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long drives

When I committed to writing one post per week this year even if that one post wasn't much, I meant it. But I didn't define the week. I started by thinking I'd put something out every Saturday morning, but that was unrealistic. Then I thought I could post every Saturday, until I actually spent time not on the computer for most of a Saturday. Last week, I didn't finish my post until Sunday because it takes time to look things up and cite them correctly.1 And now it's Sunday night and I haven't posted anything yet.

I spent the night at home this weekend for the first time since the weekend after Thanksgiving. Santa Clara County has had a travel quarantine in place for three months now, which means that when I go home I need to stay in my apartment for 10 days before I can do anything else. The rule only applies if you spend the night, so for months I've been going home to check on my apartment and get my mail, and then returning to my parents' home on the same day, a round trip of about 650 miles. Am I using a narrowly literal interpretation of the travel quarantine rule? Kind of! But my apartment is literally the only place in the county I've stopped on these trips.

This routine has gotten pretty tiring and recently I re-read the county's FAQ more closely and it seems that I'm ok staying in my apartment for less than 10 days if: 1) it's the only place I go within the county and 2) I leave the county entirely when I leave my apartment.2 That's what I did this weekend. The benefit is that it's much easier to split up the drive over two days. The drawback is that driving did eat up much of both days, leaving me too tired to finish the blog post I started yesterday. Hence, no real post today.

  1. Who knew? 

  2. Arguably, it's not clear where my "home" is now. I had to decide whether to renew my lease during the early shelter-in-place period in April and I was in no position at the time to move all of my stuff out. Maybe it would have made sense to have done so, or to have broken the lease later, but I've always planned to go back home and it would be difficult to find somewhere better for a similar rent.

    I looked at some other places pre-pandemic, since I'd just changed jobs and had a slightly different commute, and as far as I could tell even a marginally "better" apartment would likely mean a 25-40% rent increase (because my current place is at the low end of the market), giving up the protection from large rent hikes that has kept my current place affordable (I've been there five years), and giving up a landlord who's so far proven not to be someone who tries to extract the maximum rent out of every tenant (my rent has increased a few times, but never to the maximum amount allowable). So I feel like if I gave up my place, I might never return to the Bay Area.

    As it is, my parents recently got their second Covid-19 vaccine doses, and my dad seems to be at a point where his treatments are a routine and manageable once-per-month, so it looks like I'll be able to go home soon. And then sit there for 10 days or have to leave again. 

what's in a format

Usually, when people highlight things they've come across in archives, they focus on content. Here I'm going to highlight a format.

In my first job as an archivist, I asked to get hands-on experience working with digital materials, but the collection I was processing didn't have any.1 So I found myself assisting on the processing of a massive collection that had a small amount of computer media. Most of that media consisted of floppy disks or CDs, and my task was to image them and determine the contents. There was already a well-established workflow set up for this and the process was uneventful, though I seem to remember there was a disk that couldn't be read. None of the content was interesting or unique, and pretty much all of it was also represented in paper.

Except there was one other (potentially) digital object that was a mystery: a strip or two (I can't remember) of magnetic tape with an IBM logo on it. The tape was unusual not just in format but in temporal origin. The collection consisted of the papers of a major political figure whose active career was essentially over by the 1990s. Every position he held was one where he either worked in a paper world (he was born over a decade before the first computers were built) or where computers were present but other people likely would have been the ones assigned to use them. All of the computer media in the collection, except the magnetic tape, was from after the 1980s. And pretty much all of it had accompanying material indicating that it was created by someone other than the politician: speeches he made that someone else transcribed, photos taken for digital portraits, a CD of documents someone else compiled.

The magnetic tape was from the 1970s, when the politician was still active in government. Contextual information suggested it contained notes from an interview with a journalist, most likely created by the journalist rather than by the politician. I can't remember if the interview had been published; I can remember that there was some hope that whatever was on the tape would be interesting, unlike the rest of the computer media.

Since we didn't have a tape reader, or even know what kind of tape we had, we needed to identity it first and then find an appropriate vendor. A few people had already looked at it and the best guess so far was that it was tape for an IBM mainframe. IBM has put a lot of their documentation online, so I looked up the specifications, measured the tape, and concluded it had to be something else. The width didn't match the tape types for any of the mainframe models I looked at, plus it wasn't clear how the tape strips would have been loaded into what looked like reel-based systems.

That got me thinking: why would a journalist in the 1970s and a politician without a close connection to the computer industry be working with tape for a mainframe? I'm sure I could imagine some espionage scenarios, but if the context was correct and the tape was related to an interview, wasn't it more likely that a different technology was involved? What equipment would have been in reach at the time that would have both worked on the scale of a personal meeting and stored its data in an IBM tape format?

So I did what anyone trained in historical methodologies would do: I watched "The Paperwork Explosion", a promotional film Jim Henson produced for IBM in 1967:

The star of that movie, besides the man on the farm who now spends most of his time thinking, is the IBM MT/ST, a form of typewriter that used magnetic tape. A check of the dimensions showed it was not the same magnetic tape format we had in the collection, but I felt like I was on the right track. Typewriters were at least personal office equipment in a way that mainframes were not. I would expect both journalists and politicians to have had regular access to them. That sent me down a path of looking at IBM office product catalogs and checking the tape-based equipment. None of the typewriters panned out.

