Summary

  • Hicks’ book is about the switch from the 1940’s to the 1960’s in the gender composition of Britain’s computer industry: from women- to men-dominated, for reasons that are poorly understood.
  • “A gendered history of top-down structural discrimination defines the shape of the modern computing industry in the Anglo-American world. . . . Historical examples from the US context show the existence of anecdotal discrimination, but because they focus primarily on computer history from the perspective of industry and use a varied array of business sources, structural discrimination is hard to prove. The British case is different: In Britain, gendered labor change was part of a top-down government initiative to computerize. Not only women byt also the explicit structural discrimination against them played a crucial, formative role in the uptake of computer and in the ultimate failure of the British computing industry” (3).
  • The British case as a “parable of how nations can modernize in ways that are not merely uneven but that actively reconstitute categories of social inequality” (4). In particular, the British example helps “elucidate power dynamics [esp. of class] that are harder to discern in the US context.”

Two main threads of the book: 1. “the diminution of women’s contributions in computing” 2. “the increasing inability of the British government . . . to make good on promises of a technological revolution that would help the nation maintain world power status and equalize Britain’s highly class-stratified society” (12).

Keywords

  • feminization
  • technocrat
  • White Heat: “technological revolution [initiated by PM in 1964] meant to burn up inequalities within British society as it modernized the country” (14)

Notes

Introduction

  • Automation relies on “deskilling, labor rationalization, and feminization,” an argument that leads Hicks to focus on “low-level labor” (6). “Industrial revolutions” rely on a hidden substrate of feminized work.
  • Feminization also produces class, as management consciously redefines certain jobs (e.g., clerical work) as feminine in order to organize class as well as gender dynamics (8).
  • “Managers quickly developed the idea that competence working with machines was a feminite attribute to differentiate it from the supposedly more intellectual work done by male clerks. Soon, women became synonymous with office machine operators and their work became tied to typewriters, desktop accounting machines, and room-sized punched card equipment installations (9). Women’s work comes to depend on objects.
  • “Computerization and the job categories it created were intentionally and explicitly built around a particular mid-twentieth-century sexual status quo” (10). One of Hicks’ key methods is wedding this labor history with an economic analysis, to show that the British GDP suffered as result of these practices, but that “so important was women’s dependent role to the maintenance of British societal norms that economic drawbacks like this were seen simply as an unavoidable cost.”
  • “For most of the twentieth century, computing functioned as a centralized—and centralizing—technology that lent itself to the further consolidation of power in the hands of a few” (11). Computing was the (false) antidote to a fading Empire.
  • “This study attempts to avoid further lionizing computing skill in a way that gives automatic approval to its worth. Instead, it complicates how our impression of the high value of computer programming has been historically constructed by class, gender, nationality, and race, and it is skeptical about the technological boosterism that sometimes attaches to narratives seeking to unearth women’s contributions to computing” (16). Hence the focus on women workers as a class rather than picking out a few “exceptional” professionals (something that the male-authored histories of computing history seem unavoiably to do).

Chapter 1

  • Subject: “The origins and consequences of wartime work in computing” (13).
  • Feminization “was critical in definining early computerization” (20).
  • Not only gender discrimination but heteronormativity key to the management and discipline of computing labor: women presumed as compulsorily heterosexual and thus unsuitable for independence or high pay (22).
  • Wartime crisis key to breaking pattern of locking women in temporary subclerical labor (24).
  • “As a state-building tool in times of stability and peace, as well as in times of war, computerization’s history is largely a narrative of how the data-intensive state expands its reach and power by taking for granted, and rendering invisible, ever-greater numbers of information workers” (42).
  • State-building: Turing’s idea of the “human brake,” the idea that computers were necessarily faster and more efficient than human operators (55).

