Pit Schultz on Thu, 25 Jul 96 12:00 MDT

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nettime: Cyberpunks in Cyberspace - Paul N. Edwards


                         Cyberpunks in Cyberspace:
              The Politics of Subjectivity in the Computer Age

               in Susan Leigh Star, ed., Cultures of Computing
         (Keele, UK: Sociological Review and Monograph Series, 1995)

                               Paul N. Edwards
                 Program in Science, Technology and Society
                        and Dept. of Computer Science
                             Stanford University

Digital computers transform complex, sophisticated techniques into everyday
tools. As marketing campaigns so tirelessly proclaim, they thus confer a
kind of power. But the significance of computers in modern life extends far
beyond this practical capacity.

For half a century, along with television, space flight, nuclear weapons,
and automobiles, computers have formed a technological backdrop for the
American mental landscape. Revered as the consummate representatives of an
ever more technological civilization, they are tools for work and toys for
play, assistants to science, fixtures of daily life. They are icons of
efficiency, social status, and a high-tech future. Reverberating across the
intricate webworks of language and community, images of computers weave a
dense and energetic fabric of signifying forms. Computers have been absorbed
into the collective American imagination.

By 'imagination' and 'culture' I mean include not only the fantastic
high-tech futures of science fiction, but also the visions that guide public
policy and science in a world of very-large-scale integrated circuits
(Haraway 1985). Computers were the enigmatic object of profound hopes and
hatreds even before their invention during the Second World War. They have
always been as much symbols as practical devices: 'giant brains,' standards
of precision, signs of scientific values, evidence of omnipotence. Ideas
about artificial intelligence, a networked society where computers
instantaneously handle calculation, communication and control, and the view
of the human brain as a biological computer are now commonplaces. We can
make sense of the material roles of computers as tools only when we
simultaneously grasp their roles as cultural metaphors.

Igloo White

In 1968 the largest building in Southeast Asia was the Infiltration
Surveillance Center at Nakhom Phanom in Thailand, the command center of US
Air Force Operation Igloo White. Inside the ISC technicians pored over banks
of video displays, controlled by gigantic IBM computers and connected to
thousands of sensors strewn across the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos.

The sensors shaped like twigs, jungle plants, and animal droppings were
designed to detect any human activity: the noises of truck engines, body
heat, even the scent of human urine. When they picked up a signal, it
appeared on the remote display terminals of the ISC as a moving white 'worm'
superimposed on a map grid. As soon as the ISC computers could calculate the
'worm's' direction and rate of motion, coordinates were radioed to Phantom
F-4 jets patrolling the night sky. The planes' navigation systems and
computers automatically guided them to the 'box,' or map grid square, to be
attacked. The ISC central computers were also capable of controlling the
release of bombs automatically. The pilot might do no more than sit and
watch as the invisible jungle below exploded into flames. In most cases no
American ever saw the targets at all.

This entire process normally took no more than five minutes.

Operation Igloo White ran from 1967 to 1972 at a cost near $1 billion a
year. Visiting reporters were dazzled by the high-tech scene inside the
windowless ISC. Young soldiers sat at their displays in air-conditioned
comfort, faces lit weirdly by the dim electric glow, directing the
destruction of people and equipment as if playing a video game. One
technician is reported to have said, 'We wired the Ho Chi Minh Trail like
a drugstore pinball machine, and we plug it in every night.'

Air Force officials made extraordinary claims for Igloo White. They said it
destroyed over 35,000 trucks, each carrying about 10,000 pounds of supplies
destined for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam. But the official
estimates, like so many other official versions of the Vietnam War, existed
mainly in the never-never land of public relations. In 1971 a Senate report
pointed out that the figure for '...truck kills claimed by the Air Force...
last year greatly exceeds the number of trucks believed by the Embassy to be
in all of North Vietnam.' Daytime reconnaissance flights rarely located the
supposedly destroyed vehicles. Traffic over the Ho Chi Minh Trail continued
as the guerrillas adopted countermeasures such as sensor-confusing decoys
and anti-aircraft weapons. The antiseptic efficiency of the ISC control room
was belied by the 13,000 civilian refugees created by its operations and
the loss of three to four hundred American aircraft.

