Silicon Leviathan: Governing Visions for America in the "Age of the Computer"

AHA Session 279
Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Jennifer Light, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Jennifer Light, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

Computer technologies—from ambitious national IT programs billed self-consciously as efforts to revolutionize the functioning of the state to academic computer science research—have long reflected changing American political ideals. To design a cryptographic system that secures a guarantee of digital privacy is to make a statement about the state’s ability to guard or interfere in that privacy; to suggest that the American polity can be best represented through e-governance is to make a claim about who constitutes that polity; to invest in electronic infrastructure for commerce is to make a determination about the proper role of the state in the making and maintenance of the market.

This panel explores the governance and political functions of technologies and the experts that run them. Our work uses the history of technical subjects to address broad historical and social questions about the organization of civic and economic life in post-war America, a period coincident with with the entry of the computer into many aspects of public life. Political subjectivity, national community, regulatory norms and practices, state knowledge, as well as normative assumptions about the proper boundary between the private and the public sphere, or between the market and the state are often constituted through debates about technological systems and scientific expertise. We emphasize that emerging narratives about technologies can offer a historical window into political constitutions in the making.

The work of this panel draws on a wide range of disciplinary methods and approaches, including the model of “constitutionalism” in Science and Technology Studies (Jasanoff 2003), perspectives from American Political Development on the interaction between the history of state knowledge and governance practices in America (Balogh 1991; Porter 1995; Lacey and Furner 1993) and recent work on the interfaces between technical knowledge and capitalism (Poon 2007, 2009; Zuboff 2015). If much of the scholarship in historical studies of technology has taught us that the ‘technical’ is political ‘all the way down’ (Light 1999; Medina 2011; Hicks 2017; Noble 2018), so too do we seek to highlight how the ‘political’ is altered through historical encounters with the ‘technical.’ This seems particularly true in the case of informational technologies (Chun 2011; Igo 2015; Coleman 2017).

By bringing these various literatures into conversation, the papers in this panel document how digital technologies reflect aspirational goals for the organization of the state and its polity, often motivating and anchoring utopian projections into the future. And yet these technologies are always based in historically specific technical and political contexts. This dual status, as both an inspiration for and site of politics, allows the historian and social analyst to track changes in the most fungible things--political and governing visions—in the creation of and debates surrounding obdurate stuff.

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