A Response To Dr. Rankin’s Essay
(This article is a response to certain portions of an essay by Dr. Joy Lisi Rankin posted 28 November 2018 here on Medium. Consider her essay the tip of the iceberg. Consider what follows to be the rest of the iceberg, the part the oceans conceal: the long-promised Part II sequel to my original 22 May 2017 Medium article on Dr. Rankin’s March 2017 conference presentation on the PLATO computer system. If you’ve never read my original 2017 article none of what follows will make sense. I suggest you find a comfortable chair, read my original article first (including watching the 20-minute presentation in the video that opens that article), then read Dr. Rankin’s new essay if you haven’t read that already, and then continue with what follows below. Make sure you have plenty of food and drink.)
Origin stories matter, Dr. Joy Rankin recently tweeted. Oh, do I ever agree. Here’s an origin story I hoped I would not have to write. But given what Dr. Rankin has chosen to write and publish to the world, I have no choice but to respond and address the slew of smears, outright lies, and misleading statements. But further, for a reader to fully appreciate the scope of the situation, I’m forced to expand my response to address the general, concerted, eighteen-month campaign by her and by officers and certain members of an obscure little organization called SIGCIS (the Special Interest Group on Computers, Information, and Society).
I was tipped off that Dr. Rankin had published her Medium article by a sympathetic SIGCIS member who emailed me right out the blue. This was the last thing in the world I was expecting to hear. I am busy with research for an entirely new nonfiction book these days, and hadn’t thought of Rankin or SIGCIS in many months. I thought the whole brouhaha was pretty much over. And now there was this article which I went and read and my jaw dropped. Both in sadness for her, and disappointment at what feels to me like pure, blatant libel against me.
Reactions to Dr. Rankin’s new Medium article circulated swiftly in social media and in email lists. Her article alleges sexual harrassment by someone at Michigan State University (MSU). Like everyone else who has commented on these shocking allegations, I found them horrible and upsetting, and her account of the subsequent treatment she got at MSU sounds terribly unfair and unjust.
But. For the purposes of this article, it is important to note that I am not writing about any of that. I didn’t know anything about it until seeing Rankin’s article; it makes no sense for me to comment on it other than to join in with the sympathy that’s been expressed from thousands of people, and a hope that she finds justice, peace, and closure, and is able to move on and be successful in future endeavors.
What I am commenting on are the other accusations in her article, the ones that name me personally, in some apparently deliberate attempt to conflate two separate controversies, one a very serious potentially criminal matter, and one a contrived controversy over the PLATO article I wrote in 2017 in Medium, a controversy in which I have been made the target of reckless defamation and character assassination by her, by SIGCIS officers, and by her base, the SIGCIS members. And now she has come out with these unfair, untrue statements which thousands (millions?) of readers around the world have seen and been misled by. So instead of relaxing this weekend I have to write this lengthy (I’ll say: it’s nearly 17000 words long) response to set the record straight. A whole lot of the record has been beat up, banged up, and bent beyond recognition and needs straightening.
(If there‘s one thing I’ve learned in this entire eighteen-month experience, it is that when it comes to the PLATO article controversy, Dr. Rankin and a bunch of SIGCIS people have demonstrated repeatedly that they choose their words extremely carefully, for maximum propaganda effect and for maximum social media impact upon easily outraged, ignorant mobs, all to cause maximum damage to me. I believe this kind of conduct qualifies as malicious. I believe they know what they are doing and they are very good at it. Years ago when I joined SIGCIS I thought it was a quiet little assembly, a cozy little pub, if you will, where the mingling patrons were scholars who shared a passion for the history of computing. Given my book project, I had hoped to learn a great deal from the many distinguished members. I have learned a great deal, lordy have I, but not in any of the ways I hoped or expected.
Meanwhile . . . things continued to escalate the day after Rankin’s new article appeared, spurred on by a growing army of SIGCIS people and academics and sympathizers spreading and sharing a tweet Rankin posted announcing (and urging people to read and share) her article. On the one hand, people came out and supported her for the horrible experience she has endured at her university, only apparently to be made worse by a lack of support from the university regarding her charges against the alleged perp. But, and this is the key: Dr. Rankin chose to work me into her article too, trotting out the same old “bully” and “online harassment” horseshit she and SIGCIS-ers have been spewing for eighteen ugly months, and worse, making baldly false accusations saying I was involved in, if not responsible for, getting the University to open an investigation into research misconduct against her. To which I say, horseshit. I did no such thing, it is a lie. I wouldn’t even know how to open such an investigation — I am not an academic — nor have I any motivation to do so. These folks are all thinking like academics, where career (i.e., getting tenure) is everything. Of course they would think that in a fight among academics, what does the opponent go for? The other opponent’s career. The career is the jugular in academia. But see, I am not an academic, and I don’t think that way. All I’ve wanted are answers to questions about Rankin’s PLATO presentation. Period! Really. I know. If you’re an academic that is impossible to fathom. But it’s true, deal with it.
Yet now on Thursday, Twitter was aflame with people sharing the article, reading its contents, seeing my name, and instantly targeting me as some “bully,” one of the carefully chosen words that Rankin and the SIGCIS cabal have used against me for eighteen months.
The furor about Rankin’s new article expanded online all day, with, I noticed, many users sharing Rankin’s announcement tweet about the article with media outlets in an effort to get their attention, hoping, obviously, for media coverage.
Their efforts worked. On Thursday afternoon, two reporters, Sarah Brown, a senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Colleen Flaherty, faculty correspondent for Inside Higher Ed, independently contacted me, each requesting an interview. I spoke to both at length, one after the other. Each reporter asked me directly if I had a response to the accusations of bullying and conspiracy with MSU on my part, to which I carefully chose and emphatically articulated the word “horseshit,” daring them to print it. I asked both reporters: Did you read Dr. Rankin’s article all the way through? Yes, I was told, without hesitation, by both, as if I’d asked a stupid question. Okay, I then asked each of them, did you read my 2017 article all the way through — all ten thousand words of it? One of the reporters stumbled and admitted she’d, well, “skimmed it.” (I wondered, how can you do this story justice if you’re not going to do the necessary work?) The other reporter told me in an unconvincing tone that she had read all of it. (I remain skeptical.) I felt like I was already at a disadvantage. It seemed their minds were made up before they even heard what I had to say. But . . . by the end of both interviews, both reporters first of all seemed to be exhausted, as if they’d heard enough from the PLATO guy . . . but . . . they both admitted that this new information — my side of the story — changed everything, made them rethink what this whole controversy was about. I felt the effort I exerted (ask the reporters: I poured my whole heart and soul into it, like I was testifying before a court of law) to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, had at least put a dent in their prior understanding of the controversy.
I asked both reporters when they were expected to submit their stories to their editors and get them live on their websites. Both told me, to my surprise, later that very same day, but now, in light of what I had now told them . . . maybe that was not so likely! The Chronicle reporter told me they would probably come out with her story on Monday. The other reporter from Inside Higher Ed asked me if any other reporters were talking to me. Indeed they were, I told her. She asked if that included the Chronicle. Indeed it did, I told her. She didn’t sound too happy about that, telling me they’re her main competitor. I suppose hearing that the Chronicle was already ahead of her emboldened her to beat the Chronicle to the finish line.
As things would turn out, both reporters must have worked their tails off overnight because both stories appeared the following Friday morning, November 30th. The first story appeared in the Chronicle, and the other appeared in Inside Higher Ed. Both printed my word “horseshit.” (I was impressed.)
Sadly, as I expected, neither story got anywhere near the truth as far as the accusations against me were concerned, and that was frustrating. I felt that readers were being exposed to a weak Cliff Notes version of the real story, and that it would mislead more than inform. (On a minor note, the Chronicle’s institutional memory, I was disappointed to see, had disappeared in terms of how the distinguished publication used to correctly spell PLATO, an acronym for Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations, back during all the years they wrote about the system during the PLATO era. Back then they used an uppercase P and a smaller size of font for the other four letters also in uppercase. Now the newspaper published the name as “Plato” instead. As if readers didn’t need even more confusion. Wait, I could see readers thinking, does this controversy somehow involve the Greek philosopher too?)
I told the reporters and I repeat here that I categorically, emphatically deny these false, entirely concocted accusations that Rankin has posted this week about me, and that I have copious evidence that plainly shows what a complete train-wreck she and people in the SIGCIS organization have made of the truth for the past eighteen months when it comes to me. I told the reporters all I ever wanted to know were answers to the legitimate PLATO questions I posed in my 2017 article. Period, that’s it. Questions, I must sadly add, which to this day remain unanswered, buried under a mountain of strategically constructed propaganda from Rankin and the SIGCIS cabal to distract from the fact that they remain unanswered.
2. The Tweet That Started It All.
These days, so many things start with a tweet, don’t they? What a world. This story is no different. It started with a tweet to me on Sunday, 19 March 2017 (see Exhibit 1).
Some stranger named Ben Gross tweeted me to let me know about what was being said about PLATO that very morning in a presentation at the Computer History Museum, as part of a conference put on by the Computer History Museum and SIGCIS. His tweet contained a tweet posted by the SIGCIS organization itself, asking, “How was PLATO constructed by heteronormative privilege and the relationships of wives to engineer husbands?” Wait, how was what? Privilege, what? Wait, the relationship of wives to engineer husbands? What? Wives in the PLATO community? It got my attention immediately. Had I been sipping coffee, I would have spat it out.
