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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

We Have Never Been Digital

Honeywell advertisement: 'What the heck is electronic mail?'

Credit: Honeywell

This column is inspired by the fashionable concept of the "digital humanities." That will be our destination rather than our starting point, as we look back at the long history of the idea that adoption of computer technology is a revolutionary moment in human history. Along the way we will visit the work of Nicholas Negroponte and Bruno Latour, whose books Being Digital and We Have Never Been Modern I splice to suggest that we have, in fact, never been digital.

The computer is not a particularly new invention. The first modern computer programs were run in 1948, long before many of us were born. Yet for decades it was consistently presented as a revolutionary force whose imminent impact on society would utterly transform our lives. This metaphor of "impact," conjuring images of a bulky asteroid heading toward a swamp full of peacefully grazing dinosaurs, presents technological change as a violent event we need to prepare for but can do nothing to avert.


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