THE CULTURAL LOGIC OF COMPUTATION. David Golumbia. x + 257 pp. Harvard University Press, 2009. $30.
Alex (Sandy) Pentland’s article in the May–June 2010 issue of American Scientist, “To Signal Is Human,” describes the use of data mining to study the phenomenon of human charisma. Accompanying the article is a photograph from an MIT Media Lab event at which the attendees wore sociometric badges that made it possible to track their patterns of interaction in real time. The photo’s caption ends with this caveat: “The technology offers promise but also introduces ethical issues . . . regarding ownership and fair use of the resulting data.” Are we prepared to address such issues and other questions about the place of computation in our labs and in our lives? Not by a long shot, says University of Virginia linguist and media scholar David Golumbia.
In his cautionary new book, The Cultural Logic of Computation, Golumbia argues that we are in thrall to our computers, to their apologists and—most perniciously—to the corporate sponsors of those apologists. Federal resources are being poured into the computational sciences with the promise of medical breakthroughs to come. The technology industry promises global prosperity through better computing. Techno-utopians such as neoliberal economist Thomas Friedman count the Internet as a revolutionary advance that will spread democracy and universalize market values. Under the spell of technology, Golumbia warns us, we can barely recognize the ethical, cultural and political costs of computing, much less address them adequately.
The book is primarily about computationalism—the view that most human and social experiences, and our gravest social ills, can be explained and managed by computational means. For Golumbia, the Western world’s “classification mania” is not merely a maddeningly reductive view of what it means to be human. It is an “ideological program” that has served the interests of authoritarian regimes and technocrats since the time of the Enlightenment. As with any ideology, computationalism is devilishly easy to confuse with common sense, but Golumbia demonstrates an acute awareness of what has been cast aside along the way: linguistic idiosyncrasies that our archiving software will never be able to preserve, human interactions too ambiguous and complex for a spreadsheet cell, and entire fields of study that simply will not compute. A specialist himself in minority and endangered languages, Golumbia may be writing (at least on some level) out of professional and existential dread, but the sweep of his critique makes it difficult to dismiss him as a mere crank or as an academic from a sidelined discipline harboring a grudge. He is no Luddite. Think of him rather as a latter-day Jonathan Swift, minus the wit.
The liveliest chapters in The Cultural Logic of Computation are devoted to skewering The World Is Flat, Friedman’s paean to technology as the great leveler, the bearer of economic opportunities to the world’s poorest laborers, the supporter of prodemocracy uprisings against oppressive regimes. Friedman’s techno-evangelism—his conviction that we are serving the desires of the “people on the ground” around the globe by teaching them the language of the computer—comes at a time when we in the West are telling ourselves “that the era of colonialism has passed,” says Golumbia. Bursting that self-satisfied bubble, he illustrates the ways in which computationalism concentrates power in the transnational corporation, which uses the business software that Friedman extols to establish the most refined, most granular form of “colonial oversight” that the world has ever known. Even “those aspects of culture that may have previously existed outside of official oversight” will soon be reduced to numeric data on a spreadsheet. Meanwhile, the gospel of computationalism is reaching the world’s youth through popular real-time strategy games (Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires, Civilization) that are training the next generation of midlevel managers in the ideology of empire-building through better supply-chain management.
The Cultural Logic of Computation articulates misgivings about the relation between computational power and social engineering that are important and are bound to reach a sympathetic audience. Readers should be prepared, however, for several dry, early chapters that establish the author’s bona fides as a philosophical heir to Michel Foucault in a manner that stamps the work as a tenure book. And there are moments throughout when Golumbia lets his master metaphors get away from him. For example, although the Germans may have relied on early computers and computational methods to expedite their extermination program, Golumbia moves a bit too agilely from the concentration of power evident in centralized computing infrastructures, to Nazi concentration camps, on the strength of a single word.
The irony here is that the author cannot escape the slippages and reductions that come with sustained philosophical arguments, because argumentation must inevitably flatten and smooth away subtle and sometimes profound differences for the sake of simplicity and rhetorical power. If Golumbia cannot quite avoid the “classification mania” that characterizes the computationalist, neither can he eradicate the romantic naturalism and condescension that so often accompany the discourse of multiculturalism. In particular, Golumbia shows a sentimental regard for the poorest peoples of the world, tending to speak for them rather than with them on the subject of their own political or economic self-interest. As Walter Benn Michaels has suggested, the two great liberal preoccupations—the celebration of cultural difference and the fight against (economic) inequality—do not go hand in hand. Diversity can be a “distraction,” as Michaels puts it, when the real problem is economic difference.
From the start of his thought-provoking book, Golumbia is careful to say that his goal is limited to critique; he will not be articulating “an alternative to computationalist presumptions about language, mind, and culture.” In fact, he is hard-pressed to vouch for any constructive form of opposition, particularly from within the world of computer science. He is not sanguine about the chances that the open-source software movement will escape corporate control in the end. Yet he makes no mention of another candidate for resistance from within the computer science world: namely, peer-to-peer networking. It would have been interesting to hear what Golumbia thinks about this subversive effort to bypass the central control of the all-knowing server. If peer-to-peer networking disappoints, might we then look to virtual private networks and encryption software for relief from the Panopticon of corporate surveillance? After all, there is something to be said for giving one’s readers a glimmer of hope that alternatives can be articulated, that resistance may not be entirely futile.
Marilyn Lombardi is director of the Academic and Strategic Technology Initiative at the Duke University School of Nursing and Scholar-in-Residence for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. Her research interests include innovative uses of emerging cyberinfrastructures in support of collaborative research and education.