All during 2017 up to this day, I had been deep in the final stages of my PLATO book’s editing phase, nearing the submission of the final edited manuscript. But this tweet stopped me cold. I went into Twitter’s search results to see what all the fuss was about under the hashtag #SIGCIS2017. It took only seconds to realize that Dr. Rankin was giving a talk about PLATO and that that it appeared to be rather sensational from all the live-tweets coming out. I had no way of watching the talk live or hearing an audio feed; it was not webcast. I had wanted to attend that SIGCIS conference and wish I had. But I couldn’t make it, so I was 1100 miles from the Computer History Museum sitting at my desk at home. All I had to go by were the tweets, all marked with a #SIGCIS2017 hashtag, and at the moment, all about the PLATO system’s culture. A PLATO culture I didn’t recognize at all, even though I had been immersed in it since 1979.
Here are some of those tweets:
The inherent what of the what?
I found the original official SIGCIS tweet that Gross had retweeted to me (see Exhibit 3), and I replied to the SIGCIS account, included Joy Rankin as well, and asked if Rankin’s session was recorded. I eventually received a reply indicating yes it had been recorded and would eventually be put on YouTube.
Notice this SIGCIS tweet was retweeted 6 times and liked 7 times. The SIGCIS account, which you can the organization calls “History of Computing,” on Twitter, was one of the most well-known Twitter accounts about computer history, and at the time had over 1000 followers — not a lot in Twitter terms, but a lot in terms of the number of historians at universities around the world who followed it.
Meanwhile the tweets kept coming about Dr. Rankin’s presentation:
Early environmental feminists? Political purposes? What? I had no context. I had no idea what was going on. Was this the same PLATO system as the one invented at the University of Illinois?
And there were more tweets:
Evidence? Incredible find!? What did Dr. Rankin find!? The not knowing was driving me crazy. And there were more tweets:
Wait, computer history lesson? Men have always what?
This is important. Look at that tweet — Exhibit 9. Note how it was retweeted twice and “liked” 14 times . . . including being “liked” by the official SIGCIS organization’s Twitter account, the same organization that co-produced the conference along with the Computer History Museum. I’ll leave it to the reader to draw any significance from that.
And Exhibit 11: Just, what!? Fortress of what, you say? PLATO? Once again, note the official SIGCIS account, the “History of Computing” account, “liked” that tweet too. I was dying to know what shocking new revelations Joy Rankin had uncovered. I kept wondering, what did I miss? All those years of travel to libraries and universities. All those years of rummaging through every dusty box in the archives at the University of Illinois and other facilities like the Charles Babbage Institute. And the interviews. I had interviewed a massive cross-section of the community, and distinguished luminaries outside the PLATO community including B.F. Skinner, Seymour Papert, and Alan Kay, accumulating seven million words of transcripts that took years to type up. And the documents. Four thousand pounds of books, dissertations, and documents (according to the moving company, the last time we moved). All that research and in all that time I had never heard anything warranting such an outrageous description as the “fortress of heteropatriarchal power” applied to PLATO.
Imagine having been working on research for 30 years on a computer history topic no-one had ever shown interest in — not a single popular history of computing book (I’m looking at you, Isaacson), especially all the Silicon Valley glory stories, ever mentioned PLATO, and not a single hifalutin’ historian ever found it worthy of their time — and then out of the blue one Sunday morning, seeing the topic you were expert in discussed on Twitter as reactions to — cheerleading, really — a clearly sensational presentation at a computer history conference held at a venue that is, essentially, the Smithsonian of computer history, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. My interest was exceedingly piqued. But there was nothing I could do until the YouTube video came out, so, frustrated, I continued working on manuscript edits with the editor for the rest of March and April, checking YouTube all the while.
3. The Video.
On April 26, 2017, the video of Dr. Rankin’s talk finally appeared on YouTube, as part of the Computer History Museum’s channel, now containing a collection of videos of all the sessions at the “Command Lines” conference. I immediately watched the one with Rankin’s presentation in it, and then had to watch it again. And again. I began taking notes. Then I realized it would be better if I transcribed everything said so I could study what was said. So I painstakingly over a period of hours transcribed the twenty-minute talk. (The fact that it was twenty minutes long has been brought up by Rankin, the press, and the SIGCIS people, as if to say, hey, you spent thirty years on a massive book, and you’re whining about a little tiny 20-minute presentation? Well, I have news for you, guys and gals, it’s not the size of the presentation that counts, it’s what you do with it.)
The little twenty-minute presentation was indeed sensational, making claims and assertions about people I had interviewed and about a project I had studied and researched for decades all over the country. No references, citations, or sources were mentioned by Dr. Rankin in the video, even in the Q&A portion which was included in the video, and I was dismayed no-one in the audience raised their hands to ask about that. Had I been there I would have. I assumed Dr. Rankin had extensive sources for these findings (recall that “incredible find!” someone named Sarah T. Roberts had tweeted), and I was now eager to see these sources and revise my book if necessary while I still had a chance.
Dr. Rankin’s assertions that the PLATO system was a “fortress of misogyny” struck me as bewildering, as none of the thousands of people I had ever interviewed or emailed for so many decades had ever described it like something right out of The Lord of the Rings. Nor had a single article or journal publication or prior interview by someone else or any other document in the literature ever hinted at something matching that description. Nor had I ever heard it described that way in all the years I personally worked on and used the PLATO system and participated in the worldwide community of PLATO users. Importantly, none of the many women who worked at the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, the birthplace of PLATO, had ever in countless hours of discussions with me had ever characterized the place or the system — or the men who worked there— in that manner. In fact female staffers and users had always characterized CERL in opposite terms — that the PLATO lab was a bastion of opportunity and equality and a refuge from the usual treatment women got on the rest of the campus, or any workplace, for that matter, back in that era. So I was confused. What sources had Dr. Rankin uncovered? I had mere weeks left before submitting the final, final revised manuscript to the publisher, so if I was going to hit the editor with a surprise revision along with new citations from Dr. Rankin’s research, I had little time to find out.
On May 1 2017 I decided to email Dr. Rankin:
I waited ten days for a reply, but nothing came. I guess she was busy. Maybe I could reach her at her office? I googled her MSU faculty page, found the phone number, and called. It was 2:27pm on May 10th. She answered. I was delighted to finally talk to a fellow PLATO history researcher — an exceedingly rare breed of researcher, after all! We’d never spoken before. I told her who I was, apologized for calling out of the blue, and asked her if she had a few minutes to speak. She had to have known my name as she’d corresponded cordially with me a few times in email over the prior two years. (As you will soon see, she had invited me to speak at MSU!) She seemed preoccupied and said she was on the way out and no, did not have time to talk, and did not offer a time to call back. That was it. Click. End of call. It lasted about 30 seconds. So, still bewildered, later that day I sent a follow-up email, still not sure if she maybe didn’t get the first one:
No reply to the second email either.
Sometime in early May, I noticed that Dr. Rankin had blocked my Twitter account. No reason given.
To this day there has been no communication from her.
Understand, she did this two to three weeks before my Medium piece went live. Her behavior left me confused. I asked around to some random professors I knew in universities: Did this seem odd? Trying to contact a professor, having no luck, ok maybe they’re busy, sure, but — being suddenly blocked on Twitter? For merely contacting them, maybe? For calling? Did it have something to do with the specific questions I asked? Considering the cordial, collegial tone of all of the previous communications Dr. Rankin and I had exchanged, this sudden cut-off was strange, unexpected.
Now, in light of the new revelations she wrote about in her recent Medium piece, perhaps she was very upset at the other things were going on then, and in early May simply did not want to deal with some PLATO bozo asking her questions about that SIGCIS conference presentation video. It’s certainly plausible, and gives me a new appreciation and sympathy for what she might have been going through at the time. But I have no idea. All I knew at the time, in May 2017, was that I was in an urgent hurry, running out of time before my book went to press, to figure out what her sources were for the statements she made in the video, so I could determine whether this was new material I should mention in my book, with citations to her research. I might be facing the prospect of having to delete or rewrite sections of my book in light of Dr. Rankin’s findings and I was prepared for that. I wanted readers to get the right story. I’d spent too many years on this to ignore the possibility of a revision.
But she cut me off.
4. The Previous Correspondence.
Allow me to take a moment to recount the totality of communications I had with Dr. Rankin. I think it’s important to really set the record straight here given the accusations of “online harassment” that have been so casually, and evilly, tossed out against me. In addition to the two emails I’ve mentioned above, there were a few others, sent in 2015 and in 2016.
In 2015, while I was busy finishing writing the manuscript, I found out that somewhere out in the world existed a person named Dr. Joy Lisi Rankin, a PhD in the history department at Yale University, who it turns out had been working on a dissertation concerning PLATO that had only recently been submitted for her degree. Considering how rare this was, I was thrilled. I logged on to the trusty old ProQuest service, which I’d used countless times over the years (it used to be called University Microfilms, which hints at how long I’ve been using it and, ahem, paying them a ton of money), and did a search for Dr. Rankin’s dissertation. It wasn’t there. So I went to the Yale University Library website and did a search there. I got a result, with a description, but also a notification that her dissertation was restricted — not shareable to the public and therefore not downloadable. You had to be a Yale affiliate. You had to have credentials. This was a first in all the years I’d downloaded, or spent considerable money on, PhD dissertations and Master’s theses. It was as if Rankin’s was a classified document. Maybe there was some mistake? Maybe it wasn’t ready yet, or in a final state for public access? So I searched for Dr. Rankin at Yale and found her email address, and wrote her an email:
This was the first communication ever to Dr. Rankin. Two weeks later, she replied:
So she already knew who I was, and I was happy to have gotten in touch with her. I was dismayed, and, frankly, curious, that she wasn’t going to share her dissertation with me, but nonetheless it was great to know there was someone else out there interested in PLATO history.
