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[techbooks] REVIEW: "The Closed World", Paul N. Edwards

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  • Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Tr
    BKCLSDWL.RVW 981114 The Closed World , Paul N. Edwards, 1997, 0-262-55028-8, U$17.50 %A Paul N. Edwards %C 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142-1399
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 26, 1999
      BKCLSDWL.RVW 981114

      "The Closed World", Paul N. Edwards, 1997, 0-262-55028-8, U$17.50
      %A Paul N. Edwards
      %C 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142-1399
      %D 1997
      %G 0-262-55028-8
      %I MIT Press
      %O U$17.50 800-356-0343 fax: 617-625-6660 www-mitpress.mit.edu
      %P 440 p.
      %T "The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Disclosure in
      Cold War America"

      In his recent general computer history (cf. BKHSMDCM.RVW), Cerruzi
      notes that the American dominance of the computer industry is likely
      due to contracts and support from the US government and military.
      Inevitably, such a single source impetus has to have some kind of
      impact on the direction and shape both of the industry, and the
      technology itself, although the specifics of that influence might be
      difficult to determine. In the current work, the author tries to
      trace the leverage not only through the Cold War, but to a line
      running through Western philosophy back to Plato (who, incidentally,
      had a computer based training system, originally designed for the
      military, named after him).

      It is instructive, before looking at the book itself, to examine
      Edward's "closed world" term. This phrase comes from literary, and
      particularly theatrical, criticism. A closed world centres on some
      form of conflict, and all activity concentrates on, or relates to, the
      conflict itself. Hence a play like Hamlet, where every action and
      every line spoken feeds back to the fight between Hamlet and his
      uncle, and seemingly disparate events are generally attempts to
      control the battle. In opposition to closed world dramas, another
      type is the green world play, which is characterized by magic. Magic
      (except in our modern fantasy derivations from science fiction, and
      that would make a fascinating exploration some other time) is
      essentially uncontrollable.

      Chapter one outlines two general themes: that of the rampant paranoia
      of the Cold War, in which the US tried to contain and control the
      threat of communism; and the cyborg, the ultimate outgrowth of factory
      time and motion studies, in which the outcome of both production and
      the battleground can be predicted and controlled. Most of this
      chapter is spent outlining various philosophical concepts and
      developments. The early post war development of computers, a massive
      military investment in research and development, and the initial
      superiority of analogue computers over digital ones is reviewed in
      chapter two. Chapter three describes SAGE as the original of the
      various command and control technologies, but does little to relate
      this to computer development overall. This is extended through the
      sixties in chapter four, and although neither chapter serves to
      indicate how these events influenced computer design as such, chapter
      four does indicate the increasing technocratic orientation of American
      business management theories, and the utter failure of the first real
      command and control attempt in Vietnam. Chapter five is an interlude
      examining the metaphors used to think about computers, and how that
      affects the perception of them. The emergence of cybernetic or
      cognitive psychology as an identifiable field of study is related in
      chapter six. Chapter seven reviews the third "C" in military
      management; communications; and attempts to relate it to the emergence
      of cognitive science. Artificial intelligence gets covered in chapter
      eight with a heavy emphasis on programming language development.
      Chapter nine reviews the large scale military technology plans of the
      1980s, particularly the Strategic Defense Initiative (alias "Star
      Wars"), involving a number of the technologies developed to date. The
      book comes, in a sense, full circle in chapter ten by returning to the
      world of theatre and fiction to look at attitudes towards technology
      and computers. An epilogue echoes this, looking first at recent
      history, and then at a "green world ascendant" interpretation of the
      movie "Terminator 2."

      Edwards' thesis is interesting. His historical recounting brings
      forward a number of events and links that are generally not included
      in previous mainstream computer histories. However, his analysis and
      presentation may not be fully convincing. The influence of society on
      technology, and technology on society, cannot be doubted, and should
      be considered more often than it is, but I question how much of
      Edwards' view is either real or valuable.

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 1998 BKCLSDWL.RVW 981114

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