Either a new genre of historical writing has taken shape before our eyes, or it’s been there for a while and we’re just beginning to discover it. In either case, it’s recent (is up to future practitioners of this emerging field to trace its roots), and is clearly thriving. Let’s call it for lack of a better term “Computer History”. And while the moniker sounds trivial, one only needs to peruse it to understand that something new is in the making. At its best, the genre is a combination of institutional ethnography, micro-history, oral history, and the history of technology. And in the hands of its most ambitious practitioners, the history of software is an offshoot of the history of science and intellectual history. The two computer historians I’ve been reading recently, with a mix of awe an excitement, are Sinclair Target, whose articles are published in his blog Two-Bit History and the persons that to my untrained eye seems the doyen of this emerging field: Jimmy Maher. Since 2011, Maher has been publishing a seemingly endless streams of software history, particularly video-games, in his blog The Digital Antiquarian. The name couldn’t be more apt, and it happens to mix to things my few readers (2) will know I love: video games and antiquarianism.
- For computer history in general, start with Sinclair Target’s “Where Vim Came From”. If Vim, the greatest text-editing technology ever devised, does not ring a bell to you, then perhaps his history of Tim Berners-Lee, “The World Wide Web and Its Inventor”.
- As for Maher, I recommend to start with his history of hyper-text,“The Freedom to Associate” and the move swiftly to his video-game histories. Everyone will have his pick, but his article on Another World, my favorite game of all time, is precise and insightful.
- The greatest piece on video game history I’ve read, however, is Casey Johnson’s long-form article on Dwarf Fortress, “the most inscrutable game of all time.” Dwarf Fortress deserves an annotated bibliography in itself, but Johnson’s article for Ars Technica is a tour de force. My few (2) English language readers will have to bear with me on this one, as I plug my dear friend Alonso Zamora’s own take on Dwarf Fortress in Levelup.
- Alonso Zamora, by the way, is the author of the most beautiful and thought-provoking piece of writing on video games that I’ve read. Check out his “El materialismo de Tetris”, where he draws fascinating parallels between the famous Russian puzzle game, Suprematism, Malevich and the economic theories of Kantorovich, the sole Soviet economist to win a Nobel Prize (!).