Sunday, February 25, 2007

Discussion for Jim Cortada Week

To recap, the James Cortada articles for this week discussed the integration of the computer chip and the computer in the United States as well as the effect this had on the country in the latter half of the 20th century. Additionally, the two readings related to The Digital Hand: How Information Technology Changed the Way Industries Worked in the United States discussed the impact of the computer, the computer chip, and related technologies on industry and society.

Progenitors of the information age: The development of chips and computers

Cortada looks at the development of the transistor and the integrated circuit as being an important lens to understand the United States from the 1940s to present. His chapter begins with AT&T sharing the rights and knowledge to create transistors and moves on to a discussion about how this has effected and changed (or not changed) the United States in both the government and industrial sector.

An interesting section of this chapter ties in with our past discussion of Chris Benner’s Computers in the Wild. Cortada mentions that an important component of chip development was the proximity of developers working together, the idea that ‘everyone knew everyone else,’ and their ability to move from job to job without physically relocating. He then goes on to state that the industry burgeoned and expanded rapidly to the rest of the country from its initial foundations.

Q. Does this add more or less credibility to Benner’s thoughts on Guilds and Professional Organizations as New Unionism? Is it possible that the ‘guilds’ are a transitory entity in an undeveloped industry?

Cortada ends his chapter with a passage about American ideology and technological growth.

  1. Computers are central to a reformed world.

  2. Improved computers can help reform society even more.

  3. More computers are better than few; there are no limits to how much is good.

  4. Nobody loses, everyone wins; in the worst case, it is neutral or apolitical.

  5. Those who resist computerization are hostile to social reforms.

Q. How accurate is Cortada’s depiction of this American ideology? If accurate, how does this effect decision making in industry, government, and at the academic level? What could be some of the possible negative effects of following this ideology?

Chapter 9 of the Digital Hand: Digital Applications in Higher Education

Cortada describes the applications of IT in administration, teaching, research, and libraries. He states that IT has had marginally less effect on academia than in industry and government even though the academic community has invested major time and effort into their IT infrastructures.

Q. Cortada quotes a university professor as saying “the problem is that the academic culture and the IT culture simply do not mix together well.” What are some examples of this? Is this an accurate statement?

Q. Cortada mentions that research is the main area where IT has dramatically changed academic life. He also states that science and engineering are heavily funded and that new disciplines, like bioinformatics, were in part shaped by the new access to technology. How has the type of research that IT encourages effected the way that we look at our world? When problems are simply 'atomized' by the binary logic of computer chips, what does this mean for scholars with a more holistic approach to research?

Q. According to Cortada, librarians have embraced “every new form of information technology that came along.” In Cortada's discussion of industry, being the first adopter of a new technology has had added benefits for competition. Is the same true for libraries and academia? By adopting new technologies, have libraries and librarians given themselves an advantage similar to the early adopters in industry?

Q. Cortada argues that IT has not fundamentally changed academia at the institutional level. Can we think of examples or instances where this might not be an accurate statement? Has IT only been used as a tool to support the underlying structure of academia?

The Digital Hand: How Information Technology Changed the Way Industries Worked in the United States

In this overview of The Digital Hand, Cortada discusses the research questions he was trying to answer as well as key findings. He also discusses how he acquired his archival materials and his research methods.

Q. The idea of a 'tribal' firm is discussed and is used as an organizing principle of the book. What exactly is a 'tribal' firm? How do these tribes come into existence, and what impact does this have on the way that individuals view industry and individual firms?

Q. Standardization and regulation are central themes in the book. How does standardization effect entry into industries, and how does this hinder or help competition? Relatedly, Cortada speaks of the competitive advantage of being the first adapter of a technology. If standardization is key to IT in industry, does the early adapters have the ability to create a standard that will allow them to wield power over industry in the future?

Q. Finally, Cortada states that he is surprised that flows are more important to understanding industry than the technical aspects of the technology themselves. How does this relate to our past discussions, especially pertaining to Manuel Castells? What does this mean for our previous discussion about defining technologies?