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Lessons from the Past: Looking at Software

Lessons from the Past: Looking at Software

In our personal lives, we know that our years of experience have given us our understanding of the world. And we hope that, at the best of times, these hard-earned lessons have provided us with some wisdom. History is not so different, but it concerns communities rather than individuals. It is through history that we recover and reexamine collective experiences of the past, bringing in them into dialog with the present to understand where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might head.

Museums are an important part of this practice of history. They preserve an incredibly diverse array of objects, and put them on display in order to provide direct contact with the past, and to interpret them and the historical stories to which they are connected. Museums have always had dual historical functions as well, both as sites for entertaining public education and as places for research and scholarship. Computing can be seen of as formed by what historian Michael Mahoney called ‘dynamic objects.’ By this he meant all the instances of software running on computer hardware, each instance animated and orchestrated by people and their intentions. At the Computer History Museum, we work at the intersection of these two important parts of global culture, and the nature of both directly shapes how we approach important subjects like the lessons that the history of software holds for us today.

Perhaps the principal lesson of the history of computing (and of technology more generally) is that it is fundamentally all about people. Technologies are built, used to various ends, and fade all according to the choices made by people. No people, no technology. Software is no exception.

At the Computer History Museum, the way we approach the history of software, and its lessons, within our public education aspect, can perhaps best be seen through our latest major exhibit, Make Software, Change the World! This exciting exhibit is geared to the broadest public audience (middle school and older), and reveals the social, cultural, and economic impacts that a set of key historic software has had on fundamental aspects of the human experience: Life and Death; Perception and Reality; and, Knowledge and Belonging.

Within our research and scholarship aspect of the museum, one of our major activities is making the source code – the software that people actually write and read – of important historical software available to the public for examination and study. Students, programmers, and historians can all find interesting lessons in the choices reflected in this source code, and the general public can understand more about their world by understanding the impact of the software this code made possible.

For public education, our newest exhibit, Make Software, Change the World, shows how this is so. Looks at the impact of some key software to fundamental parts of the human experience. Treats the people who made and who use the technology, and their choices.

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