Performing History on PLATO: A Response to a Recent SIGCIS Conference Panel Presentation on PLATO and Gender

The front entrance to the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory, home of PLATO, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Photo © 2003 by Brian Dear.

During the weekend of March 18–19, 2017, a conference was held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. The name of the conference was “Command Lines: Software, Power, and Performance,” organized by SIGCIS, or the Special Interest Group on Computers, Information, and Society, a group researching the history of computing. SIGCIS is a special interest group within the Society for the History of Technology.

One session at the conference, entitled “Performing Gender on PLATO,” by Dr. Joy Rankin, stood out as the only one that mentioned the PLATO system.

The SIGCIS Command Line conference videos finally appeared on YouTube a few weeks after the conference. The conference offered a panel session called “Performing Identity and Embedding Bias,” and Dr. Rankin’s talk conveniently is the first one of the panel, so it begins right at the start of the video embedded below and runs for about 20 minutes:

Dr. Rankin’s 20-minute talk starts right at the beginning of this 2-hour video.

Rankin’s presentation makes assertions about the PLATO system, its developers, its users, and its online and offline culture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in the 1960s and 1970s, that paint a decidedly negative picture, one where Rankin declares PLATO suffered from “endemic misogyny” and that she likens to a “fortress of patriarchal heterosexual power in American computing.” Such a description stands in stark contrast to the picture described to me by roughly a thousand PLATO people over the course of more than thirty years of research. (The result of this research is my upcoming book The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture to be released by Pantheon Books in November 2017.)

Rankin’s conclusions appear to be based on misunderstandings, historical errors, omissions, and confirmation bias, resulting in a general thesis that PLATO was a horrible woman-hating environment. A response and correction is urgently needed, in light of the fact that this presentation was given under the auspices of SIGCIS, a group devoted to a scholarly, nuanced, and accurate recounting of the history of computing, the fact that the conference was co-produced by and held at the prestigious Computer History Museum, and the fact that Rankin says that her talk comes from an upcoming book, A People’s History of Computing, to be published by Harvard University Press. At least as far as PLATO goes, I feel it my duty to address each of Rankin’s points and clarify the history to the best of my ability based not only on extensive past research but also present-day comments from actual PLATO people who have viewed Rankin’s video, including a number of people whom I contacted for this article and who are identified by name in her talk and who were physically present at the PLATO lab decades ago.

(Dr. Rankin was contacted twice by email and once by phone for this article, and offered some questions the answers to which would hopefully shed light on how she reached her conclusions. I was particularly curious to know if she ever met or otherwise communicated directly with any of the PLATO people she names and talks about in her presentation. She never responded.)

In her talk, Rankin describes her research as follows (at approximately 00:02:07 in the video):

I focus on students and educators using networked academic computing systems during the 1960s and 1970s. Most historians who have analyzed gender and computing in those decades have considered only the professional realm and few historians of computing have employed sexuality as an analytical category. Inspired by the recent work of scholars including our conference organizers Marie Hicks and Laine Nooney.
My research employs gender and sexuality as analytical categories to consider users we would now describe as amateurs. PLATO people shared their screens with each other. They swapped messages across the network, seemingly instantly, and they traded jokes on digital bulletin boards. Moreover, PLATO people performed gender on and through the system in multifarious ways. I argue that PLATO provided multiple venues in which its people, system engineers and administrators, instructors, students, and other users, could explore the boundaries of sixties and seventies heteronormative gender roles.
Ultimately, however, the interaction of PLATO and its people reinforced and re-entrenched those roles, in unexpected ways. I’ll develop this argument with three mini case studies . . .

Before proceeding, a brief interlude to review the notion of “performing gender.”

The Meaning of “Performing Gender”

Here, for the benefit of those perhaps unfamiliar with the term, is a layperson’s brief attempt at explaining the phrase “performing gender” that is referenced in the title of Rankin’s talk. The phrase, widely used in the academic field of gender studies, refers to a theory that posits that gender isn’t something people are, it’s something people do. It is a set of behaviors.

Says Julia T. Wood in Dow, B.J., and Wood, J.T., Eds. (2006) The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Communication, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, pp. 1–2:

Selves come into existence as biological beings interact with others who reflect appraisals of them, respond to their actions, and otherwise bring them into the social world of meaning in a particular time and space. Through others’ definitions and others’ responses to her or his actions, the individual begins to develop a self.
And the self that arises in communication with others is deeply gendered. Like all aspects of identity, gender is learned, initially, from the outside. We develop our first notions of gender in general and ourselves as gendered beings in particular from others who teach us directly and indirectly what is feminine and masculine, what is and is not appropriate for girls and boys, and which behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable. Gender is inherently and inescapably interpersonal. Thus, it is not surprising that many scholars interested in gender find it valuable to learn about interpersonal communication and that many scholars interested in interpersonal communication find that understanding gender is essential to their work.

To learn more about this field, here is one Wikipedia page to start with.

In a nutshell, Rankin’s research interest, at least as it pertains to the PLATO system, might be summarized as analyzing old published papers about the PLATO system and the text of messages posted by users on the system, and from that those papers and from that text, deriving gendered meaning, motive, and intent from the actions and communications of the people who worked on the PLATO system, and finally, perhaps, form broader conclusions about the role of gender in the computer world of the 1960s and 70s. As Wood notes above, examining gender has become a useful and insightful activity for scholars in a wide array of fields. Rankin and others who spoke at SIGCIS are to be commended for revisiting the history of computing with a fresh and different perspective. However, whenever one revisits history, it is important to get the basic story straight, so that any higher-level analysis avoids losing its footing.

Dr. Rankin delivers her presentation at the 2017 SIGCIS Command Line conference.

