Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book review: "The computer boys take over"

I guess that most folk who read this blog are IT people in one way or the other. I do not expect my mother to read it, or even my wife. This is, after all, mostly about rather geeky technical computer things. But what do I do, when I am at work? I have been asked this more times than I care to remember, and I think this goes for most of you. Your significant other asks, your mum, some realtive, a guy you meet on a train or in a bar.

So what do we do, really? 50 years ago, the kind of jobs we do didn't even exist, and now most young people today can't figure out what a world without computers would be like. A large organization with 10s of thousands of employees managing all those people and all their production completely without computers? Not even thinkable these days, but way into the 1960s, computers was not something for everyone or even for every corporation, and many didn't even know what to do with them, did they have one.

So there has been an explosion not only in the number of computers, but also in the number of people, like ourselves, working with computers. And this type of rapid growth of a profession usually cause things to happen also on the sociological side of things. How do we work together? How does the rest of the work commuicate with us? How does a high-ranking manager of a large corporation feel when his skills are questioned by some dude in a t-shirt, a long beard a wearing sandals? And there is nothing he an do about it. He has to communicate, not the other way around (which might be just as well, we computer dudes mostly aren't good communicators anyway). And how does this change society as a whole?

These were some questions and issues I wanted to have some ideas of answers on, or at least some additional insight in, when I picked up "The computer boys take over" by Nathan Ensmenger (ISBN 978-0-262-05093-7). The book didn't actually turn out to be just what I expected though. As for a historic book, I usually prefer them to be largely cronological, and if the subject is broken up in smaller ones, then at least those I perfer to have these sections in some cronology. In this case, this wasn't so. Rather, this book seems like a book for students to read sections of. The different sections on the different aspects of the computerization of society and the status of the IT workes largely overlap, and the same quotes are used to support different things. Also, the book really gives little insight on the process of things, rather, certain events are exlained, and the impacts those events have, but then they are largely lost, until they pop up in another section of the book and some more is mentioned on the subject.

Don't take me wrong here, this is not a bad book and I did get lot of interesting insights, but the book was really boring to read in the sense of the organization of things, the gems were hidden here and there all over the book, with the rest filled with a lot of repetition of arguments and quotes.

I don't regret buying this book or reading it, but I feel it is not really intended to be read like I read it, front to back. Rather, it seems like this is more of a book for classes or academics, where a section of the book is read, which is not a bad things per se. The reasearch behind the book has also been extensive and ambitious is seems, with a huge section at the send of the book with footnotes, references and a comprehensive index. The index itself makes this book useful to me as a reference work. But I feel that the book could have been better with some more organization of the subject, a better cronology and some more editing.

One thing that is missing throughout the book was the international persepctive. The book is very focused on the US environment, and there are very few mentions of the effects of society and how the computer professional profession grew in other parts of the world. There are a few quotes from Maurice Wilkes, but those are so common and well known that they just could not be left out in a book like this. Like this 1946 quote from Wilkes (which proved to be more true than anyone knew at the time I think): "It had not occured to me that there was going to be any difficulty about getting programs working [...] And it was with somewhat of a shock that I realized that for the reat of my life I was going to spend a good deal of my time finding mistakes I had made in my programs."

And again. If you want to read something about the sociological influence on society and on the growth of the "computer buys" as a profession, there isn' really that much to read. So maybe this book is for you, maybe on a long flight or something. But be prepared to be a bit bored in between in interesting sections.


No comments: