What technology has killed the most people by accident?

Recently, I was asked to offer an answer to this question posed by Gizmodo for their “Giz Asks” feature. The original is here, (along with the answers provided by several other historians of technology) and I’ve also posted my response separately, below. Given everything that’s going on right now in the United States with anti-Black racism and police brutality reaching a crisis point, I think that we should use the history of technology to look more critically at the past, especially the stories that get told about technology.

If we are going to look at causes and effects in the history of technology we have to be honest: technology doesn’t simply equal progress. More often it is a way for people to wield power over others, and to intensify and centralize that power. Right now, there’s a huge debate surrounding surveillance and policing: critics worry that more facial recognition and surveillance tools will simply amplify and extend racist policing. There is a lot of historical precedent to support that contention. I tried to use an example from the more distant history of technology to help illustrate the way that seemingly neutral technologies interact with their historical contexts to deepen inequalities and cause real harm. And to show why it’s so important to learn from these histories.

The Cotton Gin And The Expansion of Slavery

Images from Eli Whitney’s 1793 patent application for the cotton gin (original held in US National Archives).

When we think about technologies that have killed a lot of people by accident, we have to think about technologies that have been around a long time, and whose utility has been so great for industrial expansion that their negatives have been overlooked—or, worse yet, intentionally hidden.

The cotton gin, patented by Eli Whitney in 1794 and in widespread use throughout the US throughout the 19thcentury, is one such technology. The cotton gin (short for “enGINe”) was a machine that made cleaning and preparing raw cotton much quicker and more efficient—and therefore made the growing of cotton much more profitable. 

What the cotton gin also did was to make slavery far more entrenched, through making cotton picking by enslaved people in United States much more profitable. Slavery had not been expanding as rapidly until the invention of the gin encouraged more and more white cotton growers to expand their production. White southerners “imported” more than 80,000 Africans as slaves between 1790 and the ban on “importing” enslaved  Africans in 1808. Between the years of 1790 and 1850 the number of enslaved people in the US rose from 700, 000 to more than 3 million through generational enslavement (chattel slavery). By the start of the civil war one third of all Southerners were enslaved people.  

This was all in the service of the booming cotton industry that the cotton gin created: the US supplied the vast majority of all the word’s cotton by the mid 19th c. and the production of cotton doubled every decade after 1800. When people say that the U.S. economy was built on the backs of enslaved Black people, they are talking about industries like cotton and all the personal and national wealth created at the expense of enslaved Black people’s lives.

Had it not been for the invention of the cotton gin, it is likely that slavery would’ve been abolished more quickly instead of massively expanding in the way that it did, in a relatively short period of time. The calculation of deaths that includes enslaved Black people who died enroute to the US, and enslaved Black people who died or were killed while in the US, already more than qualifies this technology for a high spot on this list—to say nothing of the widespread misery and pain caused to enslaved people, and the generations of their descendants who have been deprived of their full civil rights as a result. 

Right now, we are seeing all too clearly how Black people living in the US today lose their lives as a result of this economic and technological history. White business owners in the South in the 18th and 19th centuries used technology to amplify and extend racism, misery, and death, much in the same way that we see happening with certain technologies today. The goal, then as now, is both profit and power.

So I think this is an important history of technology to keep in mind. Because it shows how technologies are always constructed for and by the contexts in which they come into being. And if that context is racist, they are likely to uphold racism, if what they do is help make the existing economic and social structures stronger and more efficient without caring about existing inequalities. When technologists try to “fix” things with merely technical solutions they ignore the broader context and how those technologies work in it. 

This is one reason why it’s so important for STEM practitioners to learn and know history, and why STEM programs at universities do their students, and all of us, a disservice by not having more humanists and historians. Narrowly technical “advances” that don’t understand the broader context can lead to terrible unintended —but not unforeseen—outcomes. And that isn’t real progress at all.

Two New Courses

Image from my archival research process, 2016.

I recently created and taught two new courses, one on “Diversity in the History of Technology” (fall 2019) and a seminar on “History and Historiography” (spring 2020). See the full syllabi here.

The diversity in technology course is a history of technology course that reorients students’ understanding by balancing the often triumphalist, technophiliac accounts of tech’s past with stories from the margins, & histories of technologies that center previously ignored or submerged voices & narratives. For instance, we read Professor Deirdre Cooper Owens’s book Medical Bondage, on how white supremacy was part and parcel of the development of gynecological surgery, and we read Prof. Lisa Nakamura’s work on Navajo hardware manufacturing workers at Fairchild Semiconductor in the 1970s, who protested unfair labor conditions. We read Margot Shetterly’s Hidden Figures and relate this history to the present by reading work by scholars like Prof. Safiya Noble and Prof. Ruha Benjamin on Black producers and users of computing technologies, and the overlapping systems of oppression that large scale commercial information technologies rely on and strengthen.

Annie Easley, scientist at NASA. Photo circa 1981, courtesy of nasa.gov

Over the course of the semester, students expand their understanding of what usually “counts” as history of technology, and who usually gets to count within it. The course asks students to think about how oppression and the power relationships inherent in powerful, centralized technological systems have shaped what we think are the best ways to implement technologies today, and how ignoring these factors (or failing to contend with the history that created them) often leads to problematic, myopic strategies for “diversifying” technological products and workforces today.

