A dynamic industry that
is growing overall can
experience profound shifts
that impact research
and application. Digital
technology extends its
focused faculty and student
populations expand, the
demand for practitioners
grows, and life seems good.
March + April 2010
In the 1980s, the mainframe companies and then
the minicomputer companies foundered. NCC had
a couple financially disastrous years, with large
exhibit halls rented and not filled. AFIPS lost its
large cash reserve, including money from the sale
of its headquarters, and disbanded.
ACM and IEEE sought funds to replace their
share of AFIPS revenues. Within ACM, focus shifted
to Special Interest Groups and conferences, such as
SIGGRAPH and CHI, which became a major source
of revenue. This has been supplemented in the past
decade by the Digital Library, which draws on conference proceedings for content.
What can we learn from this? A dynamic industry that is growing overall can experience profound
shifts that impact research and application. Digital
technology extends its influence, technology-focused faculty and student populations expand,
the demand for practitioners grows, and life seems
good. But AFIPS did not see clouds on the horizon.
Could we experience equally rapid discontinuities?
Perhaps. The field has expanded tremendously,
but ACM SIG membership has declined over 50
percent since 1990. Major conferences peaked in
attendance years ago. In the May 2009 issue of
Communications of the ACM, Ken Birman and Fred
B. Schneider describe a crisis in computer science
in terms of a “death spiral” attributed to systemic
forces that tend to favor technically proficient but
sterile research. They suggest that we command
the ocean to roll back by returning to a journal
orientation, but in our field the waves keep coming,
each larger than the last.
We may avoid the AFIPS calamity—for one thing,
our conferences are not tied to expensive commercial exhibitions—but history tells us that change
can be swift. It is sobering that when AFIPS collapsed, 40 years of research literature was suddenly
inaccessible, and no one seemed to notice. We
quickly moved on.
Young researchers and practitioners should
expect and prepare for dramatic transformations in
the field and in their careers.
vacuum tubes—with software somewhat longer-lived, and process observations the most enduring.
Mac Williams’s amusing description of optimistic
self-assessments prompts reflection. The 1951
conference systematically brought in builders and
users, so builders could learn from users and each
other. Learning is slower when we assess our own
handiwork. We emphasize the positive. Perhaps
researchers should assess one another’s systems,
or conferences should publish more negative outcomes. In my experience, frank assessments of
unsuccessful system building get curt “you should
have known better” rejections—and do not enhance
authors’ chances for renewed funding, either.
Second, consider the sudden demise of AFIPS
and its conferences. The conferences juxtaposed
research papers with expensive commercial exhibitions that could be very profitable. The NCC
focused on mainframe computer exhibitors. When
minicomputers became a big business—Digital
Equipment Corporation became the world’s second-largest computer company—AFIPS organized office
automation exhibitions and research conferences.
However, AFIPS discouraged participation by PC
and PC-software vendors. COMDEX advertised itself
as “the NCC for the PC industry” and captured the
exhibitors, while smaller ACM conferences (
including CHI) captured much of the relevant research.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jonathan Grudin is a
principal researcher in the Adaptive Systems and
Interaction group at Microsoft Research.
© 2010 ACM 1072-5220/10/0300 $10.00