More Book Summaries! Today: Sorting People Out and Digital Technologies

Last Wednesday, I had another orals meeting with Susan Lindee. You can find the bibliographical details of the books discussed in the blurb and my analytical essay below that. Guess which book I liked least!

Works read:
Rose, Nikolas S. 2007. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan L. Star. 1999. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Igo, Sarah E. 2007. The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Patel, Sejal. 2013. “The Benevolent Tyranny of Biostatistics: Public Administration and the Promotion of Biostatistics at the National Institutes of Health, 1946-1970.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87 (4): 622–47. doi:10.1353/bhm.2013.0084.
Edwards, Paul N. 1996. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge: MIT Press.
MacKenzie, Donald A. 1996. Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Ensmenger, Nathan. 2010. The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Abbate, Janet. 1999. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Turner, Fred. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Social scientist Nikolas Rose’s collection of essays around The Politics of Life Itself argues that a new form of “politics of life” emerged in neo-liberal so-called Western societies. Rose illustrates how a biological, or molecular, thought style (a concept he borrows from Ludwik Fleck) instills new visions of self and health into these societies and to what extent this generates possibilities for governments and other authorities to exert power over individuals.

Rose’s “cartography” of “a moment when all is in flux” (p. 5) aims at illustrating that different futures in this new biological age are possible, and that these are not necessarily deterministic and repressive. He aims to exemplify this with studies on genetics, pharmacology, and neuroscience, arguing that individuals increase their knowledge about their own bodies and seek out tools to heighten their well-being. An “obligation of autonomy and responsibility” (p. 128) is empowering and lets contemporary patients live and socialize in “the field of hope” (p. 135). In chapter 6 on racialized medicine, for instance, non-white patients become “active biological citizens” (pp. 187 f); in chapter 7, he argues that the shift towards the concept of susceptibility to psychopathologies frees individuals from fatalism; and chapters 4 and 8 take up the concept of being “at risk” for genetic disease or criminal behavior—in Rose’s view two more instances of how determinism and reductionism is transformed into a realm of choice and decision making on the individual’s part, guided by a growing pharmaceutical industry.

At a time when they were both professors at the Communication Department at UC San Diego, Bowker and Star published Sorting Things Out, a collection of empirical studies of different forms of standards and classification that is framed by a conceptual analysis that synthesizes and by far extends hitherto published accounts of standardization and classification. Bowker and Star explore the role that standards and classifications play in different sections of everyday-societies in the twentieth century, who makes them functional and how, and “[w]hat happens to the cases that do not fit” (p. 9). The authors’ main goal is to illustrate that classifications are ubiquitous in modern societies and that acts of classification are per se ethically and morally charged. They also identify an urgent need for a better conceptual framework to study classifications and standards in more detail within the social sciences and humanities.

The main body of the book is divided into four parts, of which the fourth is a sketch of a potential new conceptual approach to standards and classifications with particular attention to “boundary objects” and “borderlands.” Parts I–III are empirical. Part I analyzes medical classification by focusing on the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). Based on archival as well as published sources from the WHO and UN, Bowker and Star exemplify that controversies and negotiations accompanied the process of classifying and re-classifying diseases and causes of death in subsequent versions of the ICD. These political debates, however, are obscured in the ICD and categories presented as “natural.”

Part II shifts to more personal encounters with classifications of a larger mass of individuals in their daily life. Chapters on the classification of tuberculosis patients and on the racial segregation practices in South Africa during the Apartheid illustrate that classifications were never exhaustive, laden with ambiguities, and had far-reaching (mostly) negative consequences for the classified individuals, such as limiting their access to health care, their families, education, or economic prosperity. In Part III, the authors draw on a large number of interviews they carried out during an attempt to classify nursing work by the Nursing Intervention Classification (NIC). Their attempt to contribute to the professionalization, visibility, and digital accountability of nursing practice turned even the most human caring practices, such as comforting a patient, into sterile lists of “actions.” Moreover, the NIC increased opportunities of worker surveillance and neglected the importance of tacit knowledge.