The historiography course introduces students to the field of historiography—the study of how history gets written. Readings in the course focus on recent, innovative historical works that reconfigure the way histories of certain topics have been written in the past. We read, among other works, Prof. Hazel Carby’s most recent book on empire and family (Imperial Intimacies), Clyde Ford’s latest on race in the history of computing (Think Black), and Lauren Jae Gutterman’s new book on queer history (Her Neighbor’s Wife). Students investigate what went into writing them, think about why certain stories haven’t been written until now, and begin conceptualize history as a dynamic, changing set of narratives and ideas about the world, rather than simply a static, unchanging record of past events.

In the second half of the course, students also look at how different mediums (written, oral, visual) influence how histories are constructed, conveyed to an audience, and how the knowledge they create eventually becomes taken for granted or “common knowledge,” after initially being seen as novel or even radical.

Find both syllabi here.

Good News!

My book, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge In Computing, published by MIT Press, has been awarded the 2019 Herbert Baxter Adams Prize from the American Historical Association. (It also won the 2018 PROSE Award for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine from the Association of American Publishers; The 2018 Sally Hacker Prize from the Society for the History of Technology; The 2018 Stansky Prize from the North American Conference on British Studies; and the 2018 Wadsworth Prize from the British Business Archives Council.)

It is currently available in paperback,audiobook, and e-book. And a graphic novel version may be on the horizon!

Drawing I did in a signed copy of Programmed Inequality for a reader.

Interview with Dame Stephanie Shirley

I had the great fortune to interview Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley for the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. A child refugee from Nazi Germany, she went on to found a feminist software startup at a time when few people even knew what software was, and even fewer cared about feminist business models that put women’s needs first. She and her mostly-women employees wrote  some of the most important software for 20th century British industry and government–including programming the black box flight  recorder for the Concorde. She eventually became a billionaire and now focuses on philanthropy–particularly autism related causes. She was also the founding donor of the Oxford Internet Institute. Listen & watch here or read the transcript here. The interview was conducted over video link between her home in London and my home in the US. It runs about an hour.

For a much longer and more exhaustive oral history (many hours) check out Dr. Tom Lean’s interview with her for the British Library Oral History “voices of science” collection.


SHOT Book Launch

At the Society for the History of Technology Meeting this coming weekend in Philadelphia, MIT Press will being doing a joint launch of my book and Edward Jones-Imhotep’s terrific new volume on a unique set of Cold War technological failures. It runs from 3:30-4:30 on Friday, October 27, at the MIT Press table in the SHOT book hall. Discounts, free bookmarks, and snacks will be available! Come on by.

Learning How to Read Better (In College & Beyond)

The short guide below evolved out of a conversation with Miriam Posner (@miriamkp) of UCLA who was looking for ways to help her students read more quickly and effectively. These tips can help you retain more when reading academic texts and allow you to get through them at a quicker pace.

Here’s what I tell my students if they have trouble keeping up with the reading for my history and STS classes: Continue reading

A new, improved Women in Computing History syllabus

Annie Easley at NASA in 1981. Image: nasa.gov
Annie Easley at NASA in 1981. Image: nasa.gov

This year, at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, I am teaching a new and improved version of my popular course Women in Computing History. It was initally taught at Illinois Tech in Chicago last year, where it garnered some press attention.

Due to the interest the course generated with people beyond the walls of our classroom I annotated the syllabus with discussion topics and class notes to give a sense of what we did in each class meeting–and what kinds of questions might be useful if you do the readings on your own.

See my syllabus page for the newest version of the course–the old version is still available as well, for all you completionists who might want to look at the details of how the course has changed!

The History of Computing is More Relevant Than Ever

I recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post using history to debunk the infamous “Google Memo” and its contention that women are somehow less innately suited to technical pursuits. Truth is, for a long time women were predominant in the field of computing because technical work wasn’t seen as important. Their disappearance has everything to do with structural discrimination and little to do with “innate” differences.

I was also very glad to get a few mentions in The Guardian. See this (delightfully acerbic) article about memogate in general, and this one that’s specifically about the history of computing’s role in helping us better understand power and (the lack of) diversity in our technological landscape in the present.

Quick note about the latter article–it made a little bit of a mistake in the first few lines (read more here and here). Both SUSIE and SADIE were computers. The typist/programmer in the ad was unnamed.

BCL Computer ad from 1967 that talks all about the “typist” that will program your newly-purchased computer for you.


What the Google gender ‘manifesto’ really says about Silicon Valley

File 20170809 32154 xnrsxk
Oh the terrible irony.
Photo by Mar Hicks

Five years ago, Silicon Valley was rocked by a wave of “brogrammer” bad behavior, when overfunded, highly entitled, mostly white and male startup founders did things that were juvenile, out of line and just plain stupid. Most of these activities – such as putting pornography into PowerPoint slides – revolved around the explicit or implied devaluation and harassment of women and the assumption that heterosexual men’s privilege could or should define the workplace. The recent “memo” scandal out of Google shows how far we have yet to go.

Continue reading

Why Should We Care About The Failure of the British Computing Industry?

Recently I gave a talk at Data & Society, a think tank in NYC that focuses on issues of social justice and technology. The talk was about how the history of computing of our closest historical cousin, the UK, can help us learn things about the past and present of the US–things that we may be blind to, or perhaps just resistant to seeing. The half-hour talk is an overview of what happens when countries build discrimination into technological order, rather than seeking to make equality a core goal of technological progress. In it, I address how the current state of affairs in the US relates to this, and I offer some advice on solving the problems of underrepresentation in STEM fields today. Watch the talk here.