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

Author: Paul N. Edwards
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996
Review Published: August 2000

 REVIEW 1: Ryan Bishop

"But does it matter anymore? Does anyone care about it? Are the issues at all relevant?" These questions were fired at me by an Australian businessman, whom I had just met at the home of a German journalist friend some months ago, and they queried the validity of my offering a cultural history course on the Cold War. Taken aback by the questions, which were predicated on the assumption that the ideological struggle of the post-World War II world had been settled by the apparently ineluctable triumph of global capitalism that had rendered the past as "history," I mumbled some fairly feeble justifications for the course.

Had I read Paul N. Edwards' The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America prior to my bristly encounter, I would have been more deft and convincing in my response. I could have, for example, pointed out that all of the technology this fellow flogged to a world market, in this case cellular phones, were made possible by Cold War military R and D in satellites and communications technology; that the computer he used for daily business and "free" communication with friends and relatives came from the same Cold War source; that the Internet he used every day had morphed out of ARPANET, a Pentagon project to build a communications system capable of surviving a nuclear war; that much of the world-view that dominates contemporary business and economic practices resulted from the goals of containment and centralized control established by the strategic planning of Cold War policy makers; that the modeling and simulation devices deployed by his company to predict market fluctuations also find their roots in think tank gaming programs designed to give politicians and military advisors a sense of how a given nuclear attack might transpire; that the various tests run by his marketing department got their start in the simultaneous and interconnected rise of cognitive psychology, cybernetics and artificial intelligence; and that the various computer-generated graphics that so titillate and divert his children (not to mention him) in their home and in cinema houses emerged from 1950s efforts to track aircraft more effectively and train bomber pilots in more realistic conditions. Granted, I knew a fair amount of this already, but Edwards could have helped me mold the whole shebang into a far more convincing and interconnected package. As it was, my businessman interlocutor left with his incredulity about academic awareness of "the real world" intact.

Edwards' book examines computers "as machines and as metaphors in the politics and culture of Cold War America" (1). He argues that "few have recognized the degree to which computers created the technological possibility of the Cold War and shaped its political atmosphere, and virtually no one has recognized how profoundly the Cold War shaped computer technology" (i). In other words, computers were not only the technological effects of Cold War R and D, but also the causes of political planning and decision-making. "[Cold War] politics became embedded in the machines . . . while the machines helped make possible its politics" (i). As one can readily surmise, Edwards stakes out quite an ambitious chunk of intellectual terrain. Further, he claims that by "rendering technological change as a matter of politically significant choices, and technological metaphor as a fundamental element of culture and politics, [he aims] to set the history of computers on a new course" (xiv). Judging from the blurbs the paperback version sports -- e.g. "One of the most important books of the 20th century," from no less a cyberguru than Howard Rheingold -- The Closed World manages to both meet the author's aim and cover this terrain quite well. And, to my mind, it does, almost unreservedly so.

But the book's other blurb, the one less likely to send academic publishing publicity people into ecstatic revelry, reveals the text's most important quality. Grant Kester, who writes for The Nation, claims that Edwards' history of computing is "a cogent reminder of the extent to which this history continues to inform our vision of the future." That is, in the midst of cacophonous, ahistorical information technology and cyberculture hyperbolic presentism (both pro and con), Edwards injects a weighty and considered dose of historical contextualization. He offers a way of reading the history of new sciences "against a background of postwar practical needs, political discourses, and social networks" (239). Such contextualizing tells us as much about the present and our potential future as it does about contested pasts. The Closed World, therefore, does what all good histories should do: it becomes a catalyst for critically rethinking our contemporary moment. That SDI, or "Star Wars," has recently grabbed the headlines (candidate George W. Bush is touting it and other high-tech alternatives to Mutually Assured Destruction) reveals the salience of Edwards' subject matter and intellectual tack. The "closed world" remains with us, despite the supposed end of the Cold War, and the discursive/mental traps and trappings of it are as viable in the year 2000 as they were in their 50s heyday.

