Computers are “devouring” the world, the journalist turned computer scientist told KSJ fellows last month.
Three years ago, Simson Garfinkel received an email from his agent. Sterling Publishing was searching for an author to write “The Computer Book,” the latest in a series of coffee table books that each offer a visual history of a single technical subject. Previous installments had included “The Drug Book,” “The Physics Book,” and “The Math Book.”
When Garfinkel, a veteran journalist with a PhD in computer science, was offered the chance to write the series’ installment on computers, he knew right away that he wanted to take on the project.
“Books are more work than you think, but they stay on the library shelves after you die,” he said to the Knight Science Journalism fellows in April.
The resulting book, coauthored with Rachel Grunspan, a CIA cyber-threat analyst and a game and simulation designer, recounts 250 milestones in computer history — “from the abacus to artificial intelligence.” Each concisely written vignette is paired with a glossy photo or conceptual art. But as Garfinkel explained to the fellows, finishing it in timely fashion took a Herculean effort.
Garfinkel knew from the outset that it would be an ambitious project. Since he works full-time as a computer scientist at the U.S. Census Bureau, he had to write the book on nights and weekends. And he had set himself a tight deadline: to finish the book within nine to twelve months.
Between June and August 2016, Garfinkel generated proposals for 50 milestones and wrote the first five milestones in full. But then things started to go awry. Contract negotiations with the publisher took longer than he had expected, eating away at precious writing time. His original coauthor left the project, and by the time Garfinkel found a replacement — Grunspan — the initial deadline loomed less than eight months away.
The pair tracked their progress over Google Docs and Google Sheets. They calculated whether they would meet their deadline with a “badness meter,” which took into account the pace of their daily work. As with previous books in the series, the publisher wanted a positive, feel-good book. The editors prioritized precision and gave rigorous attention to the even smallest phrases, which Garfinkel says he appreciated.
Early on, Garfinkel and Grunspan set certain goals for the book. They wanted a milestone from every continent. They also focused on finding women and people who didn’t live in the U.S., England, or Germany.
That goal ended up being very difficult to achieve. They were forced to cut a milestone from the Brazilian computer industry, and they never included one from Africa. A critical question that they faced was how to balance diversity with historical authenticity. In the end, Garfinkel said, they decided there was room for both: “I think a lot of people did have a role that has been largely ignored.”
Ultimately, the book hit the shelves just a little later than originally planned. But writing it, he says, was a lot of fun. A key lesson from the book, he told the fellows, is that computers are “devouring” the world. “Everything is going to be computerized.”