Being the dogged investigator I was, my curiosity as to what was in the dissertation drove me to try to get a copy on my own. Over many, many months of asking around, I eventually found someone who in turn eventually found someone with Yale credentials who in turn eventually obtained a copy of the dissertation, and that someone in turn eventually sent it to my contact, who in turn eventually forwarded it on to me. I read the whole thing. She was approaching PLATO differently than I; I would say I was approaching it primarily as a journalist looking for the story (hence, the subtitle of my book: “The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture”). Her research, which did not just include PLATO but also looked at other systems and online cultures of the 1960s and 70s, appeared to largely focus on the archival record, not on interviews. I did all the archival research too (and have the 4000 pounds of boxes to prove it), in the same buildings she camped out in, but the archival record on PLATO is but one side of the coin, and in my opinion, the far less interesting side of the coin. Given that the vast majority of people involved with PLATO are still alive, I wasn’t sure how you could ignore what they might have to say, especially if you were looking for the story, like I was. I suppose a “professionally trained historian” is taught that all that matters is what was written back in the time period under study: which means, dumpster dive into the archives and see what you find. Imagine twenty years from now trying to do a history of Facebook without talking to a soul, including none of the founders not to mention users, but only looking at the company’s documents, correspondence, and published reports. And some printouts of posts by users I suppose, with no context provided. But still: I can’t imagine such a history getting the story right. I guess I’m wired differently.
The inspiration for my book project was and always has been Robert Caro, a journalist who in the 1960s grew tired of doing daily news stories at a newspaper and longed to go in depth. He eventually did stop doing daily reporting and started writing books, all of them monumental, all of them deservedly winning awards including the Pulitzer Prize. I always imagined, what would Caro do if he ever took on PLATO? Sure, he’d camp out in the dusty archives for years, but he would also go meet the people and talk to them and be among them for extended periods and listen and touch and smell and observe the surroundings and walk the halls of the buildings where all the PLATO things happened.
I chose the Caro path. Rankin, it appeared to me having read her dissertation, chose the archival historian path. Different strokes, etc. It was all still good, nothing wrong with multiple perspectives, and I did notice she found some things in the archives that I’d overlooked. I was happy to learn she was converting the dissertation into a book because I always wanted to see multiple books coming out on PLATO. Think about all the books on Google’s history, and that of Facebook, Apple, Xerox PARC, Microsoft, eBay, IBM, Boeing, GE, Ford Motor, GM, and countless other firms, laboratories, the Manhattan project, MIT’s Rad Lab, the Apollo missions, and whatnot. Each one of these organizations and projects has a full shelf’s worth of books on it, if not multiple shelves. Then more shelves on biographies of the people behind these organizations and projects. (The books on Steve Jobs could fill a library.) PLATO? Nothing. That was my motivation: an empty shelf was no good, and I wanted to read the PLATO story, but nobody was writing it! So, foolish me, I took it on. And now after all these years I learned there would be two books on PLATO coming out — the start of what I always hoped would be a full shelf of books. We still have a long way to go. C’mon people, get crackin’!
Then, nearly a year later in 2016, I got this email from her (see Exhibit 16), out of the blue:
(It’s significant that she said here she wanted to cite my book in her book. When her own book finally came out in October 2018, I bought a copy. There is no citation of my book anywhere in it, as far as I can tell.)
I replied (see Exhibit 17) telling her I had in fact signed a contract with my dream publisher, Knopf/Doubleday:
A month later, she replied, inviting me to speak at MSU once my book came out (see Exhibit 18):
And that, well, plus the two May 2017 emails I sent, plus the 30-second phone call in May 2017 I already mentioned — that small amount of communication, ladies and gentlemen, accounts for the totality of communications I have ever had with the esteemed Dr. Rankin. Everything cordial, friendly, warm. I was honored to be invited to speak at MSU and looked forward to that. I looked forward to my book being out, to get her comments. I looked forward to her book being out, so I could read it and gain another perspective on PLATO (one that I hoped wasn’t as extreme as the one I heard in the YouTube video… or, at least, one that finally offered full citations and notes and sources that would reveal, to me anyway, The Scoop of the Century).
I suppose, if we’re talking about totality of communications to Dr. Rankin, I should include the 2017 Medium article as well. Which I and many other people in and out of academia, along with countless people in the PLATO community, along with people in many other communities, and at least two or three members of SIGCIS, viewed as a fair, respectful, thorough analysis of a presentation that had been offered to the worldwide public for viewing and commentary.
Can any thinking human being on planet Earth or anywhere else in the universe for that matter honestly point to a single word anywhere in any of those polite, respectful, strictly cordial series of communications, all included as exhibits in this article, and claim “harassment” or “bullying” anywhere? Really? Honest?
5. Reaching Out For Answers.
Meanwhile . . . back in May 2017, after the sudden unexpected wall of silence from Dr. Rankin, I was still determined to figure out what led Dr. Rankin to these explosive charges in her “Command Lines” conference talk. I began sharing the video with people in the PLATO community in the hopes I could get them to watch it and tell me: Did I make a mistake? Are Dr. Rankin’s assertions accurate? Do they ring a bell? Does this video describe what really went on? Have you ever conversed with Dr. Rankin? I asked so many questions. It was a big favor to ask (who has time for a 20-minute video these days) but they all found time to watch the video.
I tracked down people specifically named by Rankin in the video to get their viewpoint. After a ton of searching I finally reached Dr. Valarie Lamont (no doubt Rankin’s “early environmental feminist,” I now realized, even though during a 90-minute phone call, Dr. Lamont told me, laughing, that that was a decidedly inaccurate description). I reached Dr. Ruth Chabay. I reached a few others. I then expanded the scope to track down any and all women I could think of who had worked on PLATO at Illinois during the 60s and 70s, and asked them to watch the video if they had time, and let me know if it struck them as accurate or not. If you listen carefully to the SIGCIS cabal, they’ll try to argue, in their archival historian way, that this was a big mistake on my part, made because I am not an archival historian, naturally: you can’t rely on the recollections of people long after the fact, you can only go by what they wrote during the era under study. See, what they didn’t understand is that I am not an archive-style historian: I was doing my research as a journalist. Sure, it’s true, memories play tricks on people, and you have to be careful interviewing people about the past. That’s why you interview a lot of them, in the hopes of achieving what I always called a triangulation on the truth. You hear enough versions of a story, you can start putting the puzzle pieces together. I interviewed some one thousand people. I triangulated like crazy.
I did hear back from the PLATO women. The unanimous response from every woman who watched the video was incredulity: humor mixed with disbelief, horror mixed with exasperation. And everyone shared a sense of shock, dismay, and disappointment. The answer unanimously was no, this did not accurately describe the PLATO culture. Many used more forceful language. Most importantly, no-one had ever heard of Dr. Rankin and no-one had ever conversed with her — even the people Rankin spoke about in the video (and wrote about in her dissertation and in her newly-released 2018 book, it appears). I also reached out to the men who’d been mentioned in one of the notesfile “mini case studies.” They either didn’t remember it, or remembered it well enough to think Dr. Rankin’s version did not jibe with reality.
This got me thinking. There must be documents somewhere, after all, she focuses on archival research. She must have a source somewhere to back up these wild characterizations.
Rankin herself seemed pretty walled off from communication with me at this point, so I gave up trying to contact her. Perhaps I could write a response, a rebuttal, a critique, of her presentation, and ask the questions I would have asked had I been there in the audience during the Q&A section of Dr. Rankin’s talk? Perhaps that would result in a discovery of these “incredible finds” from the PLATO and SIGCIS communities? So I set about writing the article, while reaching out to PLATO people all over the country. I recruited a number of colleagues, editors, friends, former professors, and PLATO people to review the draft before publication. After a lot of editing and over twenty full drafts’ worth of rewriting, I published the result as the Medium piece, “Performing History on PLATO,” that went live on Monday, 22 May 2018, almost a month after I initially got to watch the video. I chose the title as a little bit of humor, a reference to her conference presentation’s title.
The article was ten thousand words long.
4. The SIGCIS Apocalypse.
I began sending a link to the article to people all over the PLATO community. The members of the PLATO community who read it unanimously supported it, questioning what was said in the video, and it triggered strong reactions everywhere, but also many memories and anecdotes from old-timers which then triggered many email and phone conversations some of which I wished I could have included in the book.
Then, I thought, hmm, I should share a link to the article and invite folks in the SIGCIS community to comment on the article. I clicked “Send” at 18:03 that evening:
And with that, World War III started.
The first missile struck an hour later at 19:06. The first sentence in the angry person’s email introduced the word “attack” and the last sentence brought up the word “screed.” What went on in the paragraphs in-between seemed to dwell on the mere fact that I had written a critique. It didn’t dwell on the substance of the critique, not on any of the actual questions or concerns I raised, because not a single one was even mentioned. This quickly became the pattern in many of the responses that ensued. First it was “this seems like a personal attack” (emphasis added) and soon the “this seems like” part was discarded and the shrill responses simply declared that this was a personal attack. The furor focused on that and never on the questions I raised. The SIGCIS community, at least the majority of the microscopic vocal percentage (less than one percent of the membership) who commented in the mailing list thread, came out in support of Dr. Rankin.
There was one person named Ian S. King who agreed with my article. Or at least thought it a fair critique:
I read Brian’s article and it seems to be a well-considered and respectful critique of another scholar’s work. He did not just dash off a dismissal but addressed in detail what he sees as its shortcomings, with citations and quotations . . . I do not believe this discussion is correctly about whether issues are being ignored or repressed, but whether those issues are being discussed with solid scholarship. I’ve never seen SIGCIS shy away from a contentious discussion, but I feel like Brian’s concerns are being criticized in a similar “ignored or repressed” fashion being implicitly asserted against Brian in this thread. Let Rankin respond, hopefully with the thoroughness of Dear’s critique. To those who attack Brian’s work as “screed,” I invite you to likewise respond with rigor.
