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The Closed World: Computers and the Politics…

The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War…

by Paul N. Edwards

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In The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, Paul N. Edwards “argues that we can make sense of the history of computers as tools only when we simultaneously grasp their history as metaphors in Cold War science, politics, and culture” (pg. ix). He develops three sub-arguments: first, “the historical trajectory of computer development cannot be separated from the elaboration of American grand strategy in the Cold War”; second, Edwards links “the rise of cognitivism, in both psychology and artificial intelligence, to social networks and computer projects formed for World War II and the Cold War”; third, Edwards suggests “that cyborg discourse functioned as the psychological/subjective counterpart of closed-world politics” (pg. 2). Edwards draws largely upon the work of Donna Haraway, specifically her focus on cyborgs, as well as Bruno Latour, Steven Shapin, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and James Clifford.

Edwards works to “balance problems in the social construction of technology with their converse, which is to say the technological construction of social worlds” (pg. 34). In discussing the rationale underlying the construction of computers, Edwards writes,
I will argue that military support for computer research was rarely benign or disinterested – as many historians, taking at face value the public postures of funding agencies and the reports of project leaders, have assumed. Instead, practical military objectives guided technological development down particular channels, increased its speed, and helped shape the structure of the emerging computer industry. I will also argue, however, that the social relations between military agencies and civilian researchers were by no means one-sided. More often than not it was civilians, not military planners, who pushed the application of computers to military problems (pg. 44).
He supports these arguments with an analysis of SAGE, ENIAC, and analog computing systems during World War II. Edwards argues, “The most essential legacy of SAGE consisted in its role as a support, in Michel Foucault’s sense, for closed-world politics” (pg. 103). Discussing the discourses of the Cold War, Edwards writes, “It was quite literally fought inside a quintessentially semiotic space, existing in models, language, iconography, and metaphor, embodied in technologies that lent to these semiotic dimensions their heavy inertial mass. In turn, this technological embodiment allowed closed-world discourse to ramify, proliferate, and entwine new strands, in the self-elaborating process Michel Foucault has described” (pg. 120). Edwards links the space race to this closed-world system. He writes, “A heavy irony lay behind the discursive décalage between the frontier imagery and the Cold War competition: most of the swarming satellites and spaceships were sent up only to look down. With every launch another orbiting object drew its circle around the planet, marking the enclosure of the world within the God’s-eye view from the void” (pg. 135).

Examining cybernetics, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence, Edwards argues, “the cyborg discourse generated by these theories was from the outset both profoundly practical and deeply linked to closed-world discourse. It described the relation of individuals, as system components and as subjects, to the political structures of the closed world” (pg. 147). He continues, “Symbolic computation did not emerge mainly form theoretical concerns. Instead, its immediate sources lay in the practice of the programming craft, the concrete conditions of hardware, computer use, and institutional context, and the metaphors of ‘language,’ ‘brain,’ and ‘mind’: in other words, the discourse of the cyborg” (pg. 246). According to Edwards, “In the early 1980s, discourses of the closed world and the cyborg found their apotheosis” as “the most controversial military program of the period, the Strategic Defense Initiative, relied to an unprecedented degree on centralized computer control, while its rhetoric employed extraordinary closed-world iconography” (pg. 275). Of the realm of popular culture, Edwards writes, “These fictional constructions captured the political and conceptual connections among information tools, war machines, and artificial minds within a single cultural gestalt. In displaying the relation between the closed-world stage and its subjective spaces, science fiction enacted the subjectivity of cyborg minds” (pg. 276). Finally, Edwards writes, “The closed world, in both politics and fiction, represents a special kind of dramatic space whose architecture is constituted by information machines. As a stage or space, the closed world defines a set of subject positions inhabited – historically, theoretically, and mythologically – by cyborgs” (pg. 304). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Dec 10, 2017 |
The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America is a 1997 classic ( )
  vegetarian | Aug 22, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0262550288, Paperback)

Edwards traces how computers have emerged as the dominant technology as a direct result of Cold War politics and the defense research it engendered. From the first use of room-size mainframes to coordinate missile systems, Pentagon research aimed toward complete computer control, including the budget-busting and ultimately impractical Strategic Defensive Initiative. Edwards relates how the technolog--which is now so open as to be nearly anarchic--began in strictly enclosed secrecy. The military computer goal of perfect "command, control and communication" systems was understood to mean communication only within a very closed world. Edwards' thesis is that this approach influenced the very structure of our modern computers.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:34 -0400)

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