Historian Sara Igo delivers an empirically grounded study of three different large-scale surveys and their public reception in twentieth-century America. Drawing on the archival collections of her actors as well as contemporary public media, Igo argues that these surveys have, step by step, created and at the same time proven the existence of a mass public in the US in which citizens for the first time positioned themselves towards The Averaged American.

The neat survey–reception pairings that make up Igo’s book start with Robert and Merrell Lynd’s two studies about typical Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the Lynds initially aimed at portraying the change in spiritual attitudes in the early twentieth century, the survey ended up capturing consumption and life in an industrialized age much more broadly. Even though the racial diversity and class differences of the surveyed community were not reflected in the selection of participants, the surveys had an unexpected nation-wide success and were received as a description of the stereotypical American. Market researchers in particular were very grateful for this source of information, and so were the polls of George Gallup and his team in the 1940s and 1950s. Igo illustrates how, in addition to presenting the standard mindset of the American, opinion polling held the promise of democratizing the nation by lending a voice to a usually not publicly speaking majority. As Igo shows, however, the classism and racism in Gallup’s work was much more systematic and deliberate than in the Lynds’ study. Nonetheless, the public greatly identified with their findings.

Igo’s third example is the Kinsey Reports of human sexual behavior, published in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Igo’s study reiterates the problematic of skewed samples and a public that was intrigued by and yet assumed misrepresentation in the conducted surveys. Igo supports her argument of the creation of a mass public most effectively in showing that Kinsey managed to recruit thousands of individuals to report about their most intimate aspects of their lives, an attitude that the Lynds could not find in the community they surveyed. Together, these studies show how, in a both scientific and bureaucratic attempt, social science became meaningful to individual citizens and the nation as a whole (or the white, privileged majority of it) regarding the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of Americans.

Historian of science Sejal Patel illuminates the rise of biostatistics during the early Cold War in her paper “The Benevolent Tyranny of Biostatistics.” She mainly draws on NIH Directors’ files, funding proposals, reports, and similar archival documents. Her central argument is that the increasing popularity of biostatistics within the NIH was a response to changing administrative and organizational demands and that the rise of biostatistics permeated the broader bio-medical world through the growth of extramural research funding.

The multiplication of so-called biometrists at the NIH from five to over fifty between 1950 and 1963, Patel shows, was in part a consequence of the technical knowledge and tools only mathematicians and programmers had at their disposal. Administrators purposefully integrated biometrists in their procedures to get allegedly objective and unbiased assessments of the costs of research projects and their promise of success. Towards the late 1950s, biometrists’ managerial advice got formalized in response to governmental requests for a streamlining of NIH procedures and structures as well as more efficiency in intramural research and extramural funding, a process that limited the broad informal influence biometrists at the NIH.

Magical Sorting in a Digital Age.
(“The Clones are trying the Sorting hat from Hogwarts” by Kristina Alexanderson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Paul Edwards’s The Closed World is a richly detailed and theoretically grounded revisionist history of computers in the Cold War era. Drawing on sources at several national and university archives, Edwards shows how the politics of the Cold War got inscribed into computers and computerized tools and how, likewise, the Cold-War ideology rested on the computer as a “metaphor.” He argues that the world during the Cold War was “closed” on three levels: the Soviet threat was its own Empire and needed to be enclosed; the so-called Western, capitalist nations, were an enclosed community themselves; and the entire globe was waiting to be enclosed under a capitalist regime that would at the same time stop Communism.

His arguments unfolds in three parts: Part I debunks the “automation theory” and argues that the decision to heavily invest in computer technologies was contingent and that computers, initially, were only seen as calculating machines, but then transformed into military machines able to support the SAGE air defense system, which Edwards identifies as a core example for the co-constitution of Cold-War ideologies and technologies (p. 99). After a theoretical interlude about the power of computer metaphors in scientific theories and ideologies, Edwards proceeds with the second part of his monograph, in which he focuses on computerized minds and mindful computers: cybernetics, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence (AI). He shows how these three fields integrated the individual citizen into the capitalist state and the Cold-War society and how the computer metaphor privileged the rationally minded individual—or, as he calls it, “male” mind (p. 173). He argues that cybernetics, cognitive psychology, and AI aided the political construction of Cold-War individuals, and simultaneously produced a particular set of users of computerized war technologies. These theories, which were created mainly by Cold Warriors, implied that obedient, command-driven human-machine interaction is possible now and that automation will be possible in the future. Thus, the mind was a closed world in itself, namely a technologically modifiable system on an “electronic battlefield” (p. 273).