No-one took up Ian’s offer. And Rankin never spoke up.
Side comment. It’s worth taking a moment to look at two paragraphs from Rankin’s new Medium post, that describe her version of reality when the SIGCIS mailing list blew up:
Dear circulated his blog to hundreds of people via the SIGCIS listserv, part of a leading professional organization, the Society for the History of Technology. The response of other academics on the SIGCIS listserv was swift and clear. Within hours, the media scholar Dr. Chris Leslie characterized Dear’s blog as a “lengthy attack” and a “screed.” In their response, the historian Dr. Mar Hicks addressed Dear directly, decrying Dear’s post as a “personal attack.”
Other scholars responded with expressions of support for my scholarship, and to censure Brian Dear. Perhaps the most eloquent was Dr. David Golumbia’s, which began, “and, as in every time a fundamental theory in the humanities outside of pure date/narrative history is raised, this [SIGCIS] list becomes so full of hate and ignorance that I am sure I am not alone in considering leaving it.” Golumbia was “shocked by the amount of vitriol” Dear’s post contained. He declared, “some measure needs to be taken to reign in the infrequent but repetitive attacks on entire fields of study from people who do not practice them and who find them abhorrent. That isn’t scholarly disagreement, it’s harassment.”
Note she does not mention Ian S. King’s comment. Maybe she didn’t read it. Or maybe this another example of confirmation bias: maybe she doesn’t want others to know there was some support within the tiny number of people who replied in the email thread.
The irony here is that all I focused on in her presentation was the substance of her presentation, never her personally. Why would I attack her personally? I had no animus towards her, and the accusations flying in the SIGCIS mailing list were crazy and ludicrous. We had already struck up a friendly collegial correspondence in email, for two years! Plus, it didn’t matter to me who the presenter was. It could have been Madame Curie or the President of the United States or a star football quarterback or Mother Theresa or Samuel L. Jackson or a Nobel laureate: it didn’t matter to me at all. If any one of them said all this seemingly crazy talk about PLATO, I would have asked them the same thing: what are your sources, what documents prove this, who did you talk to? What mattered to me what was said in Rankin’s presentation. Ironically, the vocal SIGCIS members other than Ian King didn’t appear to care at all what she said in her presentation. Likewise, I noticed right away that the SIGCIS screamers showed no interest in what I wrote in my Medium article in response to her presentation. What mattered is that I had the temerity to comment on her presentation at all. What mattered is that I had the gall to stand up and say, um, hey, um, what are your sources? Could you explain? That turned out to be verboten at least to the screaming minority.
Another theme emerged from all the yelling: “work in progress.” The argument being, didn’t I realize, Dr. Rankin’s presentation was a work in progress! You can’t criticize a work in progress, how dare you! It’s not done! Gotta wait for her book or journal article to come out!
I didn’t realize how key this argument would be to the SIGCIS effort to get rid of me, but I would find out soon enough.
(People have argued that I gave the impression in my Medium piece that I was “entitled” to answers to the questions that I submitted to Rankin. I suspect they’re going to argue I’m reeking of entitlement in this article too. Obviously she doesn’t have to answer them, and so far she hasn’t, and I doubt she ever will. It’s not that I feel entitled to ask the questions — I don’t — I just feel like any rational person would also ask such questions, and expect answers if there was really evidence to back up the answers. After eighteen months, it’s starting to seem like there is no evidence.)
All in all, a lot of brouhaha but in total, a mere nine members of SIGCIS spoke up. Nine people. Out of well over a thousand, fifteen hundred, something like that, members.
Separately I got a personal email from a SIGCIS member I did not know, who, like Ian King, sympathized with my situation but unlike King told me they were too afraid to say anything on the list publicly lest they get the same treatment I got. Even later I would hear from someone else who had spoken in person to yet another SIGCIS member, who essentially said the same thing: that my critique was fair and reasonable, but they were too afraid to say that within the SIGCIS mailing list, for fear of getting clobbered like me. SIGCIS was starting to sound more like a cult than a quiet little organization for people interested in computer history.
That same evening, another SIGCIS member opened a completely unrelated, different thread for discussion in the mailing list on the “history of gendered terms, e.g., ‘motherboard’”. Go read it if you must. SIGCIS members exploded, and shouting matches ensued. I thought the topic was quite interesting but did not participate. The flames were too hot.
Then, on May 24th, two days later, the chairman of SIGCIS, Dr. Andrew Russell, announced that the SIGCIS Executive Committee had met and decided to close down the mailing list after witnessing, “in a matter of hours, a deep unraveling of this community.”
In my view, it surely had to have been the food fight that erupted in the “motherboard” thread, which must have gone on for 25 or more emails. Surely it wasn’t me. But no, I would eventually learn. It was my email inviting people to comment on my Medium article. Which meant it was my Medium article itself. That had somehow unraveled the community, or at least eight of the vocal members out of what, 1500?
I’m pretty sure that this was the first time I’d ever heard Andrew Russell’s name. I had no idea who he was, nor did I know who was on the Executive Board. While I was technically a “member” of SIGCIS, all that really meant is that I had filled out the online membership form years earlier and gotten access to the mailing list. I never paid a dime; it was free. I had once paid to become a formal member of the Society for the History of Technology, the parent organization of SIGCIS, but found its journal too dry, boring, and antiquarian (one can read only so much about the history of “technology” like, oh, I don’t know, nor do I even remember — things like dishwashers, combustion engines, trolley cars, and occasionally old computers), and I ended my membership after a while, but kept up the SIGCIS affiliation since it was free.
I knew almost no-one in this SIGCIS community. I don’t think I had ever met anyone. But this was the only community I could find that had a serious scholarly interest in the history of computing, and given my book topic, I was hopeful I might get something out of it. Instead, I was about to learn, they got me out of it.
The SIGCIS mailing list was dry and fairly boring, mostly full of calls for papers for upcoming conferences, announcements of new articles or books by members, and the occasional discussion on various computer history topics. My interest level rarely spiked above flatline. I rarely participated and only occasionally scanned the list to see if anything interesting had popped up. The few times over the years I’d participated in a discussion in the list felt pointless. No-one paid me any mind, and the group did not appear very friendly. It was like being at a party of strangers, uninvited, where no-one knew who I was. Or maybe they knew who I was and given the lack of any academic affiliation, they avoided me.
Now the group was at war with me, or at least the vocal sub-one-percent, and, I assumed, at war with the person who had posted, quite innocently it seemed to me, a perfectly on-topic post about terms like “motherboard.”
And now the list was closed. Seemed like an overreaction to me, but then, this was SIGCIS, the home, I was learning, of overreactions.
5. Silence, Then Exile.
The SIGCIS organization skipped the supernova stage and went straight to black hole. No communication or explanation as to how long the mailing list would be closed, not that it was a big deal.
Then I noticed strange things happening. The SIGCIS official Twitter account suddenly blocked me one day in early June. Again, just like with Rankin’s abrupt Twitter blockage, no explanation, it just happened. Then one of the officers of SIGCIS, Mar Hicks, who I assumed was on the Executive Board, suddenly blocked me on Twitter. No explanation. Then I figured out something: Mar Hicks was one of two people who managed the SIGCIS twitter account. I assumed she was behind this somehow.
The silence continued until August 24th. On that day, precisely ninety days after the shutdown of the list, I got an email from Andrew Russell (see Exhibit 15). In a nutshell, they banned me. Not only from the mailing list, but far more importantly, from even attending SIGCIS conferences or events, things I had never attended but had hoped to. In fact I’d hoped to present at the upcoming SIGCIS conference. That was now not going to happen. It was chilling.
Here’s the email:
It felt like something out of Kafka. It felt like I was being read the verdict from a kangaroo court, by a man, seated behind a judicial bench twenty feet high, staring down at me in shackles. A man wearing a hilariously oversized military hat, white gloves, and an impressive military uniform festooned with medals, and holding a parchment paper. I was learning that, in essence, a trial had been held against me, held in secret without my participation and certainly not my testimony. I had never been given a single opportunity to speak with this mysterious Executive Board or to SIGCIS Officers or any members of SIGCIS, none of whom I knew. There had never been a phone call from Russell. No private email correspondence to understand what had gone wrong. No effort to say, ok Brian, what in the world happened here. No due process. They did not consider my PLATO questions to Rankin as “legitimate scholarly disagreement” — how could they, since they obviously did not consider me a legitimate scholar?
The letter was full of false information. Notice the careful, calculated choice of words: “attacks” and “harassment.” The same words as had been used by a number of the responders in the mail list back in May. It reminded me of the shenanigans politicians play, in an abuse of power, issuing sound bites intended for maximum confusion, damage, and disruption, truth be damned. This email was not speaking truth. This was a political battle of the petty, vicious, academic sort. Yet I was not an academic. So I viewed this as, well . . . horseshit. It was like when Neo finally sees The Matrix for what it is.
Notice how the accusations were couched in verb phrases such as “we believe” and “we feel.” It was a rare glimpse of truth in the email, for all Russell and his secret court could operate by was belief and feeling — they had no facts since they never spoke to me, they never asked me anything, they never cared to understand my intent, never gave me a shred of due process. If they had cared, they would have talked to me.
