewhere in the culture.

  8. Michael

    Rudolf Winestock ‘s essay is such a conflation of ideas, and a muddle of thought that it is difficult to entangle them. I will restrict myself to two comments.

    As someone who has programmed on mainframes and computing clouds, the fundamental programming problems are entirely different. Cloud computing is not the reincarnation of the mainframe.

    The issues of data in a computing cloud revolve around security and integrity of the data, not ownership. The rent-seekers are using data we gave them without us thinking about, or have social controls over the use of, that data. It is irrelevant whether it resides on a public, hybrid, or private cloud, or on some server rack in a corporate data center.

  9. Nick, I really like “personalized depersonalization.” There is something big lurking there.

  10. James

    To Deborah:

    Do you have a web site, or anything online?

    Yours was the most interesting comment here. I’m left wanting to read more!

  11. Nick –

    1. Unless by personal computing what you really mean is strictly local computing in isolation from other computers, then I’m not sure your presentation of the phenomenon you discuss is entirely valid.

    There is at least one other way of thinking about this, and I’d argue that it is at least equally valid:

    It is not personal computing that is dying. Smartphones and tablets may not look like the original PCs from IBM and Apple, but their use today is also a form of personal computing – even though they can be used in other ways. What is changing is that data networks, ever faster and ever easier to access, are enabling us to use what were once purely, or primarily, local computing machines for functions that are less computing and more communication.

    In the early/mid-1990s, before dial-up and broadband became widespread, I used my PC to write programs (Pascal/C/Prolog), draft documents (WordPerfect), use spreadsheets ineffectively and play games. All this happened in splendid isolation from other computers. Programs at work that did not exchange anything with other programs… Today, I use the computing machines I have access to much more for what are essentially forms of communication rather than pure computing. E.g., email, sharing web links with friends/family, working jointly with colleagues on documents/spreadsheets in SharePoint, updating documents in Google Drive, etc. This does not mean that the computing I do, or need to do, has declined in volume. Rather, my use of these machines for communication functions has outstripped my use of them for pure computing.

    To me, this framework – computing v. communication – seems more natural than the mainframe v. PC argument, which feels a bit forced.

    2. The cloud, and particularly its social-networking mechanism, personalizes depersonalization… The apparatus of control wears a new face, and that face is our own.

    Beautifully, vividly expressed. But is it primarily our willing participation that is granting the cloud control?

  12. I’m a bit stunned by the strong resistance to your statement that “the original mainframe era provoked, in the mid-60s, a revolt by the young against the central, corporate control of personal information.” from the late 1950s onward, through just about to the advent of the PC, there was widespread social distrust of computerization. It’s evident not just in music but in a huge range of television programs, movies, and novels, and nonfiction works as well. (Just as an indication, note how many episodes of Star Trek turn on computer control gone wrong, whereas how few of them turn on the power of computers to do good.) Writers like Ellul, Roszak, Weizenbaum, Mumford, and many others were widely read in colleges and even secondary schools. The “organization man” of the 1950s was seen to segue into the computerized bureaucracy of the 1960s, and this attitude was so widespread that it’s been stunning (to me) how quickly it’s evaporated. This is in no way to deny the identity of some parts of the youth movements with computers, as documented so well by Fred Turner, but these two things are by no means mutually exclusive, and from my memory and reading, concern about computerization was much more widespread than enthusiasm for it, and even that enthusiasm was typically directed at a different part of computer ability than was the worry (i.e., something closer to PC functions were extolled, while mass bureaucratization was widely denounced.)

  13. Tom Lord

    David:

    I’m a bit stunned by the strong resistance to your statement that “the original mainframe era provoked, in the mid-60s, a revolt by the young against the central, corporate control of personal information.” from the late 1950s onward, through just about to the advent of the PC, there was widespread social distrust of computerization. It’s evident not just in music but in a huge range of television programs, movies, and novels, and nonfiction works as well.

    Hey, that kind of pop cultural reaction to computers goes back to “Desk Set” (Tracey / Hepburn).

    Heck, a very similar cultural reaction — not exactly computers but pretty close — goes back to “Modern Times” (Chaplin).

    We can play at poetry all day.

    There were real, actual — not pop cultural — student revolts in “the ’60s”.

    That’s why you have heard of “the ’60s”.

    In Berkeley, site of that Mario Savio speech, students put their bodies on the line over free speech, academic freedom, the war, civil rights, real estate grabs by the University, armed resistance to police brutality in black neighborhoods… stuff like that.

    The government deployed the army in Berkeley. They used phalanxes of bayonets and rifles to corral students into a plaza and then use a military helicopter to crop dust them with military grade tear gas. They used an assemblage of local police forces to converge on the People’s Park protests and kill one protester, blind another.

    If you look at all of the source material for those revolts you will be very hard pressed to find support for this hypothesis that the punch card was a big provocation. Nick has pretty much exhausted the well here; it’s dry.

