This NYT article has been on my reading list for a while (some might have noticed that I posted it accientially before two times). I wanted to share it because first (of course) as an orbituary, as a bow before one of the last centuries most inspiring teacher of programming and computing. But I also wanted to share it because it points us who are interested in the assemblage of contemporary infrastructure to a figure that STS seems to like to forget after getting rid of the myth of the genius inventor: the programmer.
For years, Mr. McCracken was the Stephen King of how-to programming books. His series on Fortran and Cobol, a computer language designed for use in business, were standards in the field. Mr. McCracken was the author or co-author of 25 books that sold more than 1.6 million copies and were translated into 15 languages.
Well, of course not the individual, creative and inventive programmer – I sure we would step into the same explanatory traps again that were connected with the inventor-myth. But programming – the core acivity of building, connecting and maintaining IT infrastructure – is a cutural practice on its own, a mixture of play, craft and learned or trained skill. And as any practice, it gaines stability and cultural significance by the network of activities and things surrounding it: trainings, courses, guidelines, how-to-books, textbooks, journals and so on. Maybe it is time that we spend some thoughts on how this particular practice was shaped – an idea that struck me after reading this:
In the early days, computer professionals typically fell into one of two camps — scientists or craftsmen. The scientists sought breakthroughs in hardware and software research, and pursued ambitious long-range goals, like artificial intelligence. The craftsmen wanted to use computers to work more efficiently in corporations and government agencies. (…) But his books are not like the how-to computer books of more recent years written for consumers. His have been used as programming textbooks in universities around the world and as reference bibles by practicing professionals.
So true. The reason why this NYT piece was so tempting to share for me was exactly this: it shows that the "great person" should be finally turned (after long years of deconstructing it in STS) into an empirical problem. The case of the "Stephen King of how-to programming books" shows quite nicely that what Star/Ruhleder (1996) argued for infrastructure is also true for the "embodied infrastructure" of involved persons: how (or what) is a great person, a hero, a creative mind, a genius (whatever) is relational. One group??s hero can be the other group??s villain and one person that we (as those who study invention) would pick out as "the one that gave us X" can for others involved be "the one that stopped a thrilling creative process" Maybe it is time to took at those involved again – but treat them as persons finally.