The only place where Russell quoted from my Medium piece was the phrase, “strange and possibly defamatory insinuations . . . standing on questionable ethical ground,” and they had deemed that “unacceptable.” My god man, did any of you listen to Rankin’s presentation? Did you hear what she said about Dr. Donald Bitzer (whom she snarkily referred to on a first-name basis) and his wife Maryann Bitzer? These very kind people who were now quietly living in their retirement years? They didn’t deserve this kind of talk. No-one did. It was irresponsible. Who goes before a live conference audience, in a session that the speaker knows is being recorded for YouTube, and makes pronunciations and speculations about the reason why two private individuals, both still living, neither of whom the speaker had ever met or spoken to or interviewed, chose to marry? Who does that? And the Bitzers had married in the mid-1950s, years before PLATO was even a sparkle in Bitzer’s eye! Why is talking about their personal life acceptable conduct? Is such a personal thing remotely relevant to someone researching PLATO history? Is that legitimate scholarship? Even if Rankin had abundant documentary evidence (we still do not know, for she has remained silent to this day), is publicly offering such innuendoes, speculation, and theorizing done in civil society? In academia? Why did SIGCIS not care? This should have caused multiple people in the audience at the conference to speak up and say something. Why didn’t they? What was I missing? (It’s worthwhile going back to the video and actually watching and listening to the short Q&A segment at the end of Rankin’s talk, by the way.)
Just now, as I write this, I see that Russell mentioned the phrase “guilty of misconduct” in the email, which in light of Dr. Rankin’s November 2018 Medium piece, and the subsequent news reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education, takes on a whole new light. I didn’t catch the reference when I originally received Russell’s kangaroo court verdict, but now I find it intriguing. Since I have never had a chance to speak with Russell, ever, I have to assume this was a clear reference to the MSU scandal that was evidently underway during the summer of 2017, the one that Rankin claims, in her recent Medium piece, I orchestrated or somehow brought about. I call her claim horseshit since that is what it is. I did no such thing. I had nothing personal against Dr. Rankin. I would not have even known how to submit some kind of charge within a university. I am not an academic. I hate paperwork, especially university paperwork. I am also not a professional historian. If anything, my work was journalism, aspiring to Caro-level thoroughness.
Russell and his minions also, note, trotted out the phrase “work in progress,” a theme that was hinted at during the brief brouhaha on the mailing list in May. This I quickly figured out was one of the ridiculous arguments they must have decided, during their secret kangaroo court deliberations, to use to point out why it was inappropriate to ask any questions about the Rankin presentation at all. More on “work in progress” later.
And then there was that explosive word “harassment.” This I would learn, even more than “attack,” was their big weapon. They described my Medium article as “harassment.” This was 2017, mind you, the peak #MeToo era. Harassment was everywhere in the news. Horrible evil people, all very well known and wealthy, were being brought down for horrible disgusting harassment — and worse — of women. And Rankin and SIGCIS chose to use that word to describe my Medium piece! Extremely hurtful to me. Oh, they knew exactly what they were doing. This was dirty, ugly politics.
Here I had written a careful, thoroughly fair article with many legitimate questions, and because a twenty-minute presentation had so many glaring red flags in it, it required ten thousand words to address all of the concerns. This, the kangaroo court had decided, constituted “harassment.” Over the coming months that phrase would evolve to “online harassment,” akin to how dirty tricks operatives in a political party refine the party’s attack ads, soundbites, and buzzwords when besmirching a candidate from an opposing party. Note that Rankin included the phrase “online harassment” in the title of her new Medium piece.
This was politics. Pure, nasty politics. My Medium piece struck a nerve with a bunch of people in SIGCIS and they were not going to allow it to stand. It revealed something about how the charade worked within the SIGCIS community, and they did not like it one bit that someone on the outside had not only figured it out but wasn’t playing the game. It struck me that what I was dealing with here was a cheerleading organization. Bring your pet hamster into class for show and tell, and nobody is allowed to criticize the hamster, rather, they must all applaud and tell you how lovely the hamster is, even if it’s farting something fierce. Your hamster presentation goes on your CV, and then you bring in another thing from home for the next show and tell, and you get another gold star and another entry on your CV, and so on. Eventually you get tenure, which is the goal of the game. All fine and dandy, until someone says, hey, waitaminnit.
I embarked on a line-by-line reply to Russell’s email. It took weeks and many drafts and the accumulation of some twenty-five exhibits of evidence. The exhibits from my response to Russell are all included in the document you’re reading now.
My reply to Russell made a number of arguments. Also, I told him that I stand by everything I wrote in the Medium piece. I still stand by it all. I always will. And I am still waiting for answers to the questions I raised, as are many people in the PLATO community and elsewhere.
The core themes I raised in my response are summarized in the following sections.
6. The Lack of Communication.
The first point was to remind him of the utter lack of communication. “Your letter is SIGCIS’s first and only official communication to me about this entire episode,” I told him. “Neither you nor your officers offered to engage with me nor even expressed interest in hearing what I might have to say about these accusations or why they are categorically untrue. This kind of treatment of a SIGCIS member reflects poorly on the organization, its officers, and on your leadership of the organization. I would have been happy to have a constructive conversation at any time. Why, instead, has your and your officers’ conduct been one of exiling, silencing, and ostracizing? You proudly state in your letter that your ‘Command Lines’ conference program mentioned ‘We are committed to fostering a positive, productive space for all participants, and are committed to listening more than speaking,’ and yet neither you nor anyone else in SIGICS have ever demonstrated a willingness to talk let alone listen. Why?”
I am still wondering, Dr. Russell, if you’re reading this, over a year since I wrote my reply to you. Why?
7. Argumentum Ab Auctoritate.
If a SIGCIS member lacks traditional credentials, I told Russell in my reply, it seems that participation in the group is not desirable. In both Russell’s letter and the replies to my message in the SIGCIS members mailing list back in May 2017, one sees a reliance on an argument from authority: in the world of SIGCIS, I am, as a non-academic, non-professor, a non-peer, relegated to a muted group apparently not worthy of attention or respect. I’m an unperson. Even if legitimate questions and valid concerns were raised in my May 2017 article (and they were, in quantity, all backed up with evidence), it does not seem to matter, I told him. Contrast this with the vim and vigor with which numerous SIGCIS mailing list members actively, and quite rightly, challenged, with copious evidence, the purported claims of the “inventor of email” prior to this entire episode, I said.
No organization of journalists, I continued, would ignore my legitimate concerns. Why should historians be any different? The fact that my questions have gone unanswered, not even considered, spoke volumes. “Does it concern you,” I asked Russell, “that important members of the PLATO community, including numerous women who worked at the laboratory, completely agree with my concerns?” When it comes to the history of PLATO, I am an expert, I told him. Fortune 100 technology companies have sought me out to testify in major patent litigation where PLATO serves as the definitive prior art. I’ve researched PLATO history for more than thirty years, I told him, starting before Russell even entered high school; I was using PLATO before Russell had even entered grade school! As not a single professional historian has ever in all these years found PLATO a topic worthy of a book-length treatment, I told him, I gave up waiting and took the project on before the principals in the PLATO world died off, to capture the story of its creation, use, and the emergence of online community long before such a notion was commonplace or recognized in any substantive way by historians.
It struck me that SIGCIS likes to conflate separate issues to confuse matters. For example, take Rankin’s video. In it she examines aspects of the PLATO culture from the 1960s and 70s, then applies her own gender studies interpretations as a meta-layer on top. In the upside-down world of SIGCIS, they believe that in addition to my allegedly attacking her personally, I was attacking the meta layer when I have no expertise in it. The truth was, I was questioning the underlying layer — the PLATO facts layer. You can’t build a skyscraper on quicksand. I heard in that video facts and assertions about PLATO and PLATO people that sounded suspect. I asked questions, seeking and frankly hoping I was going to be enlightened with original discoveries from interviews or documents I’d overlooked. But none of this matters if I am not legitimate in SIGCIS’s eyes. I have not won prestigious fellowships. I have not received advanced college degrees from ivy league schools. (Psst. Want to know a secret? Fasten your seatbelts, hold on to something solid, this will be a shock to some of you: I don’t have a college degree at all. I’m 27 units short! I withdrew from UCSD in senior year as I was CEO of a startup company with customers in 24 countries and was working 100 hours a week and something had to give. So yeah, poor, poor SIGCIS peoples everywhere, it’s even more horrible than you realized: the guy you hate doesn’t. have. a. degree. at. all. Take some time, take a Valium, walk around the block, and don’t forget to breathe, you howlin’ doaty numpties.)
The fact that I am essentially the de-facto expert on PLATO history, probably I suppose anywhere in the world, a designation I never wanted or sought, it just kind of fell into my lap because I stuck with this damn project doing research for thirty years, means nothing to them since I’m not “professionally trained” in history. Clearly, I am not legitimate in the eyes of SIGCIS, and must be expelled. I am not one of the tribe. It’s why, in my view, the elitist SIGCIS leadership felt they could just blow me off. Why waste time even talking with someone outside of the tribe? Also, the mere act of asking questions, however legitimate and obviously justified they may be, they don’t need to answer because they don’t think I am legitimate. I think that is the crux of this whole thing and why they think they can just ignore the fact that the questions have been asked. They don’t believe they’re under any obligation to answer them. It’s as if the questions were never asked. Questions? What questions? And then, the invention of “personal attack” and “harassment” as cover for the missing questions, you know, the ones that I never asked. They view me as a heckler, plain and simple.
This also explains the ease with which Rankin and her base can delegitimize me, stripping me down to the description of “a man named Brian Dear,” or “troll” or — gasp — “an entrepreneur” as if that was the filthiest thing below “historian” status you could think of. In the past few days since Rankin’s article went live, her supporters have gone further, striving to define me as the proverbial xenophobe’s other, even labeling me on Twitter as a “jealous troll” (!) among other terms (jealous of what, pray tell?).