In his last two chapters, Edwards turns to “Cold War II,” that is, the era of Ronald Reagan, Star Wars, Terminator, and other movies exemplifying the Cold-War ideology as it was drenched with computer metaphors and the “merging [of] closed-world and cyborg iconographies” (p. 301), that is, the depiction of minds, machines, and relationships as “systems,” in a revival of the Soviet nuclear threat. Slightly problematic may be Edwards’s assurance that he uncovers a reality his actors were not aware of (p. xiv).

Donald MacKenzie’s Knowing Machines is a collection of very heterogeneous essays, all previously published in the years 1984–1995, with a new introduction. The sociologist provides insight into different episodes of the history of technology. Drawing mainly on interviews and published literature, he proposes to illustrate the extent to which technology has become an institution in twentieth-century societies. Thus, his focus goes beyond the Cold War, very well exemplified by his first two theoretical chapters on the relevance of Karl Marx resp. the consideration of economic systems for social and historical studies of technology.

MacKenzie’s essays are written in opposition to technological determinism; he argues instead that the most successful technologies seem the “best” technologies only in hindsight (e.g., the gyroscope, ch. 4). He shows very clearly that there is no “natural” way for technology to evolve in his chapters on the development of supercomputers in accordance with particular military or corporate needs, most prominently the National Laboratories in Los Alamos and Livermore. MacKenzie illustrates that the type of coding as well as the definition of what “super” performance means in a computer were tailored to military needs related to nuclear weapons. Two chapters on the British microprocessor VIPER exemplify that military funding was no guarantee for commercial success of a computer technology.

MacKenzie’s ultimate goal is to stimulate more rigid technological regulations and availability of data about technological failure, as becomes clear in his ninth chapter on human deaths caused by or related to errors in computer systems. MacKenzie wants to draw awareness to the reality of self-fulfilling (i.e., hyped technologies are often furnished with more investments and in fact become future standards) and self-negating prophecies (i.e., technologies that seem not safe tend to be supervised very closely and thus become safe, whereas neglected oversight of technologies that are considered safe oftentimes produces errors and accidents).

Nathan Ensmenger’s first book, The Computer Boys Take Over, is a study of the failed professionalization of computer programmers in the second half of the twentieth century; and the measures of this failure are that the community neither gained control over who entered their field nor was able to create a body of core knowledge and skill required for members of the group. Ensmenger draws on a wide range of then-contemporary publications, guidelines, and procedural notes from the field as well as on archival sources, most notably from the Charles Babbage Institute. Ensmenger’s intervention is to not study the history of computing as the history of a machine but as the history of software and how and by whom it was produced.
In line with Patel’s account about the computer-using biometrists at the NIH, Ensmenger argues that the close association of systems analysis and computer programming in the 1960s changed the social role and influence of programmers significantly. Software-design and the growing number of programmers in corporations and other institutions significantly altered the work processes of white-collar workers but the “computer boys.” Ensmenger argues, however, that these individuals mostly maintained their identity as “vocational programmers” despite working on corporate or military projects (p. 230). (Stuart Leslie, in The Cold War and American Science, would definitely challenge him on this.)

Ensmenger, like Rose, explicitly states the revisionist aspect of his story, in his case, regarding the “software crisis.” This is a term retroactively applied to the 1960s, but as Ensmenger shows, the notion of problematic and urgency surrounding computing persisted over the decades and showed up in different guises: a shortage of programmers, increasing costs of software, and problematic attitudes of programmers within corporate environments, to mention only a few. In 1968, this even led to a NATO Conference on Software engineering, which resulted in an attempt to transform the “black art” of programming into a science (p. 24). This could not end the “crisis,” however.

