“The Tears of Donald Knuth” by David A. Banks

Reading this piece, I can’t help but to be reminded of a very eye-opening satirical talk of Bret Victor’s that I saw probably a few months ago called “The Future of Programming,” which plays on many of the same ideas explored here, although with a slightly different goal.

The gist of the essay is this: Donald Knuth once read a paper called “The History of the History of Software” by computing historian Martin Campbell-Kelly which upset him so much as to move him not only to tears but also to deliver an impassioned speech titled “Let’s Not Dumb Down the History of Computing.” Knuth’s issue with the paper was that it remained mostly non-technical and therefore was not useful to computer scientists, who needed this history most of all. Banks uses the rest of this letter to explain why Knuth’s ire is deserved but misguided.

While Banks is concerned with pushing for more historians of computing in order to computer scientists’ understandings of the field, Victor in his talk makes the case for studying the history of computing (although really in his case it’s closer to the history of software) so that we might not become too settled into our understandings of what software is and might be. He cites the 1960s as an extremely fertile time in computer science, when the field was still so new that computer scientists had no idea what it was and so had no restrictions in their minds as to what it could be.

I think there’s much to be said about studying the history of human-computer interaction as well. I remember being in my HCI class sophomore year and being blown away by Douglas Engelbart’s “Mother of All Demos,” in which he introduced to the world windows, the mouse, hypertext, video conferencing, and a collaborative text editor (among many things). So many of the things shown during that demonstrations are now commonplace in computers today and form the basis for our interface with computing. But why is our understanding of HCI so often defined in terms of these devices which have existed for almost 50 years?

There have been incredible explorations into novel forms of interaction. Richard Bolt created the Put-That-There system which used voice and gestures as the primary method for interaction with a computer which was an entire room (this idea of room-as-computer is something being explored in Victor’s Dynamicland, although as far as I know the similarities mostly end there).

I think this discussion around the value of studying history of a technical field is just another example of the contributions that the humanities can have toward the sciences. Some primary examples I can think of are Jeffrey Bardzell’s papers on HCI which brings in ideas from feminism, aesthetics, and critical theory. I’m also reminded of Mark Marino’s call for close readings of software in “Critical Code Studies” and Nick Monfort’s 10 Print, which manifests this practice. I hope, for Donald Knuth’s sake, that we get more historical writing that fits this bill too.