SDI, in fact, offers us an exemplary manifestation of "closed world" logic, both in its current guise and its genealogy, for it reveals the drive for global surveillance and containment through the application of high-tech military hardware and software that so demarcate Edwards' object of inquiry. If one were to trace SDI's lineage, as Edwards deftly does, one would find perhaps its earliest immediate ancestor in the SAGE continental air defense system, the first real-time computing system, developed for the Air Force by IBM and given a chapter of its own in this particular computing history. Started in the late 1950s and the first large-scale, computerized command, control, and communications system, SAGE formed the basis of the initial US plan to throw a protective, anti-nuclear weapons shield over the nation. Essentially a nuclear early-warning system, it paved the way for the combination of military hardware (e.g. worldwide satellites, sensors and communications technologies) and software (e.g. strategies cooked up by the RAND corporation and other defense-based think tanks designed to optimize nuclear capacity) that led US politicians, military brass, academicians, and scientists to believe that global oversight, immediate military response, and centralized command were achievable, viable results of American effort and investment. SDI, then, is just the next "logical" step in an elaborate set of technological and intellectual assumptions and pursuits that has given us the entire US Cold War policy for the last 55 years, seemingly without any immediate alternative. "Closed world" discourse, as Edwards might argue, would indeed preclude the possibility of any alternatives.

It is this exceptionally complex relationship between machines and humans running from the Truman Doctrine to the Rand Corporation to the electronic battlefields of Viet Nam and the Gulf War to Reagan's (and now George W. Bush's) SDI dream that Edwards charts throughout his densely, well-wrought text. And it is the computer as machine and metaphor that makes the material, ideological and imaginary cohere, for computers "madethe closed world work simultaneously as technology, as political system, and as ideological mirage" (1).

Taking the term "closed world" from Shakespearean scholar Sherman Hawkins, Edwards extends the concept by applying it to political and ideological domains, each implicated in the other and manifestly determined by technology. (13) The primary characteristic of the "closed world" in Renaissance theater is its contained space, often a walled city or the interior of a single dwelling, and the drama itself centers on the fact of this spatial containment. That is, the dramatis personae are driven by the need to invade and/or flee the boundaries of this containment, with the prototypical situation being the siege. All of the actors, then, respond to the struggle within and over the contained space, and their actions are, in fact, determined by this space and its attendant agonisms. One can easily see the usefulness of extending this metaphor to the "bunker mentality" that characterized Cold War America. Shakespeare's Globe readily becomes the ideological globe of the post World War II era, a world divided between entities that interpret ramifications for the existence of each in every minor blip, sigh, or heave anywhere on terra firma, and in the firmament for that matter.

But the dramatic nature of the "closed world" metaphor takes on added dimensions when we remember that a great deal of the Cold War was fought only in a simulated environment. For Rand strategists and game theorists, the play was the thing. Or, rather the play became more important than the thing itself because the thing itself -- nuclear war -- could not be played out. Simulations and scenarios became more important than outcomes, providing staged situations that allowed political, ideological and military advantage over the opposition. (To return to our earlier example of "closed world" thinking operative in the present, it is worth noting that SDI exists almost exclusively in the realm of high-tech simulation, which perhaps adds to, rather than diminishes, its appeal.) In an excellent and detailed chapter entitled "From Operations Research to the Electronic Battlefield," Edwards traces the emergence of the simulacrum-as-reality through "the coevolution of computer technology, grand strategy, and closed world politics" in the 50s and 60s (113). As he does throughout the text, Edwards examines this complex set of phenomena by placing it at "the intersection of politics, culture, and computer technology" and by examining the "ways computers and the political imagination reciprocally extended, restricted, and otherwise transformed each other" (7).

Perhaps no clearer statement of purpose, intent, and method for The Closed World can be found than the sentence just quoted. Just as clearly, Edwards early in his book articulates his three major theses: 1) "that the historical trajectory of computer development cannot be separated from the elaboration of American grand strategy in the Cold War;" 2) that "the rise of cognitivism, in both psychology and artificial intelligence, [is linked] to social networks and computer projects formed for World War II and the Cold War;" and 3) that "cyborg discourse functioned as the psychological/subjective counterpart of closed-world politics" (2). Edwards constantly strives to reveal that all three theses are mutually dependent and influential. The strength of Edwards' book rests in his inability to isolate historical strands that are often kept separate from one another. He consistently seeks to provide a larger context for the history of many contemporary technologies, seeing the "received," canonical history of them as a kind of "closed world" of its own.