Rankin’s Three Mini Case Studies

The “three mini case studies” in Dr. Rankin’s SIGCIS talk include:

  • Valarie Lamont and her PLATO III lesson on Boneyard Creek
  • Maryann Bitzer’s online lessons in nursing
  • Various interactions between users in PLATO Notes in 1974

Let’s look at each of these.

Mini Case Study 1: The Boneyard Creek lesson.

Dr. Rankin’s talk, like some of her previous presentations and published articles, dives right in at the start by talking about one Valarie Lamont, a political science PhD candidate at UIUC who in 1970 created a PLATO III lesson called “Creek” about the controversial, environmental mess that was a small creek that ran through town and cut across the campus. I’m not going to go into detail about the Boneyard Creek lesson here because it is in fact the subject of one of the full chapters in my upcoming book on PLATO. Suffice to say, years ago I’d interviewed many of the principals involved and arrived at a rather different version of the story than the one presented by Dr. Rankin.

Says Rankin (at approximately 00:07:53 in the video):

As a graduate student in political science, Valarie creatively deployed PLATO to stimulate “citizen participation in community planning.” She situated her work firmly within the social movements of the long 1960s. Although she presented her Boneyard Creek program as an unbiased experiment in community planning, she clearly constructed the program to persuade users against sheetpiling which was a method of flood control. The 105 slides in her program offered a simple but compelling narrative of decline. Once upon a time the creek was pristine, but development, pollution, and sheetpiling, the work of men, harmed the creek and its wildlife. Lamont shared her program with the Urbana-Champaign public during the Spring of 1970, in the months following that first Earth Day of April 1970. She described each gathering of individuals who used the progam as a quote “demonstration.” Her word choice deliberately invoked Senator Gailord Nelson’s call for a nationwide teach-in, to raise awareness for local and national environmental concerns. At the end of the program, Valarie urged users to additional action. Her program suggested writing letters to government officials, calling for re-zoning, cleanup projects, landscaping projects, and of course, inviting other friends and colleagues to use the Boneyard Creek program.
Her program represented a personal and social computing approach and extension of the April 1970 Earth Day activism. In fact her approach of education as a pathway to activism, mirrored the efforts of other social movements of the long 1960s, especially the civil rights movement. Bringing Valarie to the forefront illuminates the long history of environmental activism in the United States. That 1970 Earth Day did not mark the beginning of local environmental activism around the United States but rather a concentrated expression of that activism on a national level. And during the 1960s, women as well as students, were crucial to local environmental organizing. Yet, the PLATO network enabled Valarie’s identity to recede into the background, making the Creek the central issue. Perhaps Lamont hoped that because the Creek cleanup cause previously had been associated with the all-male group of concerned engineers for the restoration of Boneyard, her program would be viewed as an extension of their efforts and gain credibility and authority as such. Perhaps PLATO the computer network offered a veneer of expertise that would not have been accepted coming from Lamont, a woman political scientist. While those concerned engineers could afford to call attention to their cause with Miss Illinois, pictured here, Lamont recognized the precarious position of women claiming scientific authority.
Lamont’s PLATO program blurred the boundaries drawn then and now, between hippie earth mothers and military industrial computing cold warriors. But it also masked her identity as a woman.

For this article I reached out to Valarie Lamont directly to find out what she thought of Dr. Rankin’s presentation, including Rankin’s comments about Lamont’s motivations that drove her to create a PLATO lesson in the first place forty-seven years ago. Says Lamont, “I just watched the video and, quite frankly, I am taken aback. I have never heard of or spoken to Dr. Joy Rankin and really feel quite upset that she would make assumptions about my intent (and timing) in creating the Boneyard Creek program, the working environment of the PLATO lab, etc.”

Lamont told me that Earth Day had nothing to do with the Boneyard Creek lesson. (The creek was a contentious local environmental issue long before 1970.) Lamont was a serious scholar pursuing a doctoral degree, not a “hippie earth mother” contending with “military industrial computing cold warriors.” And despite Rankin’s attempt to attach some knowing political subtext to Lamont’s use of the word “demonstration” to describe the act of demonstrating her PLATO lesson to members of the public, that is all it was, a demonstration, as in, a demo. In the world of PLATO, much like the world of software developers today, one was constantly demonstrating, or demoing, that which one had created on the computer. Demos went on all day long then and they go on all the time now (ask any software company or lab creating applications). That the English word “demonstration” also happens to have a completely different meaning having to do with political protests where large groups of people assemble for a redress of grievances, is mere coincidence.

Lamont says that Rankin’s “attributions to me about my motivations really did bother me.” That PLATO might have, in Rankin’s words, “enabled Valarie’s identity to recede into the background” makes no sense to Lamont, and she denies that her being a woman had anything to do with her work on PLATO.

Contrary to Rankin’s version of the story, Lamont worked on and demonstrated the Boneyard Creek lesson with a colleague, a male collaborator and fellow Illinois grad student named Stuart Umpleby. I write about both of them extensively in my book, but Umpleby seems to have been deemed unworthy of mention not only in Rankin’s presentation at this SIGCIS conference but also in Rankin’s previous published articles that mention Lamont and the Boneyard Creek lesson. Would the presence of a male collaborator be an inconvenient truth, weakening Rankin’s arguments, necessitating his omission? We do not know. Was Rankin simply unaware of Umpleby’s involvement and years-long collaboration with Lamont? We do not know.

As for Lamont’s motivation for doing the Creek lesson, Lamont says it was a mutual decision between her and Umpleby. “We needed something to take to the National Science Foundation,” she says, in order to get graduate student funding for further research. (They did get the funding, and did additional work on PLATO over the next few years, leading to invitations to prominent international conferences including a keynote speech by Lamont, as well as years of additional work in the field.)

Of PLATO and the PLATO people at the Illinois lab, Lamont has only positive things to say: “I worked with the systems people to learn the TUTOR language . . . My heavens, it couldn’t have been a more exciting environment!” She adds that everyone at the lab was “always open to the opportunity.” She told me how impressed she was with the office space they gave her at the laboratory, “bigger than many faculty offices,” even though she was a mere grad student.