Diverse attempts of streamlining and hierarchizing software development and the programming community through the introduction of capacity tests, standardized certifications, or the formation of programming association, Ensmenger argues, did not change much more but exclude women, uneducated, or in any other way supposedly deviant individuals. But as he also shows, internal disagreements within the heterogeneous group of “computer boys” (programmers, coders, and other non-specific identities) combined with corporate managers’ fears that professionalized “programmers” may become potential competitors or at least higher-paid individuals, stood in the way of a professionalization of the field.

Janet Abbate’s monograph Inventing the Internet, the first book of the STS scholar who used to be a computer programmer, tells the story of the development from the very limited and experimental Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) to the internet as we know it today. The focus of her study, however, lies clearly on the development and use of the network in a military and elite academic context rather than on its commercialization and globalization after the split between ARPANET and the new military version of it, MILNET, in 1982.

Abbate’s first chapter, a technically detailed account of different modes of packet switching, a way of efficiently transporting information across networks and doing so in a way that is relatively secure against espionage, resonates very well with MacKenzie’s emphasis on the negotiation and contingency of technological standards that are eventually agreed upon. The choice between different ways of transmitting the data was as much determined by contingent factors and social forces as was the decision on a specific floating point coding method as mentioned in MacKenzie’s work.

Chapters 3 and 4 detail the development of the ARPANET in the late 1960s and 1970s and the difficulties its developers had to make their network appeal to (and useful for) potential users. Abbate’s core argument is that the network became a success only because designers and users were flexible and adapted to unforeseen environmental developments. She also highlights the development of a new social group, the user community, around ARPANET, and the massive impact the users had on shaping the technology. For instance, initially intended as a tool for resource-sharing, the ARPANET advanced to a communication medium. At the same time, however, Abbate argues that ARPANET managers were successful in “shield[ing] their research projects from national politics” (p. 75). This contradicts Edwards’s account of the deep connection between computer technologies and Cold War ideology.

Abbate’s subsequent study of the political investments and economic interests in standardizing internet protocols resonates very well with Bowker and Star’s work. As Abbate shows, the choices of users got limited and the power relations between businesses changed significantly after a de-facto standard for proprietary protocols was introduced. Abbate’s conclusion that transition to a commercial network did not stop “the trend of informal, decentralized, user-driven development” (p. 4) is an interesting one, in particular because this is an analysis Edwards did not undertake. He remains quiet about the extent to which computerized technology is still embedded with closed-world ideology.

Fred Turner’s monograph, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, can speak to the extent to which the internet—or “cyberculture”—is still marked by Cold War ideologies. The communication studies professor and former journalist’s monograph spans the 1960s to the 1990s and tells the story of individuals who were associated with a group whom he calls “New Communalists” (NC) in the 1960s and 1970s. Turner stresses that the NC are often but should never be confused with the New Left illustrated by Kelly Moore in Disrupting Science, for instance. Whereas the New Left promoted political activism, the NC sought societal change in retreating to non-urban places, consuming psychedelic drugs, engaging with technology, and building networks of like-minded people.

Turner’s core argument is that egalitarian countercultural ideologies did not emerge with the internet, but in the early Cold War, when the NC and information technologies came in contact with each other. Without their realizing (and this line of argument is very similar to Edwards’s), the NC adopted and kept alive ideas of information technologies as liberating and consciousness-altering tools and thereby took part in and accepted some of the values of the military-industrial complex of the Cold War as Turner shows by focusing on the social network of Stewart Brand, a former military photographer and (semi-)journalist.