    As a minor adjunct to this, by the way, nerdy computer freaks were busying themselves “liberating” computing so that more people could have more of it.

    But, yeah, sure: pop culture featured folk music against a “psychedelic” backdrop and made fun of computers. That didn’t scare the financiers and advertisers.

    Oh, hey, did you ever see “Collasus: The Forbin Project”? or “2001: A Space Odyssey”? If these are your main anchor points then maybe “the ’60s” really was all about the anxiety of computer mediated “depersonalization”.

    It makes perfect sense. SDS was blowing up banks and such because, you know, punch cards. Right?

    The “organization man” of the 1950s was seen to segue into the computerized bureaucracy of the 1960s

    I love the disembodied “was seen”. Especially since we started at “provoked revolt”.

    Computers mainly were and were seen as a tool for hopefully making marginal efficiency improvements in the operation of bureaucracies.

    “The square” (aka “the straight”) was not seen as a computer phenomenon anymore than he was seen as a florsheim phenomenon or a ticky tacky house in a repressive suburb phenomenon.

  14. Nick

    Yes, Desk Set (1957) provides one of my favorite portrayals of mainframe anxiety, though the fears were more about job losses from computer automation than about depersonalization (but that was there too):

    Turned out to be prophetic.

    But anyway, Tom, in pointing out the fact that computerization and the punchcard were common targets of protest, both on campus and in popular culture, both actually and symbolically, I did not intend to demean or diminish the broader sources and expressions of 60s protest.

  15. Tom, I am understanding now that your problem is with the word “provoked,” because you think it suggests that computerization was the *cause* of the 60s student revolts? I just didn’t take it that way to begin with; I took “provoked” in its other typical sense of “irritated by, upset by, concerned about.” I did not mean to suggest, and did not take Nick to be suggesting, and he re-emphasizes that in his response above, that feelings about computerization were *the* cause, or even *an important* cause, of the student revolts; as I hope I clearly stated, I took Nick’s point to be that there were widespread negative feelings about computerization in the 1960s, and that computerization was often seen as a part of a bureaucratized corporate culture that 60s radicals had many reasons to oppose, and did oppose, and so the image of a mainframe computer was often invoked in 60s culture, especially so-called “anti-establishment” culture–whereas positive feelings about the liberatory potential of computerization were much less common (though they did exist). This is why references to not just pop (and intellectual!) culture but all culture are relevant–they show how widespread those feelings were. The proximate causes for the 60s revolts were Vietnam, racial inequality, gender inequality, the cold war, income inequality, the national security state, and about a half-dozen other important issues. Are we in agreement now?

  16. At the risk of beating a dead horse, I just did a bit of database searching and found “Social Attitudes and the Computer Revolution,” Robert S Lee, he Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring, 1970), pp. 53-59. The data (collected in 1963) show high degrees of agreement with positive statements including “They [computers] make it possible to speed up scientific progress and achievements,” “They are very important to our man-in-space program,” and “They will help bring about a better way of life for the average man”; but even higher degrees of agreement with negative statements like “With these machines, the individual person will not count for very much anymore,” “Someday in the future, these machines may be running our lives for us,” and “They sort of make you feel that machines can be smarter than people.” The author was “a social psychologist at IBM.”

  17. Addendum: the survey respondents were not required to pick only negative or only positive statements, and it appears that many then (as now) held both negative and positive views. My point is only that the negative views were extremely widespread; one of the statements with the highest level of agreement was one that seems very close to Nick’s point about depersonalization: “With these machines, the individual person will not count for very much anymore.”

  18. Anyway saying that the PC was decentralized, when everybody has one of 2 or 3 or a bit more books (OS) written on it, is more or less about semantics

  19. One of the earliest computer ethics topics to arouse public interest was privacy. For example, in the mid-1960s the American government already had created large databases of information about private citizens (census data, tax records, military service records, welfare records, and so on). In the US Congress, bills were introduced to assign a personal identification number to every citizen and then gather all the government’s data about each citizen under the corresponding ID number. A public outcry about “big-brother government” caused Congress to scrap this plan and led the US President to appoint committees to recommend privacy legislation. In the early 1970s, major computer privacy laws were passed in the USA.

    Bynum, Terrell, “Computer and Information Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/ethics-computer/>.

  20. I’d think the opposition to mainframes is about other people, the System, storing data about me. Mainframes/server farms now days allow me store my data and use it as I want to.

    And sure, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the service, they profit off of my data– but I get something valuable to me.

    In the 70s there were a few Community Computing efforts to realise the benefits of computing for communities– a different form of resistance than burning punch cards. Computing for the people, instead of of the people. Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines is in this vein.

    At the same time, today’s “terminals” are insanely powerful compared to early personal computers– and, increasingly, more programmable (Pythonista on the iPhone?)
    That people tend not to assume the level of control that programming confers is a different issue.