Chapter 2

  • Subject: “The creation and institutionalization of a feminized underclass of women machine workers within the sprawling bureaucracy of the Civil Service and nationalized industries” (13).
  • The purely discursive function of salary grades in maintaining gender hierarchy: “The fact that women’s pay maximum was the lowest salary point for men was not a coincidence, but rather an attempt to preserve clear gendered hierarchies, even in a class in which these hierarchies were only theoretical because there were no men, nor any structures in place to hire them” (80).

Chapter 3

  • Subject: “How British companies used the image of this feminized labor force to market the systems they were trying to sell both at home and abroad, intentionally exporting British gender norms to other nations as they marketed their systems” (13).
  • “Britain’s technological revolution would be halting and ultimately unsuccessful becaue it became a reconsolidation of traditional hierarchies—not a revolution at all” (101).
  • Worth comparing the advertisement analysis in this chapter with Kirschenbaum’s similar work in Track Changes.

Chapter 4 [REVISIT THIS CHAPTER ON SATURDAY]

  • Subject: The “doomed failure” of White Heat: “As computers became the chosen instrument of government power at home and abroad, government hiring managers redoubled their efforts to create a class of technocratic elites to take over all computer programming and operation” (14).

Chapter 5

  • Subject: Why the technocracy failed: “In consolidating a male-identified ideal for computing work, the government also whittled down the available labor pool for computer jobs” (15). The ideal young male technocrat was impossible to find and the government neglected its skilled feminine labor market.
  • In an effort to manage this failure, the government “orchestrated a merger of the most promising companies into one large corporation,” and brought it under their control (15).

Conclusion

  • Shades of our current contingent and temporary labor issues: “Although the British government realized the major benefits that could accrue by leveraging women’s labor in times of military conflict, for the most part it ignored the power of this labor force to remake the British economy in peacetime. By encouraging the majority of its clerical workforce to cluster in low-level and often temporary jobs, Britain neglected the lessons of labor rationalization learned during the two world wars” (227). Put another way: the belief in technocracy neglects the real labor substrate that makes computing work; computing cannot work in isolation. Neglecting the training and maintenance of such a labor field inevitably leads to computing’s decline.
  • Hicks argues for gender, rather than women, as a “category of historical analysis”: we must take care not to reproduce histories of exceptional people with women slotted in rather than men. Rather, we must see women computer operators and programmers as “representative of the vast, largely hidden store of women’s labor and expertise in early computing” (233).
  • These women “exist as much on a discursive level as they do on the level of an embodied labor force. Their work identities were formed by job classifications and management language that was carefully deployed to protect a status quo of structural inequality” (233).
  • “Although discrimination animates this history, this story is about more than unequal treatment of women. It explains how gendered relationships shape technology, affect the workings of the state, and ultimately impact the fortunes of nations (236).

Archive and Impact

  • Hicks is an historian of computing in a more contemporary, digital-studies-inflected tradition. This is the kind of history of computing I encountered at SIGCIS: still deeply researched, reliant on primary sources, interested in narrativizing in a more empirical way the sociocultural contexts of computing, but now with a more robust theoretical framework. I note that Hicks’ analysis is more deeply informed by and conversant with concepts of queer and feminist theory and analyses of power than, say, [Edwards’] (/sources/edwards-1996-closed), even as Edwards’ book is more ostensibly engaged in high deconstructive theory.
  • Cites Edgerton on the fourth page! So Hicks is explicitly working within this computing history tradition of foregrounding use and anti-innovation.
  • Key to her argument is the rise of the technocrat: the idea that computing operates as a centralizing force that collocates power in the hands of the few. It’ll be really interesting to revist these arguments in light of my reading on networks—the contrasting promise of decentralization and distribution when held up against these historical realities.
  • Conclusion leads on queer theory’s idea of gender performance, reinforcing the idea that gendered computing is a discursive as well as embodied function (234).
  • Intervention: “the history of labor has become integral to the history of computing” (20). See Nakamura.
  • Also compare Hicks’ interest in computing as an agent of building state power with the infrastructural and political interests of theorists like Bratton (55–57).