There was one other technology in those catalogs that fit the social context: the audio recorder. It seemed so obvious in retrospect: is there anything more ordinary today than recording an interview? A few product name searches later and I was on someone's vintage technology website looking at the IBM 224 Dictating Unit. The tape pictured there is virtually identical to the tape in the collection.

I will admit not being entirely satisfied with an unofficial source, though I had no reason to doubt that page, so I looked for more official confirmation. I don't think I found a specification page for the IBM 2242, but I did find some advertisements in Duke's digitized advertisements collection. Would it count as official confirmation if the right kind of tape was visible in any of the ads? I decided that would be good enough for me. I set about watching them.

It should come as no surprise that the ads hit the same themes ("time", "think") as the Paperwork Explosion. The IBM 224 will save you, a working professional, from having to interrupt your day to write out memos and notes. Or if you're doing something where you can't stop and write, it will save you from having to rely on your memory until you can get back to your desk. Though the 224 weighed over a pound and was not in any real sense a "wearable", it's striking how much overlap there is between the scenarios IBM imagined for their market and contemporary pitches for wearable technologies.

These ads also capture and represent the gendered nature of the workplaces IBM saw as their market. Most of the usage scenarios they present start with "this man": "this man is working on a game plan"; "this man is going to court"; "this man used to be handcuffed by paperwork." Even one of the ads that includes a scenario where a woman uses the 224 to record her own words ("this woman used to spend hours taking stock of things") still ends on the tag line: "small and compact, this new dictating unit fits a man whose job is bigger than his office."

So what happens to your thoughts after you've recorded them? Don't they still have to get to text? The assumption, of course, is that you, the busy professional, have a secretary who will do that. This is left unsaid in most of the ads, but one makes implicit reference to this work. This is also the moment where the tape itself appears on screen.

At the 35 second mark below, you can see what I assume to be an executive place a strip of tape on his secretary's desk while the narrator intones: "While you're using it [the IBM 224] to clear your desk of letters, memos, reports; or to put thoughts and ideas in order, your secretary handles other work for you. She's free to do a better job, and so are you."

This is also the ad that reaches the furthest beyond the office, promising that the new dictating unit will help restore your work-life balance, symbolized by a man flying a kite with his son, as the man himself once did when he was a child. Who knew a tape format could do all that?

At this point you might be wondering, what was on that politician's tape? After finding these ads, I felt like I'd done all the format research I could given the state of my expertise, and it seemed like I'd gotten close enough to refer it to an audio specialist. So I sent some of my links to the archivists in charge of the whole collection, who would be the ones to contact a vendor.

I changed jobs not too long after that, and maybe a year or so later I ran into one of my former colleagues at a conference and asked them if they knew what happened with the tape. It was sent out to a specialist who apparently recognized it without having to go through the IBM back catalog. I'm not sure if it was really tape for the IBM 224 or for some other model, but it was audio and they tried to read it. They weren't able to recover the content.

  1. There were signs of digital format records in the collection I was processing in the form of data analysis and help screen printouts from the 1980s, but either the donor didn't keep any of the computer media or it didn't make it through appraisal. The collection did have a huge amount of AV. 

  2. Did I mention that I did all of this over a period of a few hours sometime in 2013 or 2014? I have not re-done the research to look for new sources. 

what there is and what there could be

I haven't kept close watch on the efforts to regulate tech since leaving my job at a tech-adjacent institution about a year-and-a-half ago. My job had technical aspects, but it wasn't a technical job. It wasn't a policy job either but the materials I worked with, spanning the history of computing, gave me reason to reflect on the growth of the tech industry and its role in society. And my day-to-day commute brought me face-to-face with the landscape of contemporary tech as represented in the suburbs and exurbs of Slurban America.

When I started looking for a new job two years ago, it wasn't clear to me that I'd stay in libraries and archives. I was more committed to staying near family than to a particular profession. One possibility I considered was going into public policy work. This would have been more of a long-term goal, possibly requiring additional education. It's not a path I've ended up taking. So in lieu of analyses or recommendations on what to do about tech, I'm just going to briefly write up here my hopes for tech regulation.

My hope is that the regulatory framework that gets built will look beyond the "what to do about" questions that put the focus on particular companies. Company X may be an enormous company with enormous reach, but "what should we do about Company X?" is a narrow question. Instead, I hope that regulation will be driven by broader concerns around the kinds of work people do in the tech industry (contract and otherwise), and what it should be like to go online in a society.

What are the kinds of social (political, commercial) interactions we want to support, what should be discouraged or prohibited, what promotes a healthy civil society? We can, and should, spend time evaluating specific policies of specific companies, but we shouldn't lose sight of what we would want social media or search or commerce to be like if there weren't already companies dominating these spaces. What are the ways we could get there?

If regulation proceeds according to narrower goals, like simply limiting the size a company could be, the most likely outcome will be a landscape dominated by companies of exactly the maximum size, with a sidebar of litigation about how precisely to determine a company's size for regulatory purposes. If an outcome of regulation is that every social media company must now have an oversight board, that will solidify the positions of only the companies large enough to support oversight boards.

But if regulation is driven by broader principles, then instead of asking "should company X be broken up?" the question becomes more like "do company X's practices or business models threaten the fabric of society?" If the answer is yes, then I suppose Company X would have to transform itself or, failing that, to break up. It's not the responsibility of regulation to protect a given business model just because it already exists. There's no constitutional or moral right to scale.