All posts by wolfe.jam

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.

Response to “The Averaged American”

What I found most interesting about “The Averaged American” by Sarah Igo is something she rarely addresses head-on in the book.  In both the Middletown average-American section and the polling and surveying section, accounts abound of corners cut by the pollsters and researchers.  One corner in particular provides a fascinating look at the culture of the times:  the underplaying, avoidance and downright omission of racial and ethnic minorities in surveys and studies of the ‘average’ population.

It is not difficult to understand why the surveyors made these choices.  Social mores and climate are incredibly powerful, and the institutionalized racism and WASP-centrism of the period are matters of record.  Moral or immoral, the social scientists involved would have had more trouble than perhaps their results were worth to include all demographics in their studies.  However, the collision of logical science and illogical discrimination must necessarily produce some cognitive dissonance.  The polls would not have been a direct agent of social change, but anyone who paid attention to the system would have seen racism (so often swept under the rug) thrown into sharp relief.  Voting rights are an excellent example: African-Americans, technically eligible to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, were marginalized and disenfranchised in many states.  Any pollster or poll viewer would have been forced to face this fact directly and take steps to ignore it – thus facing their own acceptance of the situation.  This forced facing-up-to of social issues is an unavoidable consequence of scientific examination of the populace – for better or worse.