8. The “Work in Progress” Fallacy.
I told Russell that he and his officers had relied heavily on an argument that Dr. Rankin’s 19 March 2017 SIGCIS “Command Lines” conference presentation was a “work in progress” and therefore immune from public criticism. This argument laughably collapses like a house of cards for a number of obvious reasons:
a. If the presentation was a “work in progress” access to it would have been restricted to only those in the live audience on March 19th at the Computer History Museum, and attendees would have been given disclaimers and restrictions on commentary to prevent the public from getting the wrong idea. There is no evidence this was done.
b. The presentation was not identified as a “work in progress” in the “Command Lines” conference program nor are there any disclaimers in the program document. The program is still visible as a PDF at this link. (Let’s see how soon until SIGCIS deletes it. 3… 2… 1…)
c. There is no evidence that the panel moderator issued a disclaimer prior to Rankin’s presentation.
d. The conference program explicitly encouraged attendees to participate on Twitter “throughout the conference via our conference hashtag #SIGCIS2017.” (See Exhibit 21 below.) I have to repeat this: throughout the conference. No special cordoned-off presentations. Throughout the conference. That explains the enthusiastic live-tweeting during Rankin’s session. SIGCIS told attendees to do that! They even gave attendees a list of the Twitter handles of everybody attending the conference. Some of these attendees have thousands of followers. Surely it is impossible to conclude anything other than SIGCIS intended to maximize exposure — to the public on Twitter — of what was being said at the conference by the presenters . . . including Dr. Rankin.
e. Attendees actively posted on Twitter while Rankin’s presentation was underway (see Exhibits 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11). Many of these tweets were then re-tweeted and “liked” by other users, including the official Twitter account of the SIGCIS organization itself, which was tweeting its own statements about the presentation (see Exhibit 3). Without context or disclaimer many of the tweets posted during the presentation reiterated gravely serious claims about the PLATO system and people who worked on it. Everything was tweeted as historical fact. SIGCIS members seemingly without hesitation (and, I suspect, knowing nothing about the PLATO system) tweeted about how horrible the system and community was as if that were a known fact and “incredible” new discovery. A number of the tweets were “liked” by the official Twitter account for SIGCIS. Did the SIGCIS community ever consider that the public might infer that these tweets were factual statements by historians and were being endorsed a computer history special interest group?
f. The presentation was recorded. The video was published for worldwide public consumption on YouTube on 26 April 2017. There are no disclaimers in the video, nor any in the textual description of the video on its YouTube page. If the conference panel moderator made a disclaimer, it didn’t make it into the video shared to the public.The comments section on the YouTube video page was not disabled. The implication was that the public was invited to view and comment. (Note: at some point much (months? a year?) later, all of the comments that viewers had posted — including some quite skeptical comments — were removed and and the ability to comment was disabled. But they were wide open when the video came out.)
g. All speakers were asked to sign waivers (see second paragraph in Exhibit 22 above) allowing the Computer History Museum to record videos of their talks “for posting on the CHM’s YouTube channel.” Speakers who did not desire their talks aired publicly, say, because they were considered a “work in progress,” could therefore have declined to sign such a waiver. The presence on YouTube of a video of Dr. Rankin’s presentation implies she signed the waiver. Speakers who signed the waiver no doubt had heard of YouTube (which has more than 1.5 billion monthly active users) and understood the implications of posting videos on the Computer History Museum’s official YouTube channel (which at the time had 55,000-plus subscribers) without any disclaimers about “work in progress.”
h. All the evidence suggests that the idea of calling this presentation a “work in progress” was a hastily-invented excuse on the part of SIGCIS after my questions and concerns were published in May. SIGCIS and CHM posted this video to the world, and SIGCIS members gleefully tweeted the substance of the presentation publicly on March 19th. I told Russell that one cannot make the excuse that this presentation was some sort of private pre-publication rehearsal immune from scrutiny, and at the same time publish (and cheerlead!) it far and wide on social media to exploit the career-building benefits of Internet exposure. One must choose the former or the latter. In this case, SIGCIS chose the latter, and someone — me — saw the tweets and later the video and decided to ask questions. For that I was banned and have been labeled all sorts of nasty things ever since.
i. While the March 2017 “Command Lines” SIGCIS conference schedule (see the program PDF linked to above) made no mention of “work in progress” nor were there any related disclaimers, the then-upcoming October 2017 Philadelphia SIGCIS conference schedule (PDF file) did, it turned out, include something new: a session entitled “A.3 Works-in-Progress,” and declared that “A.3” was a “closed session for SIGCIS participants receiving feedback on pre-circulated written work from conference organizers and SIGCIS volunteers.” Imagine my surprise. Further, the “A.3” session invited volunteers who wished to “provide constructive criticism” to get in touch with none other than . . . Dr. Joy Rankin. “One can conclude that SIGCIS has learned from its mistakes,” I told Russell in my reply to his email, after pointing out this discovery. One might also conclude, I told him, having examined his email again, that SIGCIS was once again trying to have it both ways: make all sorts of attacks on me because of Russell’s and his officers’ and members’ series of mistakes made in March and April, while quietly making all sorts of corrections to the process going forward so they didn’t make those mistakes again. I told Russell, “It is commendable you’ve made these corrections; I applaud them. It is regrettable you’re castigating me for watching a public video that offered no form of disclaimer and then asking questions about the many claims in the video that desperately need answers.”
To this day, neither Russell nor anyone else within SIGCIS has responded to these specific arguments that I believe throughly prove that their “work in progress” excuse is a fallacy.
9. Two Hypotheticals.
Let us for a moment, I told Russell, explore a hypothetical scenario. Imagine I had managed to attend the “Command Lines” conference in March 2017. Imagine I’m present in the audience watching the panel on Sunday in which Dr. Rankin’s presentation was made. Imagine the Q&A afterwards. Naturally I would have been scribbling notes all during her presentation, and preparing some questions for the Q&A, and would have raised my hand without hesitation. What would I have asked? The exact same questions I asked in my article. I would have started with something like, “Hi, Dr. Rankin, this is Brian Dear, we’ve corresponded in email over the past few years. As you know I’m writing a book on PLATO too, and had a couple questions. First, could you help me understand what sources you used, say, interviews maybe, to enable you to make the claims you’ve made today, particularly about Dr. and Mrs. Bitzer, and about Dr. Lamont?”
I presented this hypothetical to Russell in my reply, and asked him, “What would have happened then?” Me, I’m really not sure what would have transpired then. Would there have been a productive discussion like I’d have hoped? Or, instead of answering the questions, would Rankin and everyone in the room have suddenly gasped, stood up, walked out, maybe called 911, and left me alone in the room (and would the YouTube video then have been edited to omit the Q&A)? Given what’s happened since, I really wonder. What do you think?
Let us for a moment explore another hypothetical, I told Russell:
Let us stipulate that you’re an expert on the area of ‘maintainers’ in the history of computing. You’ve written interesting articles, you’ve run conferences on the topic. I’ve done the same for my topic. You even recently got the New York Times to run an op-ed on the subject — kudos for that, sir, nice going. What if one day you came across a bunch of scholars live-tweeting some conference presentation about “#maintainers,” a subject you care very much about and have made careful arguments about, and then thirty-nine days later you came across a video of that presentation that appeared to be based on a highly selective picking of evidence (a no-no according to the American Historical Association), all about ‘maintainers,’ naming historical facts and figures and names you were quite familiar with, but putting words in those persons’ mouths that everything in your fiber and bones compelled you to demand proof? And what if you then quite politely, sincerely, and properly made inquiries to the presenter, but were shut down at every perfectly normal and professional attempt to communicate: what would you do then? Particularly if you had, say, a major book, thirty-plus years in the making, about ‘maintainers’ coming out a few months later, and urgently needed to know if you’d gotten the facts wrong based on what you’d seen in a video of someone’s conference presentation and tweeted all over the Internet? Particularly if you had received, the year before, an email inquiry from the presenter asking about the status of your book? What would you do then, sir? Ignore it all? I doubt it. I know I could not. I had and have a duty to the history of PLATO, to my readers, and to the institutions and people who built the system (and maintained it), and to the government institutions who showered millions of dollars of taxpayer money on it. So I hastily contacted as many of the people mentioned in Dr. Rankin’s talk who I could reach on short notice, and found, to my dismay, not a single person could claim to have ever heard of, let alone ever heard from, Dr. Rankin prior to their watching the video. Plus, I might add, every single PLATO person I contacted reacted with the same surprise as I did at watching the video. I went and got proof as best I could to back up the issues I raised. For example, I spoke for ninety minutes in May with a now-retired professor Lamont after the SIGCIS video came out, and she categorically denied all of the assertions that Dr. Rankin had made about her in the video, and told me she has never had any communication with Dr. Rankin. Isn’t that the least bit concerning to you, sir? How can you and seemingly the rest of SIGCIS so willingly dismiss that?
To date Russell has not responded to my two hypothetical scenarios.
10. AHA Rules of Professional Conduct
Recall that Dr. Russell’s email to me referred me to the American Historical Association’s standards of professional conduct page, as if a heathen like me clearly needed some schooling. “I went and read it,” I told Russell. “It’s long, it took a while. It’s beautifully written and I agree with it wholeheartedly. Of course, forgive me if I recoil in ironic shock at the fact that you sent it to me, instead of, say, to yourself, your officers, and the membership of SIGCIS. Have you actually read it, sir? I mean seriously read every sentence and thought about it?”
I told Russell that what I have learned from this experience is that SIGCIS is very much an exclusive organization, not inclusive. Despite what you think, I told him, your actions show it to be closed to open inquiry, collegiality, and every other venerable principle outlined in the AHA’s rules of professional conduct page. “I urge you to go back,” I said, “and read those rules carefully and reflect upon how you and your SIGCIS members conduct themselves and how you’ve treated this member.”
To date, Russell has not responded to my suggestion.