As for the role gender played in the PLATO lab, and in the development of the Boneyard Creek lesson, Lamont says there was none. “It wasn’t what your gender was, it was what you were doing. Nobody seemed to care whether I was a male or female.”

(As an aside, in November, 1970, the Illinois Technograph, a long-running journal of the school of engineering at the university that for a while was edited by Stuart Umpleby, re-ran an old 1955 article published in the Penn State Engineer by Penn State University’s Dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture, Eric A. Walker. The article was entitled, “Women Are Not for Engineering” and proceeded to itemize the reasons why women as a group should stay away from the field. The Technograph editor in 1970 added this brief note: “While [the article] does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the staff we feel it is of enough general interest to be reprinted here.” Interestingly, the Technograph left no indication whether it was agreeing with Walker, or pointing out the blatant sexism of the recent past and suggesting that it was time to move on and be more welcoming and encouraging of women in the field. I’ve always assumed the latter.)

Mini Case Study 2: Maryann Bitzer’s Nursing Lessons

Maryann Bitzer, circa 1967

Rankin cites the story of Maryann Bitzer, who happened to be the wife of Donald Bitzer, the leader of the PLATO project, and her work on developing a curriculum of PLATO lessons in the early-to-mid 1960s on the subject of nursing.

From Rankin’s talk (at approximately 00:03:37 in the video):

First, examining the nursing work of Maryann Bitzer, illuminates the gendered expectations of nurture and marriage built into the system . . .
In 1963, Maryann Bitzer created a new way for her nursing students to learn how to treat heart attack patients, and I know this image isn’t the best, but you can see the woman wearing sort of the nursing uh, headcovering on her head and sitting at a PLATO terminal. So, Maryann chose a striking topic for her nursing students, in heart attack patients. Patients who would never want student nurses experimenting on them in the life-and-death situation of a heart attack, but PLATO enabled those students to experiment on a virtual patient. After a short introduction to the system and the terminal, the student nurse watched on her individual screen a 3-minute film which portrayed a conversation between a doctor and a man, quote, to convey an image of a real patient. The film ended as the man experienced chest pains and the student entered into the simulated laboratory on her screen. Here she could experiment with adminstering different kinds of nursing care, or drugs, such as nitro-glycerin, and she could observe the effects of her actions on the virtual patient. While the nursing students worked with PLATO, Maryann watched their performance, in a separate room on television monitors, and Maryann observed that, quote, “minor system failures tended to create anxiety in the student.” But overall the students responded very favorably.

Rankin then arrives at this startling conclusion (at approximately 00:05:49 in the video):

On the surface, Maryann’s research seemed to challenge the gender norms that co-constructed masculinity with engineering and computing prowess. A closer examination upends that. First, Maryann was not just any nursing instructor. She had not independently pitched and secured funding for her PLATO nursing project. Rather, she was the wife of Don Bitzer, who invented PLATO. Marriage, a heteronormative privilege, smoothed the way for an alliance from which both Maryann and Don ultimately benefitted. Don was a PhD engineer but he was also a salesman. He had sold cars to support himself through college and grad school. And in PLATO’s early days during the first half of the 1960s, Bitzer had to sell PLATO to grow his project and to secure funding. He had to make PLATO palatable as a user friendly educational system. He thought, what could be better than having a bunch of nurses learn how to care for patients using this system.
And herein lie more highly gendered tropes. In the 1960s nursing was pink-collar work performed primarily by women and it was work whose public image projected nurturing, soft femininity. That is precisely what Donald sought, to make PLATO more broadly appealing. Remember, at the time computers were generally remote, unaccessible, and intimidating. To an outside observer, young nurses using PLATO played up the juxtaposition between stereotypes of gentle women and dominating machines. A woman authoring software to train nurses appeared to chip away at the association between computers and manliness. However, the ways that Maryann’s project was deployed and publicized reinforced the nurturing, feminized work of nursing.

What evidence gave Rankin the ability to know what Donald Bitzer “thought,” when she declares that he “thought, what could be better than having a bunch of nurses…”? We do not know. What evidence gave Rankin insight into Donald Bitzer’s motivations? We do not know. It must be compelling evidence because Rankin not only knows what “Donald” (note the first-name basis) was thinking, but she declares that “nurturing, soft femininity” was “precisely [emphasis added] what Donald sought to make PLATO more broadly appealing.” What document proves this? What interview? We do not know.

Maryann Bitzer was a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in educational psychology. In a 1997 interview she told me a story. One day in 1963 she was at a social gathering where she got to talking with a UIUC education professor named Dr. Richard Suchman, who was a major proponent of the notion of “inquiry training.” Maryann then told me what happened next:

MARYANN BITZER: We were talking and he was doing inquiry training, and I had been working with student nurses, I was seeing some things in teaching the students some medical education, nursing education that kind of followed the same type of way of educating students . . . I had been working with students in the clinical area, as well as teaching a couple of other small courses, but, I noticed that some of the mistakes they made were sort of funny . . . So I got quite intrigued with talking with him about this inquiry training, and the other reason was that that I could see right away that this would be something that nurses really needed . . . I got really excited about it, and the other thing was that I felt that everybody was so individual, these patients, were so individual, you just couldn’t take care of a gall bladder, I mean, people used to refer to a “gall bladder here” or a “gastrectomy here” and that we really needed to teach these students what kind of questions to ask, what kinds of questions elicit information and data that they needed to help them take care of the patient, to set up a nursing care plan, you know, to take care of these people . . .
I then met with my thesis advisor and asked if I could work for a thesis in this area, and I asked Don if I could set up something and use these two [PLATO] stations . . . So with the cooperation of another instructor who taught medical surgical nursing over there at Mercy [Hospital] we set up this little experiment and I then structured a simulated laboratory patient situation and kind of structured a learning situation where it was completely student-directed. So the student could control how fast she learned and the direction of the learning, and forcing the student into being active rather than a passive participant.

