Category Archives: ibm

Like Punched Cards in the System

Tim Owens pointed me to the 1964 IBM promotional/instructional video “Once Upon a Punchcard”. It is yet another video in a growing collection of media resources for the Internet Course I’m teaching alongside Paul Bond this summer. This one is interesting because it frames an alternative vision of computing in the mid 1960s. Rather than far out visionaries like J.C.R. Licklider imagining an integrated network of virtual connections, computing in this video is framed as a machine organized around the principles of business efficiencies, streamlining processes and scaling operations. Punching your timecard becomes metaphor for routinized factory work under the watchful eyes of the bosses. The punchcard became a symbol of power and control, and it was based to some large degree around organizing and storing information. In Wikipedia article about punch cards includes this bit under the cultural impact of punch cards:

In the 1964–65 Free Speech Movement, punched cards became a … symbol of the “system”—first the registration system and then bureaucratic systems more generally … a symbol of alienation … Punched cards were the symbol of information machines, and so they became the symbolic point of attack. Punched cards, used for class registration, were first and foremost a symbol of uniformity. …. A student might feel “he is one of out of 27,500 IBM cards” … The president of the Undergraduate Association criticized the University as “a machine … IBM pattern of education.”… Robert Blaumer explicated the symbolism: he referred to the “sense of impersonality… symbolized by the IBM technology.”… ––Steven Lubar[51]

I love this, the UC Berkeley student protests were framed around the broader, data driven culture that makes students feel like an insignificant number within a lifeless, soul sucking system. At least the UC system had affordable tuition back then ;) This instructional video belies a deeper discontent with the idea of machines as extensions of an increasingly impersonal and pernicious educational system.