I concluded my letter to Russell with a list of recommendations. “How can something positive come out of this experience?” I asked. “It has not been pleasant for anyone. It has saddened me for months. Not only because of the brief hostility followed by bizarre silence on the part of SIGCIS with which my May article was met (other than the few who confessed being afraid to admit publicly they supported it), but because of your letter and what is clearly a retaliatory strike against me for having the temerity to even question a conference presentation shared to the whole world through YouTube (wrapped in all of the official trimmings of the Computer History Museum). I stand by my questions. I stand by my concerns. It’s about time, sir, someone had the temerity to stand up and ask some questions. You should welcome it. It’s what academia is all about. It’s why PLATO is named after that Greek guy.”
“I do have hope that positive outcomes can arise,” I continued, and listed out some recommendations:
a. Re-examine what SIGCIS is about, then clearly state that to the membership and to prospective new members.
As has become quite evident as a consequence of a) this sorry episode, and b) the types of tweets from the official Twitter account of SIGCIS and from other prominent SIGCIS members and officers, the mission of SIGCIS has changed. The public face of SIGCIS on Twitter today appears to be highly politicized. In fact many things SIGCIS officially retweets have nothing to do with computer history: they’re about current politics. Now, what SIGCIS tweets is its business and if that is an accurate representation of SIGICS, then that’s that. But this recently-emerged, aggressive political agenda is not reflected in the mission statement of the organization, which could potentially mislead potential members into joining the group in error. I hope the organization will take a long, hard look at itself and what it wants to be, and then tell the world.
If SIGCIS wants to be a closed society, then they should shut down the open membership process, and go the private golf club route, requiring, say, three existing members to sponsor a potential new member, who then has to go through a vigorous vetting process (check those college transcripts, verify that PhD!, etc.) and then select the worthy to become members. That way they can keep the riff-raff out, you know, people like me.
b. Work in Progress policy.
I told Russell I applaud SIGCIS for clearly designating certain presentations in its upcoming Philadelphia conference as “Works in Progress” in a closed session. “I don’t know if there is a new explicitly-stated policy for members and future presenters alike,” I said, “but I hope that if there isn’t, you do institute one and it becomes part of the culture from here on out.”
c. Social media policy.
Russell mentioned in his email to me SIGCIS’s “acceptable use policy,” but it mainly pertained to the email listserv. I said, “You need to expand the policy to include all web activity, including social media and YouTube. If you’re going to encourage attendees, officers, and SIGCIS members to use Twitter or other services during live events, then you need to have a clearly spelled-out policy as to when and what is acceptable to post and when and what is not. SIGCIS members clearly want to promote their careers and their work and the work of their colleagues. It’s understandable. And through the miracle of social media, it’s all easier to do than ever before. But it requires taking some responsibility and discipline as guided through official policy. Such policy is nonexistent at the present time. Such policy should include what is acceptable for the official Twitter account of SIGCIS as well.”
d. Grievance process.
This entire unfortunate episode, I told Russell, is a prime example of what happens when no policy exists for members airing grievances about conduct, or content produced by, other members, and when the organization clamps down tight and prevents any communication at all. The fact that you and your officers, I said, chose to hide and confer in secret is not only unfortunate but cowardly and unbecoming of professional conduct in any organization. What we need is a clearly-stated policy and process that everyone in the SIGCIS community is aware of, understands, and follows. Had such a policy and process been in place I doubt this entire fiasco would have ever happened, and we would all still be — and rightly so — friends and colleagues. It is my sincere hope that we can re-establish that relationship as soon as possible.
e. Talk to me.
“My hailing frequencies remain open, sir,” I told him. “I remain open to any discussion by phone or via email or in person or by any other means, from you or anyone within SIGCIS. Seriously: try communication, sir. Don’t take it from me: it’s proven to work. It’s the only thing that ever has.”
I added a concluding paragraph:
Let me conclude by saying that I’m open and willing to put this entire episode behind us. (However, I will continue to demand that you and your members cease and desist making defamatory statements.) I welcome an open dialogue. For example, I think an ideal way to work through this contentious dispute and achieve constructive, lasting reconciliation is to have a panel session next month in Philadelphia with myself, Dr. Rankin, and yourself, where in a friendly, collegial way, we discuss all these issues and work things out. It really could be done. It would actually be fun. Everyone would learn something. The entire SIGCIS community would benefit. We could all then shake hands and celebrate over beers afterwards, and who knows, we might even tweet about it.
Russell, SIGCIS’s officers, and the members have to date not taken me up on my offer. It’s such a shame. It would be glorious. They should have invited me to a conference, put me up on a panel with Rankin, Hicks, Roberts, Russell, the whole SIGCIS mafia, and let’s have a civil, respectful discussion and work out our differences, and come to some meaningful middle place and move on, together. We’re all human beings, believe it or not, we agree on nearly everything, and it would have drawn a massive crowd.
But you know what? Nothing came of my email response to Russell. He shot back a quick reply saying he read it (skimmed it, sounded like) and was going to read it again and would follow up. His tone had changed markedly — he even signed the email “Andy.” He didn’t follow up. I even cc’d the former chair of SIGCIS and the current president of the Society for the History of Technology. They didn’t care either. No-one cared. I’m exiled. I’m an unperson to them.
Hey, tech conference organizer people: it doesn’t have to happen at a SIGCIS event. Let’s do it at some other conference. (Kara’s CODE conference would be cool.) Invite all the people I mentioned, and I’ll be there, and we’ll have a discussion. And the beer’s on me.
12. The Post-Ban Aftermath.
I sent my reply to Russell in September 2017. Early in that month, there was another conference that many SIGCIS people attended. They tweeted about it a lot using the hashtag #4S2017. The conference was called 4S which stands for “the Society for Social Studies of Science.” The conference in 2017 was in Boston. Dr. Rankin attended and presented. And the live-tweeting started all over again. Based on the tweets, I could only assume she was talking about me. Take a look:
These tweets (there were others, I’m pretty sure) alarmed me terribly. It struck me that I was being defamed behind my back at conferences around the country now. Based on everything that has been said before and since, I can only assume that what was said at 4S was not nice (nor true), and conveniently, I was not there to defend myself and set the record straight. 4S like SIGCIS seems to like this arrangement. It’s rather totalitarian.
I grew increasingly concerned that this defamation was spreading. I was only weeks away from launching a nationwide book tour, with my book coming out November 14th. By September I had heard that a number of former PLATO staffers, all women, had written a group letter that they were sending to Michigan State University’s research integrity officer. They shared it with me for comments, since they had included my name and mentioned the SIGCIS banning which they were not happy about. I told them it wasn’t right for me to sign this, but I willingly corrected minor technical terms and made tiny editorial corrections, as is my wont. I guess the group letter got sent but went nowhere within MSU.
Given how alarmed and paranoid I was starting to be, about the ongoing online and I assume in-person defamation of me, I decided to google this research integrity officer at MSU and found his phone number. I was desperate to try to make it stop. On September 7th, I called him. It was clear he was taken aback by me calling out of the blue. Nevertheless I told him that I was increasingly worried about what was going on here. I had no idea what Dr. Rankin was saying about me in public, but based on the tweets by attendees of her talk, it sounded nightmarish. I told him people were saying horrible things about me on Twitter, after hearing whatever Rankin had said at 4S and whatever rumors were spreading throughout academia afterwards. I told him that SIGCIS had banned me for no good reason and without any due process. I told him this was damaging my reputation and my no doubt my book’s upcoming distribution. He wasn’t interested. He carefully kept mum. He made it clear I was on my own. The call went nowhere and was over in no time.
On September 9th, I noticed people were talking about emoticons on Twitter, something I know something about since the PLATO system had its own invention of emoticons some ten years before they started appearing on the Internet, a fact that the media and most history books continue to neglect. When I saw this exchange on Twitter, I replied, letting these people know of the upcoming release of my book which included a history of the rise of emoticons on PLATO long before the Internet. I didn’t realize I was in for more horrible lies. Someone named Eileen Clancy tweeted this back to me (see Exhibit 25) and to her 2500 followers:
I had no idea who this person was, but look at how far this “harassment” accusation, launched by Rankin and fanned by SIGCIS, had spread. Note how things had morphed to “has been harassing” as if implying an ongoing activity — note the ever-careful choice of words, again. I replied telling her that was blatantly untrue. But it didn’t matter. Damage was done.
I don’t know how far and wide these lies were traveling but they would have a marked effect on sales of my book. Instead of academia embracing the book (a huge book all about a big project that took place at a university, with much juicy coverage of university politics), reviewing it far and wide, possibly adopting it in some history of technology and educational technology degree programs around the country if not the world, academic sales and academic interest were next to nil. I cannot prove it, but I can only assume that the foul stench of character assassination and lies SIGCIS people were spewing behind my back had something to do with it.
In November the book tour started great on the West Coast, followed by events in the Midwest, including a huge event at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and then concluding in late November on the East Coast, including with a C-SPAN film crew showing up to record my talk at Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., an hour-long show that aired on C-SPAN’s BookTV program a few weeks later.
Strange things happened in Massachusetts. I was scheduled to speak at the MIT Press Bookstore in Cambridge, but the moderator intervened and told me that people were protesting my presence at MIT and Harvard because I was a “harasser of women.” Not again. That really hurt, every one of the times someone uttered that dirty lie it hurt, the way only a malicious lie can hurt, and like the ringwraith’s morgul blade that stabbed Frodo, it makes a wound that never heals.
The lies, the propaganda was seemingly everywhere now . . . These irresponsible, hateful SIGCIS people were causing real tangible harm, real destructive harm. And now, not just to me, but to my book sales, which meant harm to the Knopf/Doubleday Group, my publisher, a division of Penguin Random House, which in turn was a division of the Bertelsmann conglomerate. It was around this time I began conferring with attorneys.
