Transition in the Socio-Technical System of Data Processing During the 20th Century

Interpreting changes in technology over extended periods of time is a recurrent theme for historians and economists. Doing so is particularly salient now due to looming existential threats. These threats are brought about by social discord, climate change and species extinction and they stem from our continuing reliance on fossil fuels and the shortcomings of our social, political and economic systems (Schot, 2016).  One approach to examining the origins and development of these threats is to view technological history as a stream of incremental improvements, punctuated by innovation surges. Such surges re-structure existing social and economic systems and the most recent technology implicated in this way is information and communication technology (Freeman & Louçã, 2001).  An alternative is to focus on the persistence and continuity of social routines and practices that shape, and may initiate, changes in technology in the context of long run economic growth.  These different approaches have markedly different implications for understanding the timing of change and the pace at which change is expected to occur.  The development of business data processing during the 20th century provides a suitable terrain for exploring these approaches and their implications.

Document Type:
Working paper