Simulating Systems Expertise: Man-Machine Systems Research at the RAND Corporation, 1952–54

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:50 AM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Marcia Holmes, University of Chicago
During World War II, American psychologists successfully convinced military commanders and weapons engineers that “human engineering” methods were essential for training men to use the sophisticated machines of warfare, and for designing machines to better suit the sensorimotor limitations of men.  Yet by war's end, the US military's nascent technologies for tracking objects in space – including radar, sonar, fire control, and air traffic control – forewarned that future American military prowess would demand much more than engineering single man-machine combinations.   Whole teams of servicemen would need to be integrated into intricate networks of equipment to ensure the success of postwar command-and-control systems like the Navy's Combat Information Centers and the Air Force's Air Defense Direction Centers.

In response, the psychologists who had advocated human engineering hastened to adapt their methods to what they termed “man-machine systems,” but they soon discovered the self-referential nature of this research.  In a seminal series of experiments pursued at the RAND Corporation from 1952 to 1954, psychologists worked with computer programmers to devise elaborate simulations to study how personnel behaved in an Air Force radar defense station during enemy attack.  Throughout the experiments, RAND psychologists struggled to gain intellectual distance from their human and mechanical subjects as the dramaturgy of controlled simulation required their constant intervention in the system under observation.  Portending the future difficulty of their field, psychologists emerged with concrete experience in simulating air defense operations, but little theoretical understanding of optimal man-machine system organization. 

In this paper, I draw on archival documents and published accounts to argue that the RAND experiments are best understood as negotiations between psychologists-qua-experts on man-machine systems and psychologists-qua-subjects of that same techno-social logic.  This ambivalence remained at the heart of man-machine systems psychology as it labored to assert its expertise within the Cold War military-industrial complex.