The fact that this nursing education project was begun in 1963 is extraordinary considering how new and untried the field of computer-based education was at the time. The kind of inquiry-driven, interactive, student-directed patient simulation Maryann Bitzer designed in 1963 is still in use today.

Maryann Bitzer had indeed “independently pitched” the idea of using PLATO. She spent years developing and fine-tuning nursing lessons on PLATO all during the 1960s. Her pioneering Master’s degree work led to her project receiving significant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare, resulting in a classroom full of PLATO terminals installed in Champaign for nursing education, and a slew of lessons on maternity issues as pertaining to nursing care. Is Rankin arguing that it would have been better if the nurses been kept away from PLATO? We do not know. However, the data published in reports from the time says they enjoyed and benefitted from using the system.

Still images from a 1967 film documentary on Maryann Bitzer’s nursing lessons on PLATO.

How did Rankin manage to get a wholly different story about Maryann Bitzer? We do not know. What we do know is that the story and the motivations of the Bitzers that Rankin presents in the SIGCIS talk appear to be based on speculation as I cannot find any documentary or oral history evidence that Donald and Maryann Bitzer set out to exploit nurses — not to mention their own marriage — in some nefarious patriarchal scheme to promote PLATO. The assertion is frankly absurd. One longtime female PLATO consultant told me recently, “I’m sure nursing was chosen as the subject for the first lessons because it was Maryann’s field, not because of any desire on either Don’s or Maryann’s part to marry feminism to engineering. Don didn’t think that way. If Maryann had taught differential calculus, I’m sure that’s what the subject matter would have been.”

How does the fact that these two people were married have anything to do with anything? Has Dr. Rankin ever met the Bitzers? What is she basing her case on? We do not know. Unless Rankin has compelling documentary evidence to the contrary, her assertions must be seen as regrettably inaccurate, amounting to strange and possibly defamatory insinuations, and standing on questionable ethical ground.

Mini Case Study 3: The PLATO Notesfiles

Dr. Rankin then examimes transcripts of old PLATO notesfiles from the 1970s, and from them makes an explosive accusation (at approximately 00:03:40 in the video):

A close reading of the archive and extensive system notesfiles, essentially a multi-year online bulletin board, unearths how the ideology of PLATO’s promise, to revolutionize education for all users, masked the misogyny inherent in the system.

Note how the misogyny is claimed to be inherent in the system, as if the machine’s hardware and software exhibited this horrible trait. Elsewhere Rankin repeats this notion, deeming that the PLATO network itself exhibited misogyny. Misogyny means simply “a hatred of women.” Is Dr. Rankin really asserting that PLATO itself hated women?

She cites examples of the system’s alleged misogyny, which I have broken up into two parts below.

Mini Case Study 3, Part 1: Ruth’s Plea

On November 18, 1974, Ruth Chabay, then a chemistry doctoral student and PLATO author working with Dr. Stanley Smith on interactive chemistry lessons (lessons widely regarded as brilliant, seminal examples of the uses of computers for teaching and learning; you can learn much more about them in my book), posted a note called “crank call” in PLATO Notes (PLATO’s message forum application) to complain about unwanted TERM-talks (PLATO’s instant messaging application) from random users:

Here is how Rankin characterized this incident (at approximately 00:13:30 in the video):

In November of 1974 Ruth bemoaned, and this is her exact quote, “ARRRRGH, I am getting very tired of having people call me on talk and ask, what am I doing, if I am female, if my name is really Ruth, if I know of any short games, and other nonsense ad infinitum.” The responses to Ruth’s comment demonstrated the pervasive sexism of the PLATO network.
Al suggested that Ruth remove her name from the Users List, even though Ruth had clearly explained in her original post that she wanted to remain on the Users List so that her collaborators could easily reach her. Bruce suggested that Ruth “develop a sense of humor about it” and then added the condescending comment “if you are really bothered by others who are just being friendly over an impersonal machine I truly feel sorry for you.” Don echoed Bruce’s comment also patronizing Ruth. “I really feel sorry for people who can’t say ‘get lost’ when they are up to their ears in work.” Al, Don, and Bruce, white adult men, had experienced neither the frequency of crank calling that Ruth received nor the unwanted and inappropriate sexual attention. However, instead of offering sympathy or helpful approaches to her problem they critized her complaint. They blamed the victim.

Here Rankin lays out what seems to be one of her fundamental theses about PLATO: that sexism was pervasive on the system. As evidence for this pervasive sexism, she cites several examples in the responses to Ruth’s note.

Rankin does not mention that several male PLATO users responded within minutes to Ruth’s note in sympathetic agreement. Here are the first five responses to Ruth’s plea, typos left intact from 43 years ago:

None of these posts, all of which appear to be sincere in offering helpful solutions, is mentioned in Rankin’s presentation. Why? Can their omission be explained by confirmation bias? Perhaps. Why else hide the fact that several men immediately responded within minutes, in support of Ruth’s plea?

The first objectionable (to Rankin) post comes in Response 6, by someone named “al” of group “mflu.” Just based on this user ID (in PLATO jargon, a “signon,” which consisted of two parts, a name and a group), it’s impossible to know anything about “al” other than this person is in group “mflu,” a group set up for PLATO users accessing the system from terminals in the large Modern Foreign Languages lab on campus. Note the message is signed by “AL”:

The reader is invited to read the response above by a user named “al” of group “mflu” and identify what makes it an example of the sexism that Rankin alleges was “pervasive” on the PLATO system. Rankin correctly points out that Ruth “had clearly explained in her original post that she wanted to remain on the Users List so that her collaborators could easily each her.” But is that sexism?