Finally, despite more than four years of intensive computer-controlled
bombardment of their heavy-equipment supply lines, the communists were able
to field a major tank and artillery offensive inside South Vietnam in 1972.
(See Dickson 1976, pp. 83-97, and Gibson 1986, pp. 396-399).

Operation Igloo White's centralized, computerized, automated,
power-at-a-distance method of 'interdiction' resembled a microcosmic version
of the whole US approach to Vietnam. Van Creveld has noted, in his study of
command in war, that once President Johnson ordered US bombing of North
Vietnam in 1965, 'the air war... was run by McNamara and his assistants from
Washington.... Directives emanating from the Office of the Secretary of
Defense specified the targets to be struck, the weather conditions..., and
even the minimal level of training that individual pilots had to possess.'
Johnson himself took part in targeting decisions. It was 'the revolutionary
explosion of electronic communication and automatic data processing
equipment... [that] made effective worldwide command and control from
Washington a practical technological proposition' (Van Creveld 1985, p.

Because of the length and complexity of these chains of command, this drive
to centralize command and control created serious impediments to accurate
understanding of what was going on in the field. The elements of Operation
Igloo White exemplify both the 'information pathologies' of Vietnam (Van
Creveld 1985) and its problems at the regional level: centralized,
remote-controlled operations based on super-sophisticated computing and
communications gear, an abstract representation of events (sensors, maps,
grids, 'worms') justified in terms of statistics, and a wide gap between an
official discourse of overwhelming success and the pessimistic assessments
of independent observers.

I begin with Igloo White because it shows how the story of the computer is
nested inside another, larger narrative about the grand politics of
globalist American foreign policy. There are strong, concrete connections
between what I call the 'closed world' of post-WWII American global
political hegemony and the 'microworlds' of computer simulations and
artificial intelligence.

In the post-WWII era, especially during the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and
the Reagan administration, military priorities played a major role in the
general direction of American computer research (Flamm 1987; 1988). In turn,
the development of computers  for real-time control of automated forces,
for modeling of military situations and world dynamics, and eventually for
'smart' weapons helped create new military capabilities, new forms and
locations of authority, and new techniques of analysis that reinforced
closed-world political thought (Gray 1991; Edwards forthcoming).

The notion of a 'closed world' is intended to signify a bounded
psychological and conceptual space. Sherman Hawkins used this term to define
one of the major dramatic spaces in Shakespearean theater (1968).
Closed-world plays are marked by a unity of place, such as a walled city or
the interior of a castle or house. Action centers around attempts to invade
and/or escape its boundaries; its archetypal form is the siege. The central
problematic of the closed world is psychological, an inward confrontation of
characters with the power of rationality and social convention which, in
tragedy, leads to self-destruction (e.g. Hamlet) and in comedy to exorcism
of these forces (e.g. Jaques' punishment).

The alternative is not an open world, but what Northrop Frye called the
'green world,' an unbounded natural setting such as a forest, meadow, or
glade. Action moves in an uninhibited flow between natural, urban, and other
locations, frequently affected by magic and mysterious natural events (think
of A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Tempest). The green world is indeed an
'open' space where the limits of law and rationality are transcended, but
this does not mean that anything goes. Rather, the opposition is between a
human-centered, inner, psychological logic and a magical, natural,
transcendent one.

The 'closed world' discussed here is political and ideological, rather than
literary. Post-WWII American politics were dominated by a closed-world unity
of place. The stage was the globe, the action one of attempts to contain,
invade, or explode a closed Communist world: 'the Iron Curtain,' the Berlin
Wall. The globe itself was seen as a closed whole, a single scene of
capitalist/communist struggle from which the only escape was the
technological utopia of space travel. The US reconceived itself as the
manager, either directly or by proxy, of the entire global political,
economic, and military scene (Baritz 1985), justified by an opposition
between 'freedom and slavery' (Ambrose 1985). But this principle was belied
by 1950s social conformism and its totalizing modernist obsession with
planning, rational action, Keynesian economic control, and military power.
Even as American leaders committed troops to seal off the Communist world in
Vietnam, the social movements of the 1960s were exposing the poverty,
inequalities, and savage oppressions in the land of freedom. The ideology of
apocalyptic struggle within a closed world, in part, maintained an external
focus on extreme contrasts, diverting attention from cracks in the facade of
liberal politics.

