ATENA project: born to be outmoded. Emotions and the technopolitical construction of obsolescence in the history of computing

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The following text was written by Ginevra Sanvitale, Research Fellow at Trinity Long Room Hub, and reflects her presentation at our Closing Conference, “Repairing Technology – Fixing Society?” from 13-14 October 2022 in Luxemburg.

The word “obsolescence” originates from the Latin “ob-solere,” meaning something which is not in use any more. Cicero wrote to his friend Varro to tell him how, after taking political office, he still kept reading philosophy “haec ne obsolescerent,” in other words so that he would not forget it. Contemporary use of the word “obsolescence” usually implies a replacement of the obsolete entity, not just its disuse and oblivion. Starting in the 20th century, many have discussed the limits and opportunities of “planned obsolescence,” deliberately enforced by consumer goods manufacturers to stimulate the purchase of new products (Slade 2006). Today, we often associate the word “obsolescence” with technological development. In this sense, as Scott Campbell (2009) explains, “obsolescence is a process that occurs when users chose to replace one technology with another, either because they need to (the original is irreparable) or want to (something better exists).” In the past decade, technological obsolescence has been further characterized, for example as “forced obsolescence” (Vinsel and Russell 2020), “systemic obsolescence” (Rivera and Lallmahomed 2016), “anticipatory obsolescence” (Campbell 2009) – and, of course, “planned obsolescence” (Fitzpatrick 2015).

In this paper, I start from the notion of “planned obsolescence” to investigate the technopolitical construction of obsolescence in the history of computing. My interest lies in how obsolescence is not only enforced through technical design choices, but also enabled by political decisions outside research and development laboratories. I use emotions as analytical tools to investigate the technopolitical construction of obsolescence in the history of computing, following on from the notion of “emotional discourse” (Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990). Emotional discourse on computers was used by both the computer industry and policymakers, offering a shared language between the “technical” and the “political.” Furthermore, the general public typically experienced this discourse through press reports and articles, which often included a further layer of emotional discourse. Emotions are in this sense pointers to a larger configuration of promises, expectations, and delusions which contribute to technology’s planned obsolescence.

I provide a case study on the “ATENA project,” a partnership between IBM and the Italian government to digitize the national tax register, which ran from 1971 to 1975. I argue that the project was planned to become obsolete: ATENA never fully functioned, the machines soon became outdated and the next digital tax register project had to start from scratch. Multiple factors contributed to ATENA’s failure, including the lack of technical expertise within the Italian government and its notorious political instability. The paper presents the rise and fall of the ATENA project through three emotions: enthusiasm, fear and shame. Each emotion illustrates a step in the technopolitical construction of ATENA’s obsolescence. “Enthusiasm” illustrates how the Italian government facilitated the introduction of the obsolete technology from its position of power. “Fear” illustrates computer vendors’ discourse on the urgent need to adopt their black-boxed technology, further increasing its obsolescence. “Shame” illustrates political and technical criticism of the ATENA project, which points to possible alternatives to the obsolete system. I reconstruct the history of ATENA (how it was conceived, executed, promoted and finally shut down, and which forms of emotional discourse were used in the process) with evidence from government reports, parliamentary debates, IBM Italia publications, national newspapers and magazines, and political newspapers produced by the ruling party in government (Christian Democracy) and its main political opponents (the Italian Communist Party and the Italian Socialist Party).

ATENA was developed within a much larger policy-making project for national tax reform, which gave rise to great expectations but also criticism. Discourse on ATENA often appealed to emotions, from enthusiasm about fighting tax evasion to fear of falling behind other industrialized European countries – and eventually shame at the complete failure of the project. ATENA was widely publicized even before it was introduced. Already in 1967, Minister of Finance Luigi Preti, who initiated the project, praised the future electronic system which would give the authorities access to all the necessary tax information about a given citizen “at the touch of a button,” generating enthusiasm at the prospect of fighting tax evasion quickly and efficiently. Two IBM System/370s were installed at the Ministry of Finance and inaugurated by Preti in 1971. However, many delays then followed, from the distribution of computer terminals to local public administrations to the process of data collection and management. The electronic system never fully functioned, and in August 1975 it was shut down for good by Bruno Visentini, who succeeded Preti as Minister of Finance. Visentini also published a very harsh report on the tax register, detailing its many failures and inadequacies. In September 1976, a brand new project for the electronic tax register was announced by the new Minister of Finance Filippo Maria Pandolfi. The new tax register was to be produced by the state-owned Italsiel, which also carried out the technical review of ATENA. Italsiel created a new sub-company for the occasion, Sogei (“Societá Generale d’Informatica”), which still exists today. From the second half of the 1970s, ATENA became a powerful and popular example of the failures of the Italian government, both in the technology sector and in policy-making. In 1977, the Rome Procurement Office opened legal proceedings to investigate the delays in the electronic tax register, resulting in Bruno Visentini and others being accused of corruption. Visentini was cleared of all charges, but journalists were quite unforgiving towards the failure of ATENA, which was often defined as a “scandal.”

ATENA’s planned obsolescence stems from the system being ill conceived from the beginning, by both policymakers and technicians: its planned obsolescence was a technopolitical construct, not necessarily deliberate but unavoidable because of how the system was designed. In a parliamentary meeting in March 1976, Buzzoni, a Member of Parliament for the Italian Communist Party, pointed out that the project was “excessively centralized, with just one mega-archive that was conceptually and effectively autonomous and ultimately isolated from the organizational-functional apparatus to which it should have belonged.” The distance between the technical and administrative side of the project was also frequently remarked on by Visentini. This problem was further exacerbated by the urgency which informed the first phases of the project. Visentini stressed that the government committees in charge of reviewing the technical aspects of ATENA ultimately gave a negative opinion on its attribution to IBM. One of the reasons for this negative assessment was the fact that, from the government side, there was no clear indication of what kind of tasks and functions were to be fulfilled by ATENA. This resulted in the system being ultimately planned by IBM and not by the government. As well as the government’s failures, technical choices also contributed to its obsolescence. The “black-boxed” design of ATENA was also an important element in its downfall and further contributed to its obsolescence, because government technicians could not modify or repurpose the machines. Having powerful and advanced machines was not enough to create an efficient digital tax register: the ATENA system was unfit for the Italian context. Nor was IBM able to fully tailor its products to its clients. In fact, as reported by Visentini, the project envisioned by IBM implied a much more advanced level of digitization in the Italian public administration. However, that level was simply not there, nor it was adequately addressed by the project. Therefore, the government certainly failed in performing its duties, but so did IBM when it offered a technical solution which was not appropriate for the local context.