Revised Mainframe Project Proposal


The Mainframe Project [new title needed] is a digital collection of archival media that is manipulated through deformance and other means to correlate and complicate our understanding of social relationships and human interactions with computers, using mainframes as a point of departure. By focusing on the computing devices in the workplace before the advent of personal computers, we hope to defamiliarize some of common assumptions about computing informed by contemporary culture, and think through how the social context around computing may have evolved differently given the set of perceptions about computing from the 1950 – 1970s. Specifically, this project will probe the underlying assumptions of human computer interaction from that time period, and also the gender politics of computing in the business place before the personalization of computing. It will conduct these types of investigations by looking at archived material such as advertising, manuals, and other ephemera, and relating it to both scholarly work tangentially related to mainframes, as well as scholarly work on computer-human interaction contemporaneous with mainframes, like cybernetics.

Problem addressed

There is a dearth of (digital) humanities scholarship about mainframe computers. Antecedents can be traced in works from various “media archaeologists”: Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud (cultural poetics of cloud computing), Kirschenbaum’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (word processing as software), Liu’s The Laws of Cool (knowledge work), Lisa Gitleman’s  “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron (various histories and pre-histories of data), Friedrich Kittler (general theory), among a few others. But mainframe computing is an implementation detail in larger arguments, often glossed over. So much of our computing inherits key concepts from the features and limitations of the age of Big Iron.

This project may also turn its eye towards other scholarly and non-scholarly writing coterminous with the Mainframe and related to computing. Examples include Leary’s speculative work like How Have Computers Empowered Humans?, but also early scholarly efforts to understand human and machine interaction, like Ashby’s An Introduction to Cybernetics, the work of Norbert Wiener, and Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Books for larger audiences that retrospectively evaluate mainframe computers may also be helpful in probing some of the social and interactive nuances of mainframe computing.

Our project also involves the manipulation of visual media in the tradition of deformance as initially conceived by Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann in Deformance and Interpretation. Scholars practicing deformance in the visual realm serve as an inspiration as well, including the many videographic deformations Singin’ in the Rain by Jason Mittel ( and the photo glitches of Michael J. Kramer (Glitching History).

Project audience

Scholars and students interested in imaginative explorations of what it was like interacting with and encountering mainframe interfaces in person, by proxy (timesharing) and as a cultural phenomenon in popular media and the workplace. We believe there’s a requirement for educational material for non-technical audiences in the broader public due to relative unfamiliarity with the technologies involved.

Contribution and impact

The study of mainframe computing is not only a historical exercise in preservation. Because of the foreignness of mainframe computing from contemporary experience, it becomes a prism to explore larger topics related to information technology in societies. As mentioned above, we’re interested in analyzing gender dynamics and computer-human interactions during the rise of mainframe computers. This is a meaningful downpayment on other computing topics that could be explored in a digital humanities context before the introductions of minicomputers in the 1980s and the rise of personal computing in future projects.

Final product

A digital collection of augmented photographs (and potentially video) with supporting written analysis and context will be hosted on a website. Material in the collection will come from marketing, manuals and other archival artifacts.

Feasibility assessment

Tool selection

At this moment in time, the team has leaned toward Wax as the platform on which to build our digital collection. That said, we will reevaluate that tool in relationship with other options like CollectionBuilder and Omeka, depending on time constraints and time necessary for research and time manipulating, potential to include video, etc. Depending on our

Our tools for manipulating photos and videos will vary. Physical collage will be done by hand, though we reserve the right to use digital tools like Adobe’s InDesign to perform the same operation. PhotoMosh, Hex editors and Python libraries may be used in glitching, pixelsorting and other deformance techniques.

Finally, depending on the media types included in our collection, we may use a third party platform to host assets like video (i.e. Youtube or Vimeo).

Team composition

Our team is composed of two scholars (Connie Cordon and Kai Prenger) that cover most tasks in a primary/secondary structure.

  • Project Manager → Connie Cordon primary, Kai Prenger secondary
  • Developer → Kai Prenger primary, Connie Cordon secondary
  • Visual archival researcher → Connie Cordon primary, Kai Prenger secondary
  • Textual researcher → Kai Prenger primary, Connie Cordon secondary
  • Outreach → Connie Cordon primary, Kai Prenger secondary
  • Project updates → Drafted together, Kai Prenger primary, Connie Condon secondary

Barriers and challenges

We believe the biggest challenges are related to original research and tracking down archival material that meets specific subject matter, though I’d imagine university archives/websites and institutions like The Computer History Museum may help mitigate finding nothing worth writing about. We have some anxiety about how much customization we’ll want in the collection itself, leading us to evaluate whether Wax might be appropriate, or whether CollectionBuilder or even Omeka might lead to (using this gist to evaluate). Time spent developing the site in a short amount of time will be traded off against time to research and develop intriguing assets.