Also, Edwards understands the long-held, much-dismissed (or ignored) alliance between historiography and rhetoric, even going so far as to list in his preface the tropes he deploys in the text -- including "metaphor," "cyborg discourse" and, of course, "closed-world discourse." By invoking historiography and rhetoric as inextricably intertwined entities, Edwards reveals his understanding that writing a history necessarily means positing an argument about the subject -- hence his clear articulation of theses at the outset. (In a similar fashion, this review does not follow the genre standards that cleave the piece into an "objective" description that allows the book "to speak for itself," followed by a "subjective" analysis that picks over the corpus for gems and abominations. Rather, this is clearly an interested reading of an infinitely interesting read.)

Just as SDI's lineage reveals much about how it has been currently understood and constituted, so too does Edwards' intellectual and academic genealogy. A product of the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Edwards reveals the trademarks of that program's eclectic and, to my mind, exciting interdisciplinary discursive tradition. That Edwards would draw so heavily on a metaphor derived from literary theory, the eponymous "closed world," for a work largely in the realm of the history of science and technology reveals his lineage. Such a rhetorical move would probably not even occur to more staid, traditional historians of science. Revealing his institutional stripes, Edwards, in the role of historian, invokes Hayden White; as a theorist of technology and cyborg discourse, he turns to Donna Haraway; as a poststructuralist thinker, he deploys James Clifford. Each invokes very specific positions toward their academic areas, ones that are simultaneously productive and controversial. Similarly, when Edwards cites other theoretical influences to delineate his own subject position -- now standard practice in typical postmodern rhetorical modes -- he mentions Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar and Donald MacKenzie (among others) for the sociology and history of science; Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Fredric Jameson (again, among others) get the nod for poststucturalist influences; John Searle, Douglas Hofstadter, and Terry Winograd (yet again, among others) shape his approach in the philosophical studies of artificial intelligence; and Sherry Turkle and Rob Kling provide direction from the interpretative sociology of computer group. These scholars and the various fields they represent place Edwards in specific relation to his various subjects as well as to his audience.

The Closed World audience, however, is by no means singular. It is, in fact, no less complex and interrelated than the book's three historical topoi: the history of post World War II US global military concerns, the history of computers, and the history of cybernetics, cognitive psychology, and AI (or subjectivity and cognition in scientific and political cultures). Edwards attempts to address historians of technology and science, political and cultural historians, cultural studies/science and technology studies scholars, computer professionals, and "scientifically and technologically literate generalists" (xv-xvi) -- all from the various theoretical positions presented in the previous paragraph and without too heavy a reliance on jargon. Again, a tall task; again, one that Edwards manages largely to pull off.

That Edwards attempts to deploy many post-al (i.e. postmodern, poststructuralist) theoretical positions and rhetorical moves in a three-pronged cultural history of science is, of course, indicative of his training. But by doing so, it seems to me, he tries to speak primarily to audiences predisposed to dismiss these approaches, e.g. materialist and positivist historians of science and technology, computer professionals, and the general readership familiar with IT. In this attempt to preach to the unconverted (and perhaps unconvertible), Edwards provides brief sketches of specific theoretical positions and terms that might be useful for these audience members. Those familiar with these approaches won't find anything new here, nothing except their applications, and in this, Edwards excels. (The delight of this work, for me, is its exceptionally creative and deft deployment of such a wide array of theoretical concerns turned toward such a wide array of subjects, and with such provocative results.)

At the same time, Edwards offers the post-al folks, those numbered in the cultural studies camp, rather basic explanations of computer operations, AI, cognitive theory, game theory, etc., which prove useful for technologically na´ve readers, but not the target audience segment. And I say target audience segment because if Edwards is indeed trying to provide a "counterhistory" of computing (xiv), then it presumes some familiarity with the canonical takes. This is but a minor rhetorical concern, especially given that the book does not necessitate cover-to-cover reading. Each chapter, while thoroughly integrated into the overall argument and the text as a whole, is relatively self-contained, with short subsections and headings that can usefully guide readers of differing backgrounds and interests through the material.

