Friday, June 27, 2008
"Now the world is full of distractions - lovely women, music, French movies, bowling alleys and bars - but Coverly lacked the vitality or the imagination to distract himself." This is perhaps the point where pre-war modernist experimentation, political radicalism, and formalism are firmly replaced (for the better, but mostly for the worse) by style and "writerly writing," plus an upper-middle class setting and sensibility. How you feel about this book comes down to how you understand Cheever's "humanism." Cheever's breathless sentences and swift plot aim for a generic (and completely reified) humanity rather than subjective depth: his characters feel less like distinct personalities than types running through the grand motions of "humanity." As skeptical as I am of this project, it must be admitted the novel does some cultural work by processing modern topics through this generic framework, so that even when Coverly Wapshot takes courses on cybernetics and becomes a computer "Taper" for the rocket program, the novel treats Coverly no different than if he were a blacksmith in a Dickens novel. More interesting to me are the faux-experimental sections when, with the exile of his sons, old Leander Wapshot retreats entirely from modernity and begins to keep a journal in the 19th-century style: "all punctuation marks, prepositions, adverbs, articles, etc., at end of communication and urged reader to distribute same as he saw fit."
Thursday, June 26, 2008
"[O]rganizational functions, events and processes have been so extensively informated – converted into and displayed as information – that the technology can be said to have ‘textualized’ the organizational environment." A Foucauldian study of the effects of computers on business organizations and the nature of work, Zuboff's book describes how management and white- and blue-collar workers respond to and are affected by information technologies. She provides one of the best of the many summaries of Taylorism and scientific management, and then positions computer technology as a potential extension of Taylorism or its replacement. Her key innovation is the idea of "informating," in which the automation of processes also produces information about those processes that can be observed and used. Zuboff sees informating as providing an alternative to the total automatization of the workplace, which would reduce workers to dumb, passive drones tied to the machine, and claims that informating presents the opportunity for workers to gain more intellectual responsibilities and freedom. Yet she also is aware that informating presents for management the chance for an "information Panopticon" and ever greater surveillance of the activities of workers.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
"[H]e tried to think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke." Mailer narrates his experience in the 1967 march on the Pentagon, a "symbolic" battle against Vietnam and what Mailer calls "corporate land" and "technology land." First is the Novel as History, limited to narrating Mailer's personal participation in the march, followed by History as Novel, in which Mailer builds himself a "tower" to get a better view of the events he was immersed in. Mailer describes himself here as a "liberal conservative," an openly oxymoronic position from which he displays antagonism to all sides of the political spectrum. His racial and sexual ideas remain atrocious and deserving of all the criticisms that have been flung at them. Yet one is left feeling such attacks remain a bit too simple because they tend to assume that they have an overview of the political in which they can firmly place themselves; Mailer seems to be less assured than his critics here, continuously revising or negating his previous conclusions about the different political factions surrounding him, dramatizing what it means to be truly "lost" in the political.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
A companion book to Cohen's biography of Aiken that collects important papers and interviews about Aiken and the Mark I. What is suprising is how vague and almost banal Aiken's original proposal, reprinted here, is. It does little more than suggest how existing IBM punched card machines could perform complex calculations with the help of a paper tape controlling mechanism. More interesting is an article by one of the original programmers, Richard Bloch, who describes how frustrating the lack of conditional branching was. In the Mark I's original form, something like conditional branching could only be simulated by a special register that would stop the calculation if its product was within some pre-determined range. Then the human operator would step in and manually change the program onto a different branch. This wasn't much better than the previous method of having humans physically move the results of one punched card machine on to another one that performed a diffrent arithmetic operation.