Could it have been possible that “AL” (are those initials, or someone’s name? we do not know) might not have read or remembered that detail in Ruth’s original note? Is there a person alive today who has participated in online communications who has not skimmed someone else’s forum posting, social media newsfeed, or email? Occam’s Razor would suggest that even forty-three years ago, “AL” simply skimmed Ruth’s note, then skimmed the gist of the rest of the replies, and posted his or her note (at 12:48 am in the middle of the night). That was completely normal in the daily PLATO experience. There were too many notes to read, and it could take many hours if you did not skim. (Something that only by interviewing actual PLATO users would one likely discover.) Encountering a wall of text on PLATO — and face it, a long note like Ruth’s (and “AL”’s) are walls of text — was no different forty-three years ago than it is today. This article you are reading right now is a gigantic wall of text, after all (and I am impressed you’ve gotten this far). Occam’s Razor suggests a simple case of TL;DR on AL’s part, and the consequences that arise from TL;DR, not any sort of learned patriarchal hatred of women or even simple rudeness. Unless Rankin successfully contacted the mysterious AL and got a first-hand explanation (I was unable to figure out who AL is so I could not), we do not know.

There is great risk for a historian to view the past through the lens of the present. It is not clear if Rankin is aware that the PLATO Notes application, at the time of this 1974 exchange, was but a year old, and it is likely that many of the participants in Notes in 1974 had used the application for an even shorter period of time, since the system was growing quickly and newcomers were arriving online every day. The TERM-talk feature was even newer than Notes, having only been released in mid-December 1973. Not only had nearly every one of these users never participated in any form of online communication before their first encounters with PLATO, but most of them had very likely never used a computer before in their entire lives. On PLATO in 1974, everyone was figuring this stuff out for the first time — imagine if the Internet had only started last year, and we were all still finding our way today. In 1974, there were few norms, few customs, few if any established ways of communicating and behaving in online forums or in email or online in general. That in no way condones any bad behavior. But there were no guidebooks on What to Do and What Not to Do, and people were unfamiliar with the brand-new concept of online identities and how they might differ from the real world. Participating in an online community was a new experience for everyone. There was no other online community in the world with the features and functionality to it that PLATO people enjoyed. But everything was unproven. Prone to error. Prone to misunderstanding. Vulnerable to unintended consequences. Unwanted calls in TERM-talk: something everybody experienced. Users with female-sounding names on the Users List or in the online games were particularly targeted for unwanted TERM-talks. Asking women who used PLATO in the 1970s will tell you that invariably the callers were teenagers running amok on the system. Imagine handing out mobile phones to teens in the 1970s, phones that had a feature that listed all the people who also had phones, with an easy facility to call them immediately. It does not take much imagination to figure out what would happen next.

(In time a lengthy poem would be written — and posted in a notesfile — about receiving unwanted TERM-talks. The community would even invent a joke system TUTOR variable called “zbrat” that had a value of TRUE if the user was some kid pestering other people online. There were many zbrats on PLATO, and this author over the years even heard from some of them, now middle-aged, confessing in emails to me that “yes, I was a zbrat…”)

Ruth’s plea in Notes is fascinating because she and others had learned that Notes was a new and effective way to reach a large percentage of the user population — and the powers that be that ran the PLATO lab — and ask a serious question about a legitimate concern, in this case an unintended consequence that reared its ugly head with the arrival of TERM-talk. Other users then responded to her plea, some perhaps less perfectly than Rankin would desire. But did they mock or attack her? The reader is encouraged to examine the evidence.

I contacted Dr. Ruth Chabay regarding Dr. Rankin’s presentation and this particular “mini case study.” In an email reply she remembered posting her complaint about unwanted TERM-talks, and had this to say:

[T]hat description certainly doesn’t resonate with my personal experience in PLATO. I think you would have heard about it if other women’s experiences had been bad. I suppose it’s easy to condemn the entire scientific and technological community of the era as sexist, but it didn’t feel that way to me — we were inventing the future, and that future included bringing more women into the community, even if it was one at a time.”

To judge how people communicated in an online forum in 1974 through an extremely narrow gender-studies lens of 2017 not to mention a lens that is accustomed to looking at the world of today where billions of people spend many of their waking hours online, an online world where norms and customs about online behavior, including notions of what to expect from others online, have long been established and etched into unspoken law (but are still widely ignored), is to mischaracterize how things were in the historical period under examination, and ends up potentially misleading present-day people hoping to gain some insight into the history of PLATO.

It must be mentioned that Dr. Rankin describes “Al, Don, and Bruce,” three users who responded to Ruth’s note, as “white adult men.” How did she arrive at that conclusion? It could not be from simply reading the text of an archive of a 43-year-old computer message forum thread: no such information is to be found there. Therefore, one must ask, what information did Dr. Rankin rely on for that assertion? Did she contact the three of them, if still alive all now theoretically in their sixties or older, and verify their skin color? We do not know.

Finally: it is interesting how much of the rest of the 1974-era responses to Chabay’s note brought up the issue of PLATO signons often being first-name-only. Once again, the history of PLATO could predict the way a similar phenomenon would happen on the Internet decades later. Anyone who has ever joined a startup company early on knows the experience of getting a company email address. Usually, if you’re early enough in the company, you get a coveted first-name address, like “” or “” But then the company grows, and eventually hires another Lisa or Mark. What now? Same thing happens with internet domain names. They’re unique. So only one entity in the world owns the “” domain or, say, the “” domain. Scarcity creates value, and short, memorable, simple domain names are very valuable. If somebody else comes along that wants a “medium” domain, they may have to settle for “” or “” or “” Such is the story of namespaces.

