Recently in Charles Babbage Institute Category

By Arvid Nelsen, Archivist, Charles Babbage Institute and Electronic Records Strategist


The hush that fell over the room was short-lived. Sample boxes from the collections at the Charles Babbage Institute were on the tables and workshop participants immediately concentrated on them. Almost as suddenly, however, the chatter began to rise. "Can I use a box from Carl's collection?"

One workshop participant was excited about the Carl Machover Papers. She had known Carl - the donor of CBI's first major collection on computer graphics - and was an active member of the same professional organization to which Carl had dedicated so much of his own time and energy, SIGGRAPH - the special interest group (SIG) dedicated to computer graphics and interactive techniques. It was a thrill to have Carl's materials in front of her.


Another participant looked up from her box of materials from the 1978 History of Programming Languages Conference in Los Angeles and said, "You picked out a box you knew I'd like!"

A box from the Edmund C. Berkeley Papers prompted, "I never would have expected this! I think of Berkeley as a computer person but this material is all about his social activism!"

Big Data and Surveillance

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ComputingTheFuture-Detail.jpgOn Sunday June 16, speaking as a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume commented that too much "fuss" was being made over Edward Snowden because what he supposedly revealed wasn't anything new. To back up this assertion he referred to a May 2006 article in USA Today. Mr. Hume provided no additional information, but I tracked down an article dated May 11, 2006 on the newspaper's website - "NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls" - which I added to a growing list of references on surveillance by means of computer data. I was relieved to hear someone in the media address previous coverage of data surveillance. Recent discussions have often displayed - amidst an outrage that seems to arise from both the political left and right - surprise at the existence of such practices and even at the idea that "new" technologies may have what may be described as nefarious applications. While the article to which the panelist referred addressed this specific NSA program, a perceived threat to personal privacy posed by computers and big data appears in materials dating back several decades. Such materials can be studied at the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota Libraries' Department of Archives and Special Collections.

HiddenFaceOfTech.jpgIn 2008 the Charles Babbage Institute began a collecting initiative on Social Issues in Computing to balance the possible bias of existing holdings. Collections at CBI consisted primarily of materials by the individuals and organizations that made up the computer industry itself. Much, if not all, of what the industry wrote about itself was positive, describing the intellectual achievement and far-reaching practical application of their creations. As a center dedicated to the history of information technology, CBI recognizes the positive contributions of the industry and its reach into the daily lives of much of the world. Social Issues in Computing investigates what people outside of the industry have had to say about this fact - both what they embrace as beneficial and what they regard as threatening.

The Social Issues in Computing initiative seeks a wide array of commercially and independently published print materials - books, magazines, newsletters, flyers, "zines" - that express hopes and concerns about computing and its impact on everyday people and communities from as wide an array of socio-political perspectives as possible. The ideas found within this growing collection of materials demonstrate perceptions both optimistic and dystopic and represent both liberal and conservative political-social perspectives. Issues addressed include jobs, the economy, warfare, the environment, and privacy and surveillance. Specific areas of concern wax and wane at different points in history - and that is interesting in and of itself - but concerns about the potential application of computers for the collection and analysis of data to monitor the populace stretch throughout the collection.

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