Today’s post comes from Rachel Wimpee, Historian and Project Director in our Research and Education division. Rachel uncovered this story while working with the Ford Foundation archives held at the RAC, and asked if it might be worth posting here. I only had to quickly skim the text to see the relevance for this blog.
A couple of broad themes jumped out at me when I read this piece. The first is the durability of modes of speaking and thinking about technology, which seem to persist despite (or perhaps because of) rapid technological changes. Artificial intelligence and machine learning, both hot tech trends currently, figure heavily in this story from 1965. You’ll also notice efficiency being employed as the ultimate justification for technology, even in a situation where increasing the profit margin didn’t apply. This story is also an excellent illustration of the socially constructed nature of technology. As Rachel’s piece reveals, technology is the result of consensus and compromise. There are negotiations mediated by money, practicality, and personality. Not only that, but technology and underlying processes are often so intertwined as to be indistinguishable, and each is often blamed for things the other produces.
In many ways, this is cautionary tale of what happens when we start with the new shiny thing rather than the needs of users (something that Evgeny Morozov and others have called “solutionism”). It’s not all bad, though. Rachel writes about the training plan implemented by the Ford Foundation at the same time staff began to use an IBM 360/30 mainframe for data processing in the late 1960s, as well as a regular process of evaluation and change implementation which lasted well into the 1970s. This reminded me of the importance of ongoing cycles of training and evaluation. New technologies usually require humans to learn new things, so a plan for both teaching and evaluating the effectiveness of that teaching should be part of any responsible technology change process. The D-Team is thinking a lot about training these days, particularly in the context of Project Electron, which will embed technologies into our workflows in holistic way. Even though the project won’t be complete until the end of the year, we’re already scheduling training to amplify our colleague’s existing skills and expertise so they can feel confident working with digital records.