Likewise, early on in PLATO, it was commonplace for early joiners of a project to get a first-name-only signon in whatever group they were in. Note that Ruth Chabay’s signon was “ruth” of “chem.” Easy to remember, easy to type day in and day out. But then unintended consequences appeared. As the PLATO community grew, not everybody knew who “ruth” of “chem” was. High schoolers, who invaded PLATO all during the 1970s (one third of my book is devoted to the invasion and its consequences), were not always the most polite or courteous users of system features, including TERM-talk. Over time, it became more sensible to use full names or at least last names (if they were unique enough), to avoid ambiguity. The PLATO community did so not to perform gender, but to solve a simple problem.

Mini Case Study 3, Part 2: The Three Men

In her talk, Rankin described another aspect of her third “mini case study” as follows (at approximately 00:13:24 in the video):

… three men posted a series of vicious personal complaints addressed at another consultant, Maureen. Subsequent notes revealed that Maureen had asked the men to stop working on a game, because their activity was disturbing other students and authors. Uh and also because at the time they were being paid to do other PLATO work. In the meantime, another PLATO consultant implied that Maureen was “an ogre” because she was trying to ensure appropriate access to PLATO terminals. Ultimately, none of the men were held accountable for their inappropriate use of the system, or their ad-hominem attacks, nor did they apologize.

The “three men” were three University of Illinois students: Todd Little, David Frye, and Michael Berger (hereinafter L/F/B). At least two, and possibly all three, were college freshmen in February 1974. Here is the initial note, titled “Freedom?” that they posted in Notes using Todd Little’s “todd / phys” signon, late at night on 27 February 1974 (the full thread with all 22 responses is available from this Google-cached archive link though you’ll need to hunt for it):

Having been unsuccessful in finding any of what Rankin terms “vicious personal complaints” in the messages above, this author encourages readers have a look as well.

What I see first and foremost is another example of how Notes was being used in 1974: a resource for asking questions and airing concerns with the hope of getting clarification and if necessary an update of official policy. Never before was it possible for a growing group of human beings to use a networked machine at such a scale (thousands of people) to communicate and attempt to resolve issues or simply get help with a question. We take it for granted now, but this was the stuff of science fiction, something bold and new and state-of-the-art in 1974, something the mainstream public had absolutely no idea existed. PLATO Notes and a few smaller, nascent conferencing applications on other timesharing systems ushered in the era of groupware, online collaboration, and online communication, and in the earliest days, many of the notes posted had to do with these kinds of immediate questions. The L/F/B’s note is in essence the same type of plea that Ruth aired about unwanted TERM-talks. In the PLATO laboratory in the 1970s, people were figuring things out in real-time, on the go. They did the best they could, and when an unintended consequence or an edge use case relating to all this shiny new technology surfaced, they attempted to work it out, craft a solution, and then they got back to their work. Not everyone was as eloquent, tactful, or perfectly succinct in their online writing as Rankin seems to have hoped. Not everyone is today either. But surely it is a stretch to make gross generalizations — citing questionable evidence — about an entire computer network based on a few “mini use cases.”

Todd Little posted a reply in response 7 to answer questions brought up in several previous responses written by other systems personnel who seemed to believe that the files being used for game-writing should have been for educational purposes, and that the three had been kicked out of 203B because of game-playing, an activity which was verboten in that room during daytime hours. Little reiterates that they were not playing games, but programming a game:

A staff PLATO consultant, Judy Sherwood, replied asking if Little had contacted his faculty supervisor before complaining in PLATO Notes. She also responded to Little’s concern that their lessons were being modified by others without permission, which they considered unfair and against policy. She then brought up the issue of using a lesson space designed for Physics instruction instead for games, which was a no-no. Little replied, and this is an exact quote of his entire response, including the punctuation: “That wasn’t the lesson that was changed………” Hard to see how Little’s response could be construed as “vicious” or “personal” or a “complaint.” (Perhaps it requires reading something into the nine periods at the end of his quote?)

Later that night, one of the L/F/Bs, David Frye, chimed in:

A systems programmer named Mike Walker then asked who was this staff person, this “vehement game-hater,” this “subject in question,” who so far had gone unnamed in this note thread? “We are not a homogenous bunch of ogres,” he said, “so if you have a specific complaint lets [sic] have the names along with all the other details.” Frye relented and identified the individual as one Maureen Hoffman, adding that he hoped there would not be retaliation for naming her. That ended the discussion. There were no further responses to the note. Hoffman never commented.

If every single other fact in this mini case study were unchanged, except that Frye had identified the individual as, say, someone named Fred Hoffman (a made-up name), would Rankin still have used this mini case study, or would she have looked elsewhere? We do not know. (One female former CERL staffer did recently tell me this, however: “I don’t remember ‘ogre’ as one of Maureen’s nicknames, but it might have been. She was an operator, and one of her duties was to clear the classroom when classes were about to start. She didn’t put up with any nonsense. She got people out on time. We appreciated her for that, and admired her. Her toughness was a badge of honor.”)

Recall what Dr. Rankin had to say about this note thread:

. . . three men posted a series of vicious personal complaints addressed at another consultant, Maureen. Subsequent notes revealed that Maureen had asked the men to stop working on a game, because their activity was disturbing other students and authors. Also because at the time they were being paid to do other PLATO work. In the meantime, another PLATO consultant implied that Maureen was “an ogre” because she was trying to ensure appropriate access to PLATO terminals. Ultimately, none of the men were held accountable for their inappropriate use of the system, or their ad-hominem attacks, nor did they apologize.