In a text of this complexity, intelligence, and scope, it seems almost churlish to laden a review of it with a few petty qualms. But minor and few though they may be, I do have some. First, the metaphors of the "closed world" and its antipodal alternative, the "green world," (also drawn from a literary theorist, this time the venerable Northrop Frye) sometimes strike me as too binaristic, too much like machine language. They are undeniably powerful and productive metaphors, but a metaphor is only a metaphor -- to trot out a tautology. Their very power and productivity, at times, overwhelms the analysis. Edwards evokes Lakoff and Johnson's theories of metaphors as controlling, organizing frames of thought that do not allow for other ways of conceptualizing experience. And his deployment of the "closed world" and "green world" metaphors, occasionally, seems to prove inadvertently Lakoff and Johnson's position, for everything under examination apparently can fall under the purview of one or the other metaphor. Perhaps a more nuanced usage could strengthen these metaphors' efficacy. Second, the analyses of popular culture products, primarily cinema, found in chapter ten are not well-integrated into the main text and are too slight in content to have much illustrative power, unlike the very useful discussion of The Terminator found in the first chapter. Tacked on at the end of a densely argued text, these forays into popular culture read somewhat like an appendix or a list, suitable for a textbook but not a systematic scholarly analysis. Third and finally, Edwards claims, and I think rightly so, that discourse plays an imperative role in the limiting of choices that eventually "close" a "world" to alternative ways of interpreting events and behaving. But the discourses of the Cold War -- political, scientific, ideological, or cultural -- receive very little discourse analysis. Given what the text does cover, and so well, it may be too much to ask for this. The book's subtitle, however, leads one to think it will, and the subtitle might well be a compromise reached between the author, editor and marketing people. More to the point, though, when an author attempts to write in a jargon-free manner, and one of the author's stated objects of inquiry is "discourse" and therefore unavoidably jargonistic, then either the "clarity" of the writing or the objects of analysis must, at times, give.

Again, these points are minor at best, and my admiration for this work should be clear from what has preceded this brief departure from an otherwise deservedly laudatory review.

While reading The Closed World, I could not help being reminded of another remarkable book about the nuclear noetic world we have created: Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth. Schell forced his readers to contemplate the effects of a nuclear war on humans -- the individual body and mind, as well as collective constructions of cultures and economies -- and the earth itself, its environment and the variety of life within it. This meditative essay rarely strays from where it begins: humanity's inescapable corporeality and the earth's intricate webbing -- the vitals of each, as it were. These are, after all, the targets of nuclear weapons. The Fate of the Earth was lauded for concentrating our attentions on those elements of our nuclear age and its potentiality that policy papers, scientific reports, and political statements drowned in the mind-numbing numbers of mega-ton payloads and death toll prognostications. In some important ways, Edwards' text serves as the perfect complement to Schell's because The Closed World examines how we reached a state of technological complacency and discursive inattention so complete that the human and material bases of our manifold complex systems could disappear from our consciousness. Edwards shows why we had been unable to contemplate the obvious concerns raised by Schell, how the "closed world" served as a closed system that prevented such considerations. Each text offers important ways to think about the unthinkable that is the signature of our post World War II world.

Although my reading of The Closed World did not arrive at a time when I could have used it to defuse my encounter with the dismissive Australian peddler of mobile phones, it has given me a chilling perspective of current, and probably future, political approaches to nuclear weapons, as evidenced in this year's US presidential campaigns -- which returns us to the Kester quote/blurb mentioned earlier. Paul N. Edwards' book is as much a cautionary tale and invitation to critical inquiry as it is a complicated history of various technologies rarely examined in such complexity. All of this is very good news indeed, for it does what history (and cultural studies) can and should do but rarely ever manages to do: remind us that what "is" has not always been so, need not necessarily be so, and could well have been otherwise. As Borges wrote, and Foucault thoroughly popularized, the copula of conceptualizing the world can be tempered by modals, both grammatically and existentially.

Ryan Bishop:
Ryan Bishop is currently Senior Fulbright Fellow in the American Studies Centre at the National University of Singapore. He is also co-author with Lillian S. Robinson of Night Market: Sexual Cultures and the Thai Economic Miracle (Routledge).  <ascrb@nus.edu.sg>

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