October 1996

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Coming Out of the Closedt World

by John K. Horberg

Book Review:
The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America
by Paul N. Edwards
The MIT Press
ISBN 0-262-05051-X
$40.00 cloth

WARNING: Having read and ruminated on this ^excellent book in ^Las Vegas may have colored my judgment severely!

Paul Edwards begins the Acknowledgments section of The Closed World by invoking Kurt Vonnegut's invented term, karass -- a seemingly disparate group of people unknowingly thrust together to do God's Will. He might just as well have begun by quoting directly from Cat's Cradle's The Books of Bokonon which is how I begin this review:

"All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies."
That statement is as true of this review as it is of Edward's book. The whole idea of a book review is rather strange. Through the terminology of Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital any review consists of "bits about bits" -- a sort of meta-discourse -- one text telling you about another text. As such, my limited interpretation is bound to be, at best, a fiction and, more than likely, for you, a lie.

Having deprecated my own interpretive authority, I must turn to Paul Edwards' text as well. Edwards spends quite a little time in his Preface outlining the philosophical framework within which he constructs "a kind of `counterhistory,' a corrective to... [and] an implicit critique of existing computer historiography."

Edwards does do a nice job of illustrating the shortcomings of existing computer narratives, limited as they are "by specific tropes, genres, and plot structures." At the same time, we should recognize that Edwards' own method of describing the history of computing in the context of political ideology, metaphorical language, and what he calls "cyborg discourse," grounds his explanations within a particular ^historical framework no less than do any of the histories he hopes to correct.

That said, I can report that The Closed World is a fascinating and eminently ^readable account of the short history of how and why we have created computers, and why they do the sorts of things they do. Cast against the sinister back-drop of World War II and the Cold War, The Closed World succeeds in revealing America1s political interests in creating a ^closed world in which ^traditional military procedure was displaced, while computerized command and control from a distance became a primary goal.

The bulk of The Closed World's text is based on the projects of the U.S. military starting with World War II and leading up through Vietnam to the "Star Wars" era of Ronald Reagan. Coupled to the military's interests were big ^research universities and ^American corporations.

This triumvirate forms a seemingly natural conglomerate of political, intellectual, and industrial power, capable of providing the necessary man-power and capital for the massive undertaking needed to create the incredible computer systems of today. What Edwards calls the "iron triangle" of self-perpetuating academic, industrial, and military collaboration," deeply affected the development of computing technology and were, in turn, affected by the resulting technology in hard-to-understand ways.

How did the state of computing get to where it is today? What drove earlier generations of scientists, academics, and corporate leaders to create computers as they did? These are the questions that Paul Edwards spends most of the book working up an answer to. Edwards' theme, continually re-presented and redirected over the course of the book focuses on "the ^fantasy of global control through high-technology." Creating and sustaining such a "fantasy" necessitates the computer-based ideology represented by ^closed-world discourse.

Edwards really makes you wonder why we want computers in the first place -- why we grant them such control over our lives and why we trust them as we do. The answers he gives are, as we might have suspected, unsettling. Edwards leads up to the idea (and my fear) that we have come to need computers to make difficult ^moral choices for us -- choices that we are unwilling to make for ourselves. Further, as a part of building computing systems to make ethical choices, we want computers to do what so many critics (often labeled as techno-phobes) deplore: take people ^out of the loop.

Slowly, Edwards prepares his readers to understand how trusting computers to aim anti-aircraft guns in WWII, built us up to thinking that ^artifically intelligent computers can do anything we can frame in a rationalistic setting. We believe in computers to the point of fantasy beyond belief, as in Reagan's "^Star Wars" defense system. This trust illustrates another of Edwards' main points: the power of the ^computer metaphor to change our ideas of what is possible and desirable to do, especially through computers.

Part of the difficulty in thinking about how computers impact our lives is in making the connection between computerized simulations on one hand, and real world events on the other. Edwards pins down the real world impact of computerization by illustrating how the results of ^simulated nuclear engagements become more important than knowing what would really happen during a nuclear war.

