Computer Boys Response

On page 146 of “The Computer Boys”, Ensmenger alludes to “the new theocracy” as a pejorative term for computer personnel.  This analogy seems much richer and deeper than it is addressed in the article.  The parallels are numerous between the power structure of a late-1960s tech corporation and almost any premodern society with strong religious structure.

The very earliest societies – ancient China and Egypt, for example – got around the problem of religious and political powers by declaring their emperor or pharaoh to be a living god.  He thus became the ultimate head of both power structures by divine right, and exercised direct control over both of them.  However, in societies where the king was not considered a god – or the CEO didn’t know the first thing about computers – a power imbalance is created.  In post-medieval Europe, although the king did rule by divine right, he was definitely not divine himself.  There was a separation of powers, between the Church and the State, but the separation was incomplete, and each side struggled for more control over the fate of nations.  The clergy had specialized skills and knowledge that lay people could not possess, much like the knowledge imparted during extensive technical education to a computer programmer.

Since they had power over men’s souls, which was the most important part of humanity, they saw themselves as the true power in the world.  The kings, however, had political power based on station and bureaucracy, much like the managing structure of a corporation, and saw themselves as in control.  There are several major flaws with this analogy; while in the real life example power shifted back and forth between the sides, corporate management always maintained a tight hold over the other source of power in their structure.  Also, the power locus in a corporation doesn’t affect the lives of nearly as many people as that of a nation.  Despite its problems, the comparison is far more interesting than Ensmenger gives it credit for.

One thought on “Computer Boys Response

  1. Although I agree with you that the analogy, “the new theocracy,” is indeed an interesting one, I’m not sure that your interpretation of it is correct. As I read it, Ensmenger is comparing the computer programmers, and not the management, to the theocracy. The terms listed, including “new theocracy,” “prima donnas,” and “industrial carpetbaggers” are said to have been used by corporate managers when referring to the computer personnel of a company. These terms are used condescendingly and are used to patronize the computer programmers in a company. In you analysis, it seems as though you believed that the theocracy was being used to describe the management system, when this does not seem to be the case. Instead, the term seems to be used facetiously towards the computer programmers. Thus, although it is used as an analogy, it is not one to be taken too seriously. The managers only used this term due to their frustration with the programmers. The antisocial nature and sense of independence that many programmers displayed would cause them to sometimes ignore orders from managers, causing a rift between the two different positions. This schism caused resentment that led to the patronizing name calling of the programmers by the managers (and vice versa).

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