Paul Edwards, “The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America” Part I

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Part I: Military Development of the Computer

Paul Edwards’ book, appearing in 1996, attempts to re-write the 20th century history of computing from the point of view of an “outsider;” that is, someone who is not a computer engineer or programmer, and thus (presumably) not so caught up in computer discourse that he takes its metaphors for truth, its precepts as givens, and its development as deterministic. He sees the development of the computer as deeply intertwined with the rise of Cold War discourse, and primarily focuses–in the first half of the book–on the military development and deployment of computer technology. He attempts to contextualize and analyze the events his narrative covers from the point of view of Science and Technology Studies and Donna Haraway’s cyborg discourse, emphasizing the political and social role the computer has played as metaphor and ideological construct.

In Edwards’ story, computers both arose out of, and were used to bolster Cold War logic dominated by the desire for command and control that would animate the battlefield at every scale, centralizing military command and making war appear to be both controllable and rational. He notes that the first computers were built by large, centrally-controlled government programs leading up to, and during World War II. However, he argues that through the 1950s, most computer development by civilian companies was in fact mostly subsidized by the US Federal government, mostly with military oversight, from military budgets, and with an eye toward military uses. The major companies developing computer equipment received an average of 59 percent of their funding from the government between 1949 and 1959 (61). Surprisingly, all of this development actually served very little purpose: for military applications, analog computers were faster, cheaper, and more effective. Edwards notes that many people inside and outside of the military argued as much at the time; digital computer technology was, during this era, a “solution in search of a problem” (70). Why build computers, then? The problem would be articulated by a small group of people who redefined national security needs to coincide with the development of the computer. This discursive articulation reached its apotheosis in SAGE.

After the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, far ahead of U.S. predictions, the political climate in the U.S. Emphasized defense. SAGE was the first computer network, a system of computerized nodes that linked radar data along U.S. Borders, in an effort to build “an impenetrable barrier surrounding the country” (99). The final system went online in 1961, having cost $1 billion. Technologically, the system would have been useless against a Soviet attack, but Edwards argues that its real purpose was as a “support” in the Foucauldian sense, of Cold War discourse: it created the illusion of impermeability and a closed system: Air defense was automated, with precisely defined inputs and outputs. Real world situations were (theoretically) reduced to manageable data. Edwards’ term “closed world,” then has a double valence: it refers to a closed system in which inputs and outputs are precisely defined for purposes of command and control, and to closed, inflexible borders, defined in terms of an inside and an outside. Both of these senses of “closed world” converge in the construct of the computer: it makes possible the conversion of analog situations into digital representations, and through precise, invariable programming logic, can link these inputs to definite outputs; in the case of SAGE this generates an ideological border, a rigid barrier that does not exist in any physical sense, but which is represented via the computer, supporting the discursive metaphor of the “free world,” as opposed to the Communist order.

Eventually, this “closed world logic,” enabled by and instantiated in the form of the computer, gained enormous traction in the U.S. government. The computer simulation became an actual driver for technological change, and under Robert McNamara, systems analysis and centralized control reached their apotheosis, with the unification of the four branches of the military and their subsequent coordination via computer technology far from the battlefield: many operations of the Vietnam War were directed from Washington DC using data provided in real-time by computers. Operation Igloo White, conducted from 1967 to 1972, sought to create another impenetrable barrier, severing Vietnam down the middle, registering the presence of any North Vietnamese troops or vehicles that attempted to cross it via electronic sensors that would then represent such movement on computer screens, which would in turn control the release of bombs from patrolling aircraft. The system was entirely ineffective, as the sensors were easily fooled. Amazingly, however, it was continually hailed as a success, because the only criteria of success or failure were determinable only by the computer system itself: a convoy was registered as destroyed not when it was verified to be so on the ground in Vietnam, but when the computer no longer registered its presence! The closed system, with its internal logic, is itself impenetrable from the outside, a realm of quantification (body counts) and simulation that serves only as a construct, as a metaphor, as an illusion of control on the battlefield. Significantly, these systems were never deterred by their failures, and the U.S. military continues to fund their descendants to the present day. Edwards’ main point, however, is that these systems, driven by the ideologies they enable, were responsible for the design of the modern computer as we know it: far from being merely an application of technology, they determined the direction in which technological development would proceed.

Part II considers Edwards’ discussion of the subject positions that computers enabled during this period of time after.

The book at Amazon.com

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