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

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The Closed World offers a radically new alternative to the canonical histories of computers and cognitive science. Arguing that we can make sense of computers as tools only when we simultaneously grasp their roles as metaphors and political icons, Paul Edwards shows how Cold War social and cultural contexts shaped emerging computer technology--and were transformed, in turn, by information machines.

The Closed World explores three apparently disparate histories--the history of American global power, the history of computing machines, and the history of subjectivity in science and culture--through the lens of the American political imagination. In the process, it reveals intimate links between the military projects of the Cold War, the evolution of digital computers, and the origins of cybernetics, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence.

Edwards begins by describing the emergence of a "closed-world discourse" of global surveillance and control through high-technology military power. The Cold War political goal of "containment" led to the SAGE continental air defense system, Rand Corporation studies of nuclear strategy, and the advanced technologies of the Vietnam War. These and other centralized, computerized military command and control projects--for containing world-scale conflicts--helped closed-world discourse dominate Cold War political decisions. Their apotheosis was the Reagan-era plan for a " Star Wars" space-based ballistic missile defense.

Edwards then shows how these military projects helped computers become axial metaphors in psychological theory. Analyzing the Macy Conferences on cybernetics, the Harvard Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, and the early history of artificial intelligence, he describes the formation of a "cyborg discourse." By constructing both human minds and artificial intelligences as information machines, cyborg discourse assisted in integrating people into the hyper-complex technological systems of the closed world.

Finally, Edwards explores the cyborg as political identity in science fiction--from the disembodied, panoptic AI of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the mechanical robots of Star Wars and the engineered biological androids of Blade Runner--where Information Age culture and subjectivity were both reflected and constructed.

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User Review  - DarthDeverell - LibraryThing

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 ... Read full review

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One of the best books on the impact of US military on the development of the computer industry. A must-read for anyone interested in the roots of the computer industry.

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Page 201 - The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.
Page 36 - ... to obey a rule." It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule. It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, an order given or understood; and so on. — To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions).
Page 43 - On the battlefield of the future, enemy forces will be located, tracked and targeted almost instantaneously through the use of data links, computer assisted intelligence evaluation, and automated fire control.
Page 55 - I felt certain that if South Korea was allowed to fall Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores.
Page 18 - I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words Computii Machinery and Intelligence 2 and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.
Page 375 - I believe one's point of reference should not be to the great model of language {langue} and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power not relations of meaning.
Page 176 - Women represent the interests of the family and of sexual life. The work of civilization has become increasingly the business of men, it confronts them with ever more difficult tasks and compels them to carry out instinctual sublimations of which women are little capable.
Page 37 - There can be no possible exercise of power without a certain economy of discourses of truth which operates through and on the basis of this association.
Page 185 - As an element in a control system a man may be regarded as a chain consisting of the following items: 1. Sensory devices, which transform a misalinement [sic] between sight and target into suitable physiological counterparts, such as patterns of nerve impulses, just as a radar receiver transforms misalinement into an error-voltage. 2. A computing system which responds to the misalinement-input by giving a neural response calculated ... to be appropriate to 347 reduce the misalinement; this process...
Page 341 - A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for granted.

About the author (1997)

Paul N. Edwards is Professor in the School of Information and the Department of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1996) and a coeditor (with Clark Miller) of Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance (2001), both published by the MIT Press.

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