Luckily, after a long talk with the moderator of the MIT Press Bookstore event, after explaining my side of the story, he agreed to continue to participate, and the event went off without a hitch. The bookstore staff were thrilled with the turnout; they told me it was the “most-attended event in recent memory” at the store. Cynthia Solomon, a legend in educational technology circles and someone whose work I cited in my book, attended, and I was so thrilled and honored to meet her.
In another East Coast city, I had been enthusiastically invited to speak at an organization but then suddenly I stopped hearing from the host, and in fact never heard from them again, so the event never happened. Given the crossover this organization had with SIGCIS I could not help but imagine something was going on behind the scenes.
As time went on after the book tour and into 2018, I would occasionally run into more defamation on Twitter. One day, 28 January 2018, someone on Twitter named Terry O’Brien was participating in a discussion about women system programmers, and tweeted a recommendation that people read my PLATO history book. That naturally got on my radar. But then I saw a reply to his tweet. Mar Hicks, a vice chair of SIGCIS, tweeted this (see Exhibit 26) in response:
So now I had allegedly “seriously harassed” women historians (plural!!) of computing. This virus, this vicious lie, simply would not let up! Now it was mutating! More propaganda! I immediately tried to write a response back to Hicks, but because I had been blocked by her, something I had long forgotten about, I couldn’t. So I logged out of my main Twitter account and logged into my PLATO History Project account, and tweeted using that. (See Exhibit 27.)
Within moments, she deleted her untrue tweet from Exhibit 26, but then immediately responded with another untrue tweet, saying, “While my statement was true, I do not have time to deal with further bullying. . .” It’s upside-down world in SIGCIS-land (I feel like I was a White House reporter asking a question to Sarah Huckabee Sanders and getting one of her trademark answers) and I realized there’s simply no reasoning with SIGCIS people. Friends were telling me, had been telling me forever, don’t even try, you’ll never get them to open their minds. One person told me I could state “2+2=4” to them and they would dispute that. Probably because I said it.
After her tweet in Exhibit 26, she blocked my PLATO History Project account.
In my opinion SIGCIS is a cult. One I so very much do not want to belong to. I can’t imagine how any rational person would want to be a part of it. Would you?
One addendum. I wanted to submit my book to the Computer History Museum as a candidate for the Computer History Book of the Year award. I figured, why not. My book is a damn good book and worthy contender. So I looked into how to file a submission, but then stopped, after discovering who, of all people, was heading up the selection committee: Dr. Joy Rankin.
13. A Short Intermission.
I don’t know about you, but this stuff is not fun to write. It’s not fun to read either.
Here is a picture of cute puppies to remind us that there is still great beauty in the world.
Ok and now back to the horseshit.
14. The End of the Six Month Ban Period.
The twenty-fourth of February 2018 marked the six-month anniversary of being banned from SIGCIS.
On a lark, my expectations nil, I emailed Dr. Andrew Russell to remind him about lifting the ban, after all, the six month exile was now over. His response was right out of some totalitarian gulag nightmare. No, was the simple answer: I had not publicly apologized to Dr. Rankin and all the members of SIGCIS, nor had I yet been to, what a colleague of mine would describe as their “re-education camps.” So no, the ban was now permament unless I did their cult-like penances. Horseshit, I thought. That, I can safely guarantee, is not going to happen. Ever.
He still refused to even talk on the phone. To this day, I’ve never had a conversation with him. I no longer wish to. He leads what I think is a cult.
15. Weird Internet Terms.
At some point Dr. Rankin wrote a blog post on a website called Ladyscience that someone tipped me off to. I went and read it and it was eerie. She did not mention my name but the “online harassment” she spoke of was obviously more of the propaganda campaign against me. This time she introduced all kinds of bizarre terminology that somewhere out in the world people are making up in an attempt to explain social media behavior online. Terms like “brigading,” and I think something like “walrusing,” I don’t remember and I’m not going to link to the creepy article because it’s upside-down world stuff, but she was clearly trying to use these terms to describe a) the Medium piece I wrote in 2017, and b) the fact that female former staffers of the PLATO project had gotten together (“brigaded?”) and written a group letter to MSU about what they felt were unfair and wildly inaccurate descriptions of the PLATO culture especially as it pertained to women. This kind of thing boiled down to some sort of conspiracy to Dr. Rankin and, well, I slogged through the whole article then promptly shut down my browser, left my office, and went for a walk. Lavvy heid dobbers, mate. There’s only so much horseshit a mind can take.
16. Dr. Rankin’s Essay Appears
This brings us up to last week, when Dr. Rankin surprised everyone by releasing her Medium article with its lies and defamation against me. As soon as her article was out, and she tweeted about it, urging people to read and share and spread the word, the word spread. Pageviews must have gone through the ceiling. Soon there were more than 1000 likes (the “clapping hands” icon on Medium) on her article. And then the two reporters reached out to me, and you know the rest.
One odd thing is that this whole thing reminded me of the Streisand Effect (see, I have weird internet terms too). All this publicity was suddenly sending the reader counts for my 2017 Medium article sky-high.
Which reminds me. When I wrote my reply to Andrew Russell back in September 2017, I also included a section to point out that I had deliberately chosen Medium as the platform to publish my May 2017 article precisely because, however counterintuitive this sounds, I knew almost nobody would read it. I just wanted it out there with a link. And Medium looks pretty. Here’s what I wrote to him: “I posted my article on Medium for a reason. I knew almost nobody would see the article there. You read that right: I knew it would barely get any recognition on Medium. I simply wanted a place to post the article and invite some PLATO and SIGCIS people to read and comment. To this day [at the time I wrote this, 4 months after the whole imbroglio began], Medium reports there have only been 310 total ‘reads’ of the article. If I’d wanted to publicize my article widely, there were plenty of ways to do that; I could have contacted countless media organizations [ahem] and the result would have been tens of thousands of readers. But I did not want to do that and I did not do that.”
And now Dr. Rankin had an article on Medium but it was clearly intended for far and wide distribution, after all, it had strategic propaganda on me in it and propaganda, like a tree falling in a forest that no-one hears fall, is useless without an audience. Her Twitter army took care of viralizing it, along with their successful outreach to the media, who expanded its audience many-fold.
But, here’s the thing. It expanded readership of my 2017 Medium article too. Over ten-fold, so far. There are now like 3800 views for a 45-minute read and it’s still climbing. I’m sure it’ll pass 4000 before this night is through. It had been dormant for 18 months with barely anyone reading it. Suddenly, it’s linked in multiple newspaper stories. Plus, my book sales have spiked (as have hers). And views of the original Rankin video are way up too.
16. Parting Words.
When I think about this whole saga, one thing keeps standing out in my mind. I keep thinking about the difference between journalists versus historians in ways I never ever thought about in all the years I was working on my PLATO book. I also think about the allegory of the cave, by Plato (the Greek guy this time). Maybe the shadows inside the cave, illuminated by fire, are what historians burdened by ideology choose to see. Journalists yearning for truth, I think, strive to get out of the cave and see the real world. I think there are people inside SIGCIS who prefer to be chained inside the cave looking at the shadows on the wall.
As I mentioned earlier, I took the journalist route for my book, but then I went and made the colossal boneheaded mistake of attempting to hang out in a historian community — D’oh! — thinking they might take an interest in my book, and thinking I might learn something, and golly, who knows, make friends. Lordy on a stack of cupcakes that sure didn’t work out did it. My bad.
Like I said before, I’m interested in the story behind things (hell, look at this crazy-long article you’re reading: it’s the story, as I see it anyway, behind the noise you’ve been hearing on Twitter, in Rankin’s article, and in the newspapers). I love figuring out the story. I don’t think historians, at least the ones I’ve come into contact with via SIGCIS, care about story in the same way or as much. They have points to make, and use history as a platform upon which to make their points. When done well, the result can be brilliant, highly readable, where the reader is left wanting more. When not done so well, someone out there, maybe a journalist, maybe some bozo like me, finds themselves needing to ask questions.
I set out with this long-winded essay to set the record straight as I see it. I am not trying to convince anyone. I am certainly not going to convince anyone in the upside-down world known as SIGCIS. But rational people I trust can ponder what I have said here, and make up their own minds.
Lastly, you know what? None of this matters really in the long run. What matters is the legacy of PLATO, something I worked very hard to treat with utmost respect and care and a deep sense of responsibility to future generations. I worked hard to shed some light on a nearly-lost (to history, I mean) project that represents probably the largest publicly-funded American technology project of the 20th century that almost nobody had heard of. Like I said earlier, what matters to me is that there be books, plural, about PLATO, coming out for years to come. In this light I welcome Dr. Rankin’s new book and am glad I have it on my bookshelf next to my book. I hope others will get cracking and start researching and continue mining the PLATO gold mine — there is so much story left to tell.
And you know what? Dr. Rankin worked very hard to create a dissertation and then transform that into a book that got published by Harvard University Press. I congratulate her for that accomplishment.
In the end, I believe both I and Dr. Rankin actually agree on something: we agree that the Silicon Valley mythology is just that, mythology. That there is a much richer story elsewhere, often one that happened in the Midwest, and it happened before the era of personal computers. I think we would both argue that the interpersonal computer revolution started in the Midwest (and Dartmouth), and it was booming long before the personal computer era even got underway. Silicon Valley, pfft, what did they have to do with it? Not so much.
PLATO’s story is an amazing story. Both of us authors were drawn to it, and both of us got books out to enlighten the public.
So I will leave you with this: you can stop reading this silliness and go out and get thee enlightened by reading the real thing — books on PLATO. Here they are:
The hardcover and paperback editions of my book The Friendly Orange Glow are available at fine bookstores everywhere and on sites like Amazon (link).
Joy Rankin’s book, A People’s History of Computing in the United States, is also available at fine bookstores everywhere and on sites like Amazon (link).
Read ’em both!