[Humanist] 23.201 politics and thought (2nd try)

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Jul 29 07:35:14 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 201.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 28 Jul 2009 11:54:53 -0400
        From: David Golumbia <dgolumbia at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.193 politics and thought
        In-Reply-To: <20090728060531.CA5FC329E5 at woodward.joyent.us>

[The following is intended to replace the previously dispatched message from David Golumbia that somehow was radically truncated in processing. Apologies on behalf of unruly software. --WM]

> >        Date: Mon, 27 Jul 2009 11:10:53 +0100
> >        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
> > 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?
> >
> > Comments?
> >

As a basic believer in the paradigm Edwards establishes, I don't see him
making quite such airtight causal claims. First PE writes: cyborg discourse
was "profoundly and practically linked to" the closed-world, cold-war view;
second, that "cognitive theories ... were first created to assist in
mechanizing military tasks".

Claim 1 is contextual but not by itself causal; these discourses are linked.
Some of the larger linking material/context, from the vantage of which I
would want to examine the emergence of cognitive science, is profoundly
shaped by and linked to US militarism and in particular the think tanks
associated with those policies (see McCumber, *Time in the Ditch*, and
Amadae, *Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy*, among others, for these
histories). This is not to say that militarism was the only cause for, or
even a direct cause of, the emergence of cognitive science or "cyborg
discourse"; but the many direct (funding) and indirect (think tanks,
theoretical schools) links are hard to gainsay. I agree that real history is
very complex; I only read PE making the claim that this is part, probably a
big part, of it.

Claim 2 insists on an historical sequence that I don't know in precise
enough detail to verify. But on my view above, the actual sequence doesn't
matter a great deal; PE's point is that many of the same people and same
worldviews are found in "closed-world" computer thinking of the 1950s and in
explicit political projects of the day; I find the conjunction too
significant to put aside.

Just one of the figures you mention, von Neumann, is surely an example of
the very close association between political and with computational thought,
even if his theories of the brain were not necessarily developed for
military purposes. Of course vN's more famous contribution to politics, game
theory, certainly does reflect how close computational and political
thinking can get, and how much both can be of real influence in world
political events.

-- David Golumbia dgolumbia at gmail.com         

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