I just left my department’s colloquium lecture series where Dr. Virginia Eubanks from SUNY- Albany was giving an excellent talk on the computer systems that administer and control (to varying degrees) earned benefits programs like social security, Medicaid, and Medicare. The talk was really fascinating and a question from Dr. Abby Kinchy during the Q&A really stuck with me: How do we study different (and often long-outdated) versions of software? Particularly, how do we chart the design of software that runs on huge closed networks owned by large companies or governments? Are these decisions lost to history, or are there methods for ferreting out Ross Perot’s old wares?
There’s nothing particularly glamorous about Troy, New York. Troy is a city that, in an alternative universe, might have been a major metropolitan region. It stumbled early though, one of the first places to suffer the oxidation of the iron belt. What it lacks in size or elegance it makes up for in internal contradictions and a special brand of awkward coquettish charm. It is the home of Uncle Sam and the setting for Kurt Vonnegut‘s novels. Its buildings have been painted by Norman Rockwell and torn down by public officials in search of progress. The local university has one of the highest-paid presidents, but also hosts the Yes Men. My campus office is on the fifth floor of a 19th century chemistry laboratory. The former lab sits atop a steep hill, providing a view that, on clear days, can go for miles. The view from my office (above) is an eclectic blend of multiple decades of technological achievements and blunders. Highways, public housing, suburban enclaves, and the husks of Victorian factories stand in conversation with one-another like old friends. It is obvious that they need each other. Some get along better than others, but they would be lost without the others’ continued existence. New technology may be introduced to us as singular entities; improvements and replacements that make the old obsolete and irrelevant. More often than not however, these technologies find themselves sitting next to veterans of past technological revolutions. I have lived in Troy for almost three years now, and each day is a lesson in the history of technology.