Making Digital History: 13 Books and Articles about Computers and Society


Since electronic computers were declassified at the end of World War II, journalists, social theorists, and ordinary people have speculated about the ways these devices would change their lives, the way they worked, and the ways that companies and governments would make decisions. Almost seventy years later, the social consequences of computation is still a favorite topic of public intellectuals and the mass media. Press coverage of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street highlighted the new role of social media in organizing, publicizing, and sustaining political movements. Likewise, analysis of Bitcoin and Wikileaks focused on the potential of new technologies to destabilize (or, in Silicon Valley’s preferred terminology, to “disrupt”) the banking sector and the operation of the foreign policy establishment. Boomer journalists, guided by a crude sense of technological determinism and a more refined sense of generational chauvinism, have blamed smart phones and social media for many of the social pathologies allegedly evinced by the millennial generation: our laziness, our shallowness, and our narcissism.

What unites all of this analysis is a sense that while these technologies might have profound social, economic, and psychological effects on people and their societies, that computers, are, at their core, value-free, apolitical, calculating machines. Consequently, to the extent that we have a popular understanding of the relationship between computers and society, it is one that focuses narrowly on the consequences of computation: on “effects,” on “impacts,” and “disruption.” From this vantage, algorithms, code, and hardware shape the world around them, but in an important sense computers remain insulated from human culture.


Fortunately, in the last twenty-five years, historians and sociologists have turned their attention to the social history of computers themselves, paying attention not only to the ways computers have altered the historical landscape, but the ways that broader social forces and contingent historical events have shaped their use and development. These works have examined the ways that political, economic, and social values have become embedded in the seemingly neutral standards, architectures, and protocols that undergird our digital world.


Andrew L. Russell Open Standards and the Digital Age: History, Ideology, and Networks. (2014)


Donald MacKenzie, An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets (2008)


Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011)


Finn Brunton, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet (2013)


Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006)


James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (2012)


Janet Abbate, Inventing the Internet (1999)


Jean-François Blanchette, “A Material History of Bits” (2011)


Jennifer S. Light, “When Computers Were Women” (1999)


Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (2012)


Marie Hicks, “Only the Clothes Changed: Women Operators in British Computing and Advertising, 1950–1970


Nathan L. Ensmenger, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise (2010)


Paul Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1996)

See also our reading guides for:

sensory history

media history

war and society

post-industrial society

urban history in California