Turner describes Brand as a very successful networker and entrepreneur who managed to circulate ideas about information, technology, and the possibility of social change amongst communes, cyberneticists, business people, and later even right-wing libertarians. Drawing mainly on Brand’s personal and professional papers, Turner traces the networks and professional activities of Brand’s. The Whole Earth Catalogue, for example, first published in 1968, was a collection of tools Brand considered necessary and desirable for NC. As Turner shows, the presentation of items and the information provided in the Catalogue reaffirmed social inequalities the 1960s were struggling with; for example, they were geared towards white educated males. He also shows how the personal computer was promoted as an empowering and liberating technology amongst this group. Turner argues that the catalogues created a network of hippies and made it desirable for them to participate in mainstream-consumer culture, still upholding their view of anti-technocrats (ch. 3). Ass the NC dissolved around 1980, Brand reactivated his networks with the computer industry and the hacker community.

In chapters 5 and 6, Turner traces the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), created in 1985 and, ideologically speaking, a digitization of the Catalogue and a very influential computer network. Even though the economic and social conditions had changed significantly, the WELL promoted the same political ideas Brand and the counterculturalists had articulated since the 1960s. What used to be the wilderness to which the NC moved was now the cyberspace, and the sense community was not created by psychedelic drugs and technological performances but by a shared computer network. Turner emphasizes that members of the WELL were in part also members of the academic and corporate establishment of the 1980s. This is not surprising if one considers Brand’s activity as a business consulter in his firm Global Business Network. As Turner phrases it so elegantly, “[Brand and his associates] helped shape popular understanding of the New Economy in terms set not only by the New Communalist dream of social transformation, but also by the New Communalist practice of social segregation” (p. 176).

Sherry Turkle’s monograph Life on the Screen is a continuation of her investigation into the changing notions of self that arise in computer users (cf. her earlier monograph The Second Self). Turkle is an STS professor and licensed clinical psychologist, a fact that makes the strong psychoanalytical conceptual framework of her work less surprising. Researched and published in the 1990s, Turkle argues that the development of the internet with its graphical user interfaces and multi-user domains (MUDs) has caused a shift in the ways in which humans relate to computers. Not only do they stimulate self-reflection in the user, but they even become tools of self-fashioning, self-experimentation, and they blur the lines of human identity.

Turkle draws on interviews, ethnographies, and her own experience with MUDs. In the first part of her book, “The Seductions of the Interface,” Turkle lays the theoretical foundations for the potential multiplicity of the self in interaction with computers that are becoming increasingly dark black boxes as we move(d) from the excruciating practice of programming—so aptly described in Ensmenger’s and Edwards’s works—to easy-to-use Macs and PCs. Computers have lost their transparency, Turkle argues.

In the second part of Turkle’s monograph, “Of Dreams and Beasts,” Turkle illustrates the mind-like features users ascribe to computers (and software). She emphasizes that users do not confuse the computer with a living being, and yet ascribe many human characteristics to it and engage with it in a way that stimulates and satisfies their social needs. ELIZA, for example, is a simple text-based program developed in the 1960s that acts like a psychotherapist. Even though it was, according to Turkle, never intended to be used as a therapist, users acted as if it were one and found comfort in the exchange despite their knowledge that they were interacting with artificial intelligence whose limited capacities were clearly visible.

The final part of Turkle’s work is titled “On the Internet.” Here, Turkle revisits and elaborates her concept of the computer as a therapeutic, personality-extending, and identity-multiplying machine. Interspersed with evocative quotations from interviews and MUD logs, Turkle examines how relationships, including erotic ones, are established, maintained, and ended online. Certain MUDs allow for virtual dating and sexual encounters. Most importantly, according to Turkle, no individual has to make these encounters as the person they are in “real life” (regarding gender, assigned sex, age, practiced sexuality, etc.). Furthermore, each individual can take on many different personae. As Turkle demonstrates, users see different connections between their online personae and their real-life self; some consider the persona parts of their real self, others create an online self that extends who they think they really are. Consequently, one user can never be sure that the persona they are interacting with online has a real-life existence and hopes and fantasies are stimulated by the impenetrable screen. In psychoanalytical terms, “MUDs encourage projection and the development of transferences” (p. 207). Even though phrased in very different terms by Turner, this resonates with his depiction of the internet as it was born out of the countercultural movement.

Cite this blog post
Tabea Cornel (2015, October 21). More Book Summaries! Today: Sorting People Out and Digital Technologies. The Semipermeable Membrane. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

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