Getting out of your own bubble.
As part of my being inducted into the Computer History Museum’s Hall of Fellows, they interviewed me for their oral history archives. Hansen Hsu, the interviewer posed this question: “Why do you think computing history is important?” Here, slightly edited, is my reply.
Someone once said that history doesn’t repeat itself but it echoes. I think it’s important to know the echoes before things happen again. Technologies are horses that we ride, and when you’re astride a galloping horse you realize how powerful you are. Then you begin to look at all the people who are not thundering along on their own war chargers and it’s easy to see them as somehow inferior. It changes the way you think and it changes your value system.
You study history so that you know what that sensation of power really means. Hopefully it keeps you from being seduced by the idea that you are some kind of special person because you are a captain of industry.
In Silicon Valley there’s a broad myth adrift — a meme — that the tech world is a meritocracy and that the people who succeed here are the smartest and the hardest working. One of the reasons we study history is to see the abundant evidence that this is not true. It is not a meritocracy and while those who rise to the top are certainly smart and work hard, those are not the critical ingredients that made them successful.
You rise to the top because you’re lucky and because you have a strong support system. Often that means rich parents, but it can also mean rich friends, or a rich community. History shows that the people who are successful in Silicon Valley are usually the people who start out with a trust fund and wealthy parents.
My parents weren’t wealthy, but I grew up in Marin County, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country — in the world. My parents were the poorest people on the block, but they were on that block. I was the beneficiary of that mid-century largesse of America, and while I lacked a trust fund and an Ivy League legacy, I still had choices, and I was a straight, white male.
There are also strong civil structures that give you the leg up, the advantages that you need. I attended a community college subsidized by a work-study job, food stamps, and unemployment insurance. Sadly, there are a lot of incredibly deserving people who don’t have those advantages and they can’t rise up.
People need to study history to avoid getting their heads filled with their own story, otherwise they can bring ruin on the world. We study history to get a little humility. We study history so that we can take responsibility for our world.
Just recently, in November 2016, I learned something new about my personal responsibility to know history. Growing up in the affluent suburbs, I came to think that I didn’t need to participate in politics, that it would take care of itself without my having to get involved. I thought my civic duty was nil because the structures of civilization seemed to be doing just fine without me. The Presidential election reminded me that if you don’t participate, if you don’t contribute, if you don’t pay attention, and if you don’t give back, then your privilege — and even your rights — can go away in the blink of an eye.
So I’m rededicated to the notion of my responsibility to my community. If I want to live in a democracy, it means that I have to participate in it or lose it. That’s been a hard lesson, and history is where you learn that, because then you can see it in perspective.