Speaker: Paul Edwards
Affiliation: Dept. of History, Univ. of Michigan
Date: 10/5/00
Time and Location: 4:15pm, B17 Upson Hall
Title: Systems, Networks, and Webs: Towards a History of Digital Convergence

Beginning in the 1950s, but especially more recently (since the mid-1990s), many fundamental infrastructures have gradually (or suddenly) converted from analog communications and control technologies to digital ones. Digital information is more readily copied and converted from one format to another than analog forms. Meanwhile, computer processing and storage has undergone possibly the most rapid and radical price decline of any major commodity in world history. Together, these factors led to what is known in the computer industry as "digital convergence." This allows previously separate media and information systems to "converge" into multi-media, multi-purpose conglomerates. An example is the convergence of telephony and the Internet.

These phenomena have interacted strongly with the increasing globalization of trade, communication, and culture, with widely differing effects across the planet. In this talk, I will argue that studying digital convergence in the context of globalization provides an opportunity for new directions in history and sociology of computing. Macro studies, unpopular in the 1980s and 1990s, need to be revived, albeit fortified by the insights of micro-oriented science and technology studies. Using examples from the Y2K problem, WWW and Internet history, and global climate science and politics, I will present some organizing concepts that might orient such a revival. I will argue that recent history reveals a "web" or "internetwork" development paradigm, in which new sociotechnical networks are built by linking and reassembling existing ones.