The Materiality of the Virtual: A Global Environmental History of Computing from Babbage to Bitcoin

Event Date: 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015 - 5:00pm

Event Location: 

  • HSSB 6020

Nathan Ensmenger
Associate Professor in the School of Informatics & Computing at Indiana University

For most Americans, one of the defining features of the modern digital economy is the invisibility of its material infrastructure. Whereas previous technological and industrial revolutions were inextricably linked to the production of physical artifacts and the consumption of material resources — as we are all painfully aware, cars and factories pollute, large-scale agriculture wastes precious water resources, and our addiction to cheap consumer goods causes landfills to overflow — information technologies appear operate largely independently of the physical environment, and in fact enable us to transcend it. Seen from a global perspective, however, this is anything but the case. In this exploration of the life-cycle of a digital commodity (in this case a unit of the virtual currency Bitcoin) Ensmenger grounds the history of the electronic computer in the material world by focusing on the relationship between “computing power” and more traditional processes of resource extraction, exchange, management, and consumption.

Nathan Ensmenger is an associate professor in the School Of Informatics & Computing at Indiana University. His research focuses on the social and cultural history of software and software workers, the history of artificial intelligence, and issues of gender and identity in computer programming. His 2010 book, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, explored the rise to power of the “computer expert” in American corporate, economic, and political life. He is one of the co-authors of the most recent edition of the popular Computer: A History of the Information Machine. He is currently working on a book exploring the global environmental history of the electronic digital computer.