[Humanist] 23.193 politics and thought

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jul 28 08:05:31 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 193.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 27 Jul 2009 11:10:53 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: politics and thought

Let me here put a case from Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers 
and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, and then question its 
causal extension into the world we know best.

Discussing the use of computing in the Vietnam War, Edwards argues as 

> The political purpose of the electronic battlefield was to build a
> deadly version of what Shoshana ZubofF has called an "information
> panopticon." Zuboff's panopticons are offices and factories whose
> central information systems allow their managers to record every
> employee's activity at microscopic levels of detail. By relying on
> the recorded database and its statistics rather than personal
> observation to judge employees, these systems "create the fantasy of
> a world that is not only transparent but also shorn of the conflict
> associated with subjective opinion." They reflect a desire for "light
> without heat," knowledge without confrontation, power without
> friction. Ideally, panoptic power is self-enforcing: people who know
> their every act is "on the record" tend to do and say what they think
> they are supposed to do and say. On the pseudo-panoptic battlefields
> of the Vietnam War, soldiers subjected to panoptic control -- managed
> by computers -- did exactly what workers in panoptic factories often
> do: they faked the data and overrode the sensors. The Americans made
> up body counts and fabricated statistics. The NVA tape-recorded truck
> sounds and carried bags of urine to confuse the McNamara Line's
> sensors. Crippled by its own "regime of truth," the system faltered
> and was finally defeated....
> Pure information, "light without heat," would illuminate future war.
> In its bright and tightly focused beam, the army of the information
> age would finally discover certainty in command, combat without
> (American) casualties, total oversight, global remote control.
> Political leaders could achieve the ideal ofAmerican antimilitarism:
> an armed force that would function instantly and mechanically,
> virtually replacing soldiers with machines. The globe itself would
> become the ultimate panopticon, with American soldiers manning its
> guard tower, in the final union of information technology with
> closed-world politics.  (pp. 144-5)

Let's say for purposes of argument here that the above is an 
historically accurate account (as I believe it to be). But consider what 
he says in the next chapter. In discussing cybernetics, cognitive 
psychology and artificial intelligence, he argues "that the cyborg 
discourse generated by these theories was from the outset both 
profoundly practical and deeply linked to [the] closed-world discourse" 
of techno-war. "Cognitive theories, like computer technology, were first 
created to assist in mechanizing military tasks previously transformed 
by human beings." (p. 147)

As stated this causal connection between military purposes and cognitive 
theories seems profoundly misleading. The intent may work for Norbert 
Wiener, but most of what he made so well known had been around for some 
time, as David Mindell shows, in Between Human and Machine. For others, 
as far as their conscious intentions are concerned, this is simply not 
true, e.g. Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, John von Neumann. True, they 
were Americans in the midst of war and were involved in the war-effort 
like almost everyone whose research came anywhere near usefulness by the 
military. But a causal connection? Isn't history, real history, far more 
complex than that?


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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