Computers played an important role in the developing discourse of the closed
world. They were a key factor in the massive increases in the speed and
scale of warfare, in air defense, command and control [and communication]
systems, satellite surveillance, and 'smart' weapons such as guided missiles,
cruise missiles, and advanced jet aircraft. They were also of immense
symbolic importance in the ideological worlds of the Cold War and the
Vietnam War, representing total oversight, exacting standards of control,
and technical
-rational solutions to complex problems.

Turing machines and cyborgs

In 1950 Alan Turing, the mathematician who invented the theory of digital
computation, devised an 'imitation game' in which a computer is programmed
to simulate human thought processes (Turing 1950). A person, communicating
through a terminal, tries to distinguish between the computer and another
person by interrogating them both the Turing test for machine
intelligence. Turing believed that within fifty years it would be possible
'to program computers... to play the imitation game so well that an average
interrogator will not have more than 70 percent chance of making the right
identification after five minutes of questioning.' At MIT in 1991, forty-one
years later, computers fooled five of ten judges in a limited Turing test
restricted to a single area of informal knowledge such as wine-tasting or
romantic love (Markoff 1991).

Another of Turing's predictions received far less attention, though it is in
many ways more profound:

The... question, 'Can machines think?' I believe to be too meaningless to
deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century
the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that
one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be
contradicted (Turing 1950, p. 456)

Here Turing was clearly right. Even then, computers we would now think of as
pathetically primitive were known in the popular press as 'giant brains.' By
the late 1980s 'expert systems,' 'artificial intelligence,' and 'smart' and
even 'brilliant weapons' were part of everyday vernaculars. Within
subcultures, such as computer hacking, highly articulated descriptions of
the computer as a self with thoughts and desires, and of the human mind and
self as a kind of computer, were commonplace (Turkle 1984).

Turing thus predicted the emergence of a language of intelligent machines:
'cyborg discourse' (Edwards forthcoming, 1995; Haraway 1985; Haraway 1992).
This discourse is primarily concerned with the psychological and cultural
changes in self-imagining brought on by the analogy between computers and
minds. Artificial intelligence and cognitive science are part of this
discourse, as are hacker communities and cyberpunk science fiction
(McCaffery 1991; Turkle 1984). While closed-world discourse is built around
the computer's capacities as a tool of analysis and control, cyborg
discourse focuses on its mind-like character, its generation of
self-understanding through metaphor (Lakoff 1980; 1987).

These discourses are not purely intellectual or linguistic phenomena. The
computer metaphor in psychology had sources in the military quests for
automation of processes subject to human error and for integration of humans
into combat machines. World War II and the ensuing Cold War produced
intense, largely unopposed pressures for automation and integration in
military systems. Integrating humans into anti-aircraft weapons, and
refining communications systems through psychometric studies of the 'machine
in the middle' of the communications circuit, were first steps toward
full-blown 'device-independent' theories of intelligence, language, and
thought (Gardner 1985; Wiener 1948).

At a press conference early in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, General
Schwarzkopf played videotapes of computer-controlled, laser-guided bombs
destroying buildings in Baghdad. A worldwide television audience experienced
the joining of cyborg subjectivity with the politics of the closed world. As
we rode the eye of the bomb to the white flash of impact, we experienced at
once the elation of technological power, the impotence and voyeurism of the
passive TV audience, and the blurring of boundaries between 'intelligent'
weapon and political will. The dazzling and terrifying power of
high-technology warfare displayed in the Gulf became an emblem for America's
waning global hegemony. It was the cyborg as the psycho-logic of
closed-world politics.

This moment is an icon for my central argument: in the computer age,
theories, beliefs, and fictions about mind, intelligence, and selfhood are
political constructs. They reflect a history involving new forms of warfare,
militarism, a pervasive technological system, and global capitalism and its
culture. So, too, the political constellation of the post-WWII era involves
the subjectivity of mental machines.

[ you may find the second part of the article with the URL above, near
to it the author has put the preface and first chapter of an interesting
upcoming book concerning "Computers and the Politics of Discourse
in Cold War America".  This may give another context for the issues 
of freedom and liberty and it's relation to the narration of cyberspace,
then the same old mantra of "net - good, government - bad" ;)  
have a nice summer -pit ] 

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