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

Front Cover
MIT Press, 1997 - Computers - 440 pages
2 Reviews

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

The ClosedWorld explores three apparently disparate histories -- the history of American globalpower, 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 linksbetween the military projects of the Cold War, the evolution of digital computers, and the originsof cybernetics, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence.

Edwards beginsby describing the emergence of a "closed-world discourse" of global surveillance and control throughhigh-technology military power. The Cold War political goal of "containment" led to the SAGEcontinental air defense system, Rand Corporation studies of nuclear strategy, and the advancedtechnologies of the Vietnam War. These and other centralized, computerized military command andcontrol projects -- for containing world-scale conflicts -- helped closed-world discourse dominateCold War political decisions. Their apotheosis was the Reagan-era plan for a " StarWars" space-based ballistic missile defense.

Edwards then shows howthese military projects helped computers become axial metaphors in psychological theory. Analyzingthe Macy Conferences on cybernetics, the Harvard Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, and the early historyof artificial intelligence, he describes the formation of a "cyborg discourse." By constructing bothhuman minds and artificial intelligences as information machines, cyborg discourse assisted inintegrating people into the hyper-complex technological systems of the closedworld.

Finally, Edwards explores the cyborg as political identity in sciencefiction -- from the disembodied, panoptic AI of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to themechanical robots of Star Wars and the engineered biological androids ofBlade Runner -- where Information Age culture and subjectivity were bothreflected and constructed.

Inside Technology series


What people are saying - Write a review

User Review - Flag as inappropriate

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.

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - vegetarian - LibraryThing

The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America is a 1997 classic Read full review


The Military Role in Computer Research
Cyborgs in the World Wide Web

Common terms and phrases

References to this book

All Book Search results »

About the author (1997)

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

Bibliographic information