Like Punched Cards in the System

Tim Owens pointed me to the 1964 IBM promotional/instructional video “Once Upon a Punchcard”. It is yet another video in a growing collection of media resources for the Internet Course I’m teaching alongside Paul Bond this summer. This one is interesting because it frames an alternative vision of computing in the mid 1960s. Rather than far out visionaries like J.C.R. Licklider imagining an integrated network of virtual connections, computing in this video is framed as a machine organized around the principles of business efficiencies, streamlining processes and scaling operations. Punching your timecard becomes metaphor for routinized factory work under the watchful eyes of the bosses. The punchcard became a symbol of power and control, and it was based to some large degree around organizing and storing information. In Wikipedia article about punch cards includes this bit under the cultural impact of punch cards:

In the 1964–65 Free Speech Movement, punched cards became a … symbol of the “system”—first the registration system and then bureaucratic systems more generally … a symbol of alienation … Punched cards were the symbol of information machines, and so they became the symbolic point of attack. Punched cards, used for class registration, were first and foremost a symbol of uniformity. …. A student might feel “he is one of out of 27,500 IBM cards” … The president of the Undergraduate Association criticized the University as “a machine … IBM pattern of education.”… Robert Blaumer explicated the symbolism: he referred to the “sense of impersonality… symbolized by the IBM technology.”… ––Steven Lubar[51]

I love this, the UC Berkeley student protests were framed around the broader, data driven culture that makes students feel like an insignificant number within a lifeless, soul sucking system. At least the UC system had affordable tuition back then 😉 This instructional video belies a deeper discontent with the idea of machines as extensions of an increasingly impersonal and pernicious educational system.

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4 Responses to Like Punched Cards in the System

  1. Pat says:

    IBM as impersonal machines – well, one look at World War Two tells you that.

    Was at a talk on Tuesday about neoliberalism and the speaker mentioned this – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn – which is an almost kibbutz like network for information sharing, or perhaps, with grandiose, a cybernetic country – shall we say a cybentry?

  2. Alan Levine says:

    Ironically IBM was very late (like 15-20) years into the computer game; while the development was happening in the 1950s independently in the US, UK, Russia, even Australia IBM was focused on mechanical tabulators.

    I wonder if we can cleanly separate automation/efficiency for exploitation or for doing things better. Some of the early development was driven by the needs of the US Census; it was taking almost 10 years to do the data collection manually (but one might say collections data was for exploitative purpose?). Or as I was reading about in “Electronic Brains”, the Lyons Company development of the LEO was part of their ongoing efficiency efforts to supply restaurants and tea shops with supplies (is providing a food service a service or exploitation of workers?). A volunteer at the British Computing Museum told us that most of the room full of early tabulation machines (for which punch cards were developed) was driven by the needs of large scale chicken farmer (feeding people or exploiting chickens?).

    I do find that UC protest angle fascinating, how people started to view the increasing role of information accumulation. There is a building now part of Otis College of Art (LA) that was built for IBM- the design and appearance definitely suggests a giant punch card.

    Your uncovering of info for the course is generating for me a great deal of interest in these topics, keep digging.

  3. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some collaborative tool you could use to collect and annotate these videos? Something with more of an iterative editing process than blogging?

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