Some questions come to mind. These questions should not be read as a defense of L/F/B but rather as simple questions attempting to get closer to a truth that takes into account more of the nuances and context of the era, of the lab, of the system, and of the culture:

  1. Exactly what are the “vicious personal complaints” in this note thread from 1974? Specifically, what is “vicious”? What is “personal”?
  2. How did Dr. Rankin arrive at the conclusion that Ms. Hoffman “had asked the men to stop working on a game, because their activity was disturbing other students and authors?” A close reading of the notes themselves offers no such evidence: what is stated is that there were free terminals available in the room; PLATO’s mainframe ECS (Extended Core Storage), always in short supply in a busy classroom, was available; and no-one claimed that L/F/B were making noise or disturbing others. There were mistaken assertions posted that L/F/B were game-playing, and game-playing was disruptive and disallowed, but those mistaken assertions were posted by people who most likely, Occam’s Razor would say, did not fully read the original three-page note carefully. (Another case of TL;DR?) Did Dr. Rankin interview Ms. Hoffman — before she apparently passed away in 2010 — or perhaps come across papers that documented what Hoffman’s view of this particular incident was? We do not know.
  3. Mike Walker was not “another PLATO consultant,” he was a systems programmer, and contrary to what Dr. Rankin asserts, the evidence suggests he did not “imply” that Maureen was an ogre at all, but in fact was making the case, in asking for the name of the person whose reported behavior L/F/B were concerned about, that “we” (meaning, the entire lab’s staff) were not ogres, at least not a “homogenous bunch” of said creatures, so please name the person. If Walker did not even know who the staff person was, why would he imply he or she was an ogre? Is there a chance he was simply using humor? Occam’s Razor suggests he was. Humor, irony, and witty banter were a frequent experience in PLATO Notes. The majority of Notes participants knew each other face-to-face in 1974. Most PLATO terminals at the time were still within walking distance of each other either in the lab or other academic buildings nearby on campus. (The great expansion of PLATO around the nation and world — all documented in my book — was underway, but would take a few more years.)
  4. What exactly, then, were L/F/B’s, in Rankin’s words, “inappropriate use of the system”? If authoring games in that 203B terminal room was not explicitly stated in any existing policy as being prohibited, how was this inappropriate? In fact game development was a widespread phenomenon on PLATO all during the 1970s, and was quite tolerated at the highest levels (see my book for extensive details and stories that illustrate this along with explanations of why it was tolerated). Now, it may very well have been that this incident triggered a revision to the lab’s policy later (that is how most things evolved in the PLATO lab: a problem would arise, the group would figure out a solution, and move on), but, we do not know from what Dr. Rankin offers in her presentation.
  5. Exactly what are the “ad-hominem attacks” in these L/F/B postings? Can Rankin in all honesty identify a single one?
  6. What exactly should L/F/B have apologized for?

Physical Attacks

Rankin cites mention in PLATO Notes of real-world, physical attacks on women (at approximately 00:16:00 in the video):

The discrimination of women on the PLATO network mirrored women’s experiences using PLATO on campus. When women had priority on the system as students or authors and they asked PLATO gamers, young men, to vacate a terminal, the women were harrassed or mocked. The harrassment on at least two occasions turned physical.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1974, two women were attacked in the women’s rest room, closest to the central PLATO lab on campus. Afterwards, one user posted “What’s this world coming to? A decent sociopath like myself can’t even have a little fun flirting with a chic or two in the restroom without someone getting all excited about it? I guess I can go back to elevators and stairwells.” This response, which minimized the actual problem of violence against women, epitomized the endemic misogyny of the PLATO network and its physical home in Urbana-Champaign.

It’s one thing to denounce the PLATO system as misogynistic, but something far more serious to suggest that the attack of two women in a bathroom was somehow because of PLATO. That is a serious charge. A physical attack on a woman, on anyone, is assault and illegal by law. So, what happened?

First, exploring the same printout of notesfiles that Dr. Rankin had access to, I could not find reports of two women being attacked in the women’s rest room between Thanksgiving (November 28) and Christmas (December 25) of 1974. What I found was one mention on November 22, and one mention on December 3. In a note posted November 22, Judy Sherwood mentioned in passing, regarding women’s restrooms in the building, “Have had 2 ‘incidents’ that I know of. Thankfully not serious.” One can conclude from this that the incidents happened at some point prior to November 22.

Then there was this parenthetical mention in the second paragraph, posted on December 3, 1974:

Just recently I reached out to a former longtime PLATO system consultant, Celia Davis Kraatz, who worked at the lab for decades starting in the 1960s. “Yes, there was an incident,” she told me. “One night, some guy tried to get into the ladies room though a window. He wasn’t a PLATO person, he was some weirdo hanging around the building. The same thing could have happened at any building on campus, and probably did. I don’t know who the woman was who was in the rest room at the time, but she wasn’t hurt in any way. It gave us all a slight scare, but it had nothing to do with PLATO.”

Note Rankin’s use of the word “afterwards”: “Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1974, two women were attacked in the women’s rest room, closest to the central PLATO lab on campus. Afterwards, one user posted…” and then recites the text of the “decent sociopath” response, with a clear insinuation. A casual viewer of this video (or attendee at the conference) might believe that right after these attacks, someone posted this “sociopath” message on PLATO. (Perhaps the attacker himself?)

The “decent sociopath” response Rankin cites shows up as response number 4 to the note 400 above, announcing the rest room change at the laboratory. Here is the response, posted two days after the original note:

What can one say? It appears to have been posted as a joke in response to the bathroom announcement, a joke that is completely insensitive and inappropriate that had no place in the official PLATO public forum. Rankin is exactly right for calling it out. Who would write such a thing and did they believe there would be no consequences for writing it? Apparently at the time it was written, there were not, at least there’s no evidence of it in the Notes archives.

It is surprising that the response was not deleted by someone at the lab as soon as it was posted. It certainly would have been in the months and years that followed, as the community established policies for dealing with this new communications medium, and more careful moderation of notesfiles became the norm. It would soon become quite common for there to be frequent notes posted by a systems staffer with the title “deleted” and the message being something along the lines of “An inappropriate note was deleted.” And that would be that. Notes and responses would be deleted so fast, most people had not even seen what had been deleted, just the official message appearing to leave a record of the deletion for the benefit of the community.

