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Opening Roundtable: What Does the History of IT Have to Say to Media Studies and Computer Science?

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"What does the history of IT have to say to media studies and computer science?" Roundtable discussion, Friday June 10, 2016, 1700-1900

  • Liesbeth de Mol, CNRS/STL, Université de Lille
  • Carolin Gerlitz, University of Amsterdam
  • Sebastian Gießmann, Siegen University
  • Thomas Haigh, University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee & Siegen University (Moderator)
  • Volkmar Pipek, Siegen University (slides)
  • Erhard Schüttpelz, Siegen University
  • Matti Tedre, Stockholm University

Questions To Guide Discussion

Q1) Siegen’s School of Media and Information is unusual among “iSchools” in having computer science and media studies as its two dominant disciplinary traditions. What challenges and opportunities does this pose? How can a focus on the histories of information technology and computing aid those building such a school?

Q2) Work on the history of computing was pioneered, back in the 1970s, by eminent computer scientists and computing pioneers. Since then, activity on this topic has gradually shifted towards scholars trained primarily in history. How could the history of information technology be reintegrated into the teaching and research of computer science? What benefits might this bring to historians or to computer scientists?

Q3) The history of information technology is an increasingly visible topic within media studies, but in this context it is often approached without detailed engagement with the ideas and work of specialists trained in the history of technology. Likewise, specialists within the history of technology have not traditionally been engaged with media studies or media theory. What specific benefits might building connections bring to scholars on either side of the divide?


Each panelist will make a short opening statement, offering some snappy and provocative personal throughts related to these discussion questions.The panelists will then engage in an initial persion of discussion with each other, before the discussion broadens to include participation from other attendees.

Position Statements from Panelists

Lisesbeth De Mol: I will propose that rather than starting from an assumption of studying the history of computing for its own sake, the real challenge is to develop a history of computing that reaches beyond its own apparent boundaries. I will exemplify this by giving a quite personal perspective on history of computing discussing in more details why I believe history of computing is important, how it can work together with Medientheorie and what kind of initiatives I have taken towards crossing the disciplinary fences between computing and computing history.

Sebastian Gießmann: Since Media Studies in Germany have mostly been built up out of the humanities, the history of computing and networking still has to become a key issue. Within the German Association for Media Studies, I belonged to the founding members of the working group on “Data and Networks” which only came into to being in 2012. This was an initiative, which was mainly driven by experienced postdoctoral researchers who all agreed on the underrepresentation of all things digital in the media studies mainstream. It might be interesting to know that we branded “Data and Networks” as a title, because “Computer as Medium” did not quite fit any longer and “Data, Codes and Networks” seemed to long as a title. And just recently we discussed whether the groups’ identity and research interest did not already move on, e.g. to platforms. Within the yearly workshops this development is quite visible, actually. So we started off with the question “What is Data Critique?” (2013), moved on to “Reverse Engineering Digital Methods” (2014), “Profiles” (2015) and “Networks (revisited)” (2016).

Yet this has only been possible because some pioneers brought the computer and symbolic machines in general into the German humanities training. The knowledge history of computing and computers as a matter of academic enskillment and practice in the humanities still has to be written. But I want to present a small trace of what is what like to learn about “Computer as Medium” 1999 in Berlin, long before media research in Germany was internationalized in the way the Siegen iSchool has been set up.

Volkmar Pipek: I will allow myself to be as naive and mundane as the discipline of Computer Science comes across towards more reflective disciplines like media studies or STS ;-)

Q1: The iSchool Siegen has a unique constellation not only because these discipline aim to connect their research, but also by its epistemological position of grounding research in practices in analytical as well as design-oriented work. Neither in Computer Science/Information Systems nor in the Media Studies this was a mainstream position. There is already a lively dialogue between these disciplines, and part of the discourse is looking back at failures and missed opportunities.

Q2: Work on our History helps us to identify the big patters that have made successes as well as failures. CS is a discipline that had such a tremendous success in terms of economic and societal acknowledgement that it traditionally looks into the usually bright future, not into the potentially dark past. This attitude produces a tangible methodological void.

Q3: It requires a unique skill to produce a wholistic account of the history of computing/IT. I usually would not trust specialists that would not have a sound knowledge not only of the history of programming, but also programming itself, including the specialized methods of project management that help inform the engineering of software (up to todays Cyber-Physical Systems). Together with a knowledge of the development of the material basis (hardware and networks) and the developing effects on economies and societies they provide not only a wide angle, but also at a depth that would help recognizes the fundamental problem of the requirements to model (to anticipate an unanticipable world) to a level of accuracy that would allow a generalized computational service to produce a reliable result in every specific practice situation.

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