Edwards provides truly chilling accounts of the strategies and mind-set of America's ^military leaders and their ^political games throughout the computer age. A short list of the shenanigans includes descriptions of the military's ^anti-defense stance and ^first strike policy for nuclear war, U.S. efforts to skirt anti-proliferation treaties by developing ^multiple warhead capabilities, and our possible strategy for forcing the USSR into bankruptcy by ^encouraging nuclear proliferation. Not to be forgotten, is the unworldly sort of thinking that resulted in Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative as well as our antiseptic and technologically distant approach to ^Vietnam.

The point is not that Edwards has assembled a collection of horror stories proving the unspeakable evil of our military-industrial-political complex. Rather, these narratives go to understanding how our ^politics and ideologies and culture affect the way we want to create computers. Correspondingly, the computing machines we build affect what we want computers to do for us in the first place.

The press release for The Closed World describes the book as "a unique ^interdisciplinary history." I don't know whether the individual bodies of thought stand apart well enough on their own to rank being called interdisciplinary, but the subject matter is certainly wide-ranging. Edwards himself hopes the book will be of interest to historians of technology and science, political and cultural historians, students of cultural studies and science and technology, ^computer professionals and "the growing numbers of scientifically and technologically literate generalists."

Edwards does a nice job of weaving ^character sketches throughout the book. This not only makes the book more interesting and readable, but it also gives a nice flavor of the atmosphere that permeated the military, government, and industry throughout the Cold War years. This gives enough of a "Chuck Yeager" feel to the book to make it interesting for general interest readers and history buffs, while keeping the theoretical matter firmly grounded in historical and cultural events.

There are only two grounds on which I can seriously fault Paul Edwards. One is on the inherently dense nature of the book -- the very multiplicity on which I praise him. Different readers will bring very different sets of experience and knowledge to this text, being interested in some parts and bored by others. The problem is that the book tries to do too much for too many different audiences, and the entire effort suffers somewhat as a result. The spaces between the heavy theory-laden material and light narratives are too great - - too much jumping around.

While Edwards' ^multiple threads make the book accessible and interesting to a wide audience, it also makes it harder for any one reader to keep track of her/his interests. The difficulties will be different for everyone, but I think each reader can expect to encounter sections of text that are particularly hard to plow through.

The second problem seems much more serious. In fact, I am tempted to follow an old "Monty Pythonism" and call the end of the book -- Chapter 10 and the Epilogue -- contractual obligation chapters. Edwards' attempt, in these final chapters, to transcend his modern analysis into the ^postmodern realm of futuristic ^cinematography and cyberpunk fiction is lacking in originality and depth.

Edwards is sadly on the mark when he says that he is "painfully aware that there is a large body of critical literature that covers these texts and films and explores... many of the themes I address here." Honestly, I could not see the connection between Edwards' synopses of these films with the rest of the book. In summary, Paul Edwards' The Closed World is a richly complicated work -- so rich that readers may come away unsure of exactly what they've learned. The book demands a thorough, time-intensive reading with careful reflection to gain any real sense of the depth of the issues Edwards raises. Those who make the effort will be well-rewarded. Those who give the book a quick reading will, at least, come away with a heightened sense of computing in the age of high-tech military operations. Edwards' plurality, his intertextuality, and his interdisciplinary nature can be celebrated by closing with another, more encouraging quote from Vonnegut's The Books of Bokonon -- one which recognizes the human side of the closed world in which we all find ourselves:

Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,
And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen --
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice --
So many different people
In the same device.

John K. Horberg ( is a PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Department of Language, Literature, and Communication. He has written an article on Intelligent Software Agents for CMC Magazine, and wrote a chapter, also on agents, for the book Bots and Other Internet Beasties (Indianapolis: Publishing, 1996).

Copyright © 1996 by John Horberg. All Rights Reserved.

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