Nobro Computing

Blog January 24, 2014 7:00 am
Image credit: Nathan Ensmenger.

Image credit: Nathan Ensmenger.

In a blog-post on Difference Engines week ago, Lilly Irani wrote:

By analogy, maybe there’s a feminist STS project that could take similar form [to the People of Color in European Art History Tumblr that she'd been reading] . Women in computing advocates (e.g. Anita Borg Institute) often use the presence of women in computing history as the exception that proves the possibility. I’ve been frustrated for a while about the way well-meaning computing institutions deal with gender in computing by simply attempting to include women (future, present, and past) in the already gendered mold of the contemporary computer programmer. Here’s a picture of Grace Hopper and some women who wrote Fortran; they could code so can you! This Google Doodle from Dec 2013 celebrates Grace Hopper by showing her as a coder directly manipulating a machine — the model of computing celebrated today as one of a person/craftsman/artist manipulating media as an act of creativity.

Grace Hopper types at a computer terminal.

Take the above Doodle, for example. It is anachronistic; during Hopper’s time and for the next few years, computer programming was considered women’s work lower in status than the  occupations of manager and scientist occupied by men. The word computer used to name women who would calculate, and even after machines were introduced, it was often those women who would manipulate them to do calculations, as Jen Light has shown. There were lots of “Computer Girls,” as Nathan Ensmenger has tracked, but they were displaced as computing professionalized as a male-dominated discipline. Let’s say nothing of how the concept of computer science was defined to exclude the computing work women were more likely to be doing — assembly, technical writing, building educational tools.

The Computer Girls do data processing on the machine, managed by men.

Is it possible to crowdsource an archive of non-men in computing in a way that also challenges the boundaries of what is considered computing? Interviews with secretaries who coded, pictures of ads recruiting women to assembly like the one found by DiffEng contributor Göde Both, scraps of evidence from information processing student in the 80s who witnessed the professionalization of Computer Science into a male-dominated Engineering bachelor’s degree course of study. Rather than women in computing, perhaps it could just be nobrocomputing. Why nobro? I was looking for a category that would let the project generate insights about the exclusions of women, people of color, queer people, and others in a concept of “computing” that privileges the participation of white men. Bro is not perfect, but it’s the most succinct I could think of for the moment. I’m happy for alternatives, please suggest!

Nathan Ensmenger obliged by putting up some of the pictures he collected in his archival work for “The Computer Boys Take Over.”

Now, both of them have come together to start a Tumblr.  Called NoBroComputing, it will feature images of non-men in computing, in a way that also challenges what we often understand by computing.  You can view it here — and even more fun, if you have images to contribute, you can do so here.

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