Who was the person behind the “lhn” of “mtcc” PLATO signon (or to use an oft-used term by Rankin, mask) who posted the offensive “sociopath” message? Group “mtcc” appears to have been used by the U.S. military (more about the military in the next section). The naming scheme for “mtcc” signons seems to have been that the name part of the signon consisted of the person’s three initials. In this case, “lhn.” In one Notes exchange, this user posted a sexist message about attractive females, which was immediately followed by a scolding from another PLATO user. The next response was from PLATO consultant Celia Kraatz who thanked the previous user for publicly scolding him. Other postings elsewhere in Notes indicate he was aware people disliked his sexist remarks online. In yet another snarky response posted on January 3, 1975, “lhn” jokingly shared his social security number (perhaps one of the few “self-doxing” incidents in the history of the online world: the kind of thing that would be unheard of for someone to do today). A quick search of that social security number led to a result showing up among online death records. This “lhn” person appears to have been Dr. Leon H. Nawrocki, of the Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, located 702 miles east of the Illinois PLATO laboratory, in Arlington, Virginia. Nawrocki was a proponent of using computer-based systems in equipment maintenance training for soldiers and published numerous articles in the 70s and 80s. ARI was known to use PLATO, and “lhn” even mentions “ARI” in at least one PLATO note. Online ancestry records indicate Nawrocki was born in 1940 and died in a 1996 auto accident. (Strangely, the name, one that is hard to forget, personally rings a distant but distinct bell. I may have met him once, when I worked at Hazeltine Corporation in Reston, Virginia in the 1980s. Perhaps he had been brought on as an ARI co-investigator on a computer-based training government contract Hazeltine was pursuing at the time.)

Previous Negative Academic Assessments of PLATO

This is not the first time a PhD has criticized, if not outright condemned, the PLATO system. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Douglas Noble was pursuing his PhD at the University of Rochester where he did his dissertation on the PLATO system, resulting in a subsequent book, The Classroom Arsenal, based on the dissertation. He relied on articles, documents, and oral histories at the same university archive that Dr. Rankin used, but, when asked in an interview I conducted in 2012, he admitted that he never met or interviewed or otherwise communicated with any PLATO people directly, including Donald Bitzer.

Noble told me he had been “very involved” in the 1960s and 70s as an antiwar activist, participating in marches and protests on military bases, and that anti-military perspective seems to have guided his research and conclusions about PLATO. Because PLATO had begun in 1960 with funding from the Pentagon, he deemed it a military project and in fact the whole field of computer-based education was in his view an effort of the military to gain unwanted control over civilians. He also blamed Control Data Corporation, the company that commercially marketed PLATO, for selling “a bill of goods” that brought little value and perhaps a lot of harm to society.

Interestingly, Dr. Rankin also seems to have picked up a whiff of Dr. Noble’s military view of PLATO. In the April-June 2014 issue of the prestigious IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, in an apparently non-peer-reviewed “think piece” article entitled “Toward a History of Social Computing: Children, Classrooms, Campuses, and Communities,” which also brings up Valarie Lamont and the Boneyard Creek lesson, Rankin made this passing statement:

Although Bitzer and his colleagues developed PLATO for military research, Lamont later deployed it to stimulate environmental activism.

PLATO was not developed for military research. While it can be said that the military was interested in PLATO and other systems from the outset and would successfully use PLATO and other systems for computer-based training for many years — army and air force bases around the country had terminals and in time some bases would outgrow Illinois’ system and install their own systems — the fact remains that PLATO was developed originally at the Coordinated Science Lab and then from 1966 onwards the Computer-based Education Research Lab, for education in schools, and countless documents, books, conference presentations, and oral histories attest to that fact. It was a civilian project indirectly funded in part initially by the Pentagon though later the majority of its funding came from the National Science Foundation. To assert the system itself was originally developed for military research is not accurate.


The study of gender and the roles it plays in everyday life is important and worthy. The SIGCIS conference and other recent papers, blogs, conferences, articles, and books suggest that future analysis of the history of computing will be fortified and made that much more interesting. History benefits from fresh insights.

When humans mistreat, disrespect, harass, or otherwise harm other humans, it is something we should all be concerned about and work to abolish — whether and wherever it happens in real life or online. It is not surprising that researchers are discovering that some people forty or fifty years ago who used computers for online communication may have exhibited the kinds of sexist attitudes that were then present in everyday life. Unfortunately, with billions of people online today, the scale of everything — good, bad, and ugly — has also scaled.

It is understandable that to study this type of behavior for years on end, including the good, the bad, and the ugly, would perhaps leave a researcher with a heightened sense of awareness of how unjust the world still is and how far we all have to go as a society. However, the risk one brings to a close examination of the history of PLATO from the viewpoint of gender studies, or any other field, is that it may be tempting to reach conclusions based on selective circumstantial evidence, or a misinterpretation of the underlying history, one that lacks nuance, context, or a broader appreciation of the culture present at the time due to not taking time (and it takes enormous amounts of itme) to reach out to and interview the people, still alive, who participated in these ancient online cultures. Rummaging through academic literature in the archives only takes one so far. Only through the testimony of actual participants can one begin to fill in the many blanks that a printout of a notesfile or a fifty-some-odd-year-old research paper may never reveal.

PLATO is not a rock which one can simply turn over and, observing what critters crawl out from underneath, arrive at comprehensive conclusions about the system, its people, and its culture online and off. As a topic of historical inquiry it is continental in size and scope and complexity, and requires a broad, “geographic” perspective in order to even begin to appreciate the depth and significance of its history.

One hopes that future academic assessments of PLATO will take these concerns into account. The legacy of PLATO is important, and while a vast number of PLATO people are still alive, there’s still time to find out first-hand who did what, what happened and why, how things were done, and what it all meant. I encourage academics to reach out to them and reflect on what they have to say.