Howard Aiken originated the idea for and helped produce the ASCC/Harvard Mark I. The Mark I was basically a collection of modified adding machines and perhaps the first general purpose computer. It was, unfortunately, electromechanical, not electronic, and had rotating mechanical parts that kept it within the realm of industrial machines. It could be programmed by paper tape, so it was flexible in its use, but those programs could not be modified while they ran - the machine lacked conditional branching and the cybernetic ability to modify its operations in process based on the results produced. This book recounts Aiken's biography and the development of the machine. It dwells primarily on the conflict that arose between Aiken and IBM over credit for the Mark I. IBM contributed hardware and its engineers did the construction, yet the original press releases for the machine gave too much credit to Aiken. It aslo addresses the place of the Mark I in the genealogy of computers. The machine was groundbreaking in its programming through paper tape, yet Aiken resisted for many years the idea of stored memory and the machine was a bit archaic in its mechanical parts.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Journalism as history, fascinating as narrative but empty of analysis. Halberstam's formula is to take a major figure of the 1950s, describe their rise to fame, then leap to their earlier biography (and preferably emphasize how different their life was in the 1930s) and finish by pointing to their future in the 1960s (where even Halberstam seems to believe the real events occurred). Light gestures towards economics, institutions, and global politics merely cover that these foundations are not actually addressed, though they are key to understanding the decade. There are also too many empty McLuhan-esque commentaries on how television and the mass media changed everything, in particular the realm of politics. Still, the sheer size and breadth of this book, the quantity of figures presented, makes this book helpful in gaining a thorough familiarity with the celebrities (media and political) of the period.
Friday, June 20, 2008
Contributing one of the most widely used terms of contemporary theory ("late capitalism") and yet rarely read, Mandel's book remains perhaps the last great work of "pure" Marxism (as in holding steadfastly to Marx's original texts). When discussing the "third technological revolution," characterized by the control of machines through electronic devices such as computers, Mandel asserts, "Capitalism is incompatible with fully automated production in the whole of industry and agriculture, because this no longer allows the creation of surplus-value or valorization of capital." A future without work cannot happen under the capitalist system because a fully automated system would not allow the extraction of surplus-value from the worker's labor. A fully automated system might produce an abundance of goods for everyone, but under capitalism it would be unable to provide both surplus value and strong wages;instead it would cause a breakdown in the fundamental capitalist relation. Therefore capitalism's historical success at quantitatively increasing productivity will not on its own eliminate the need for work.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was the first general purpose, electronic computer. Built during 1943-45, its first calculation was for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Although it could be programmed in different ways, it did not store programs in its electronic memory. Through what was called "direct programming," the machine had to have each unit modified by flipping switches and then wired to the other units, a laborious task performed by the women who worked at the Moore School. McCartney, a Wall Street Journal writer, presents in this book a pop history of the ENIAC's development, ripe with sentiment and drama. McCartney explcitily aims to restore credit to Eckert & Mauchly for inventing the computer, acting as a counterpoint to Goldstine's book. This story and argument have been more authortatively addressed elsewhere. The only things of value here are the original interviews and details from Eckert & Mauchly's personal papers as well as the attempt to portray the personalities of the computer pioneers.
An older history of computing (1972), deliberately ending with the first generation of commercial mainframe computers. The book remains of interest because Goldstine was involved in military research on computing during WW II, and therefore had an insider's view. He was a member of the Moore School team that developed the ENIAC and, with his wife, Adele, he authored one of the first public technical reports on the ENIAC. As the title indicates, he admired von Neumann and sided with him against Eckert & Mauchly in the dispute over who "invented" the computer. As a result, the book functions less as an objective history than as a narrative of events at the Moore School and as an argument for the importance of the von Neumann/stored-memory logic that many now use to define the computer. What the first computer was and who invented it remain contested points, so all of the histories of computing exhibit a bias, though few of these books exhibit a bias as great as Goldstine's. Only by reading multiple histories does it become clear where the omissions are or which claims are not absolute, making writing on mainframes a difficult task.
Having served its purpose perhaps too well, Mills' book may appear as common sense to contemporary readers. What it still offers is Mills' virtuosic style and endless quotability. Mills takes liberties in describing modern society as "The Enormous File" and bureaucracies as "Brains, Inc.," and opens the book with a description of the middle-class silently coming on stage as the major actors in a "history without events." It is as if Mills compensates for the banality and post-heroic character of his subject (as well as the institutionalization of the intellectual, which includes himself) with a showy performance of his own writing talents. Mills' diluted Marxist framework displays affinities with that developed by the Frankfurt school (especially on the rationalization of the production of culture, the division of work and leisure, and the ideologies of capitalism). Fortunately, he consistently shows how reality only approximates the culture industry, hybridizing different historical and cultural forms.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
How and why did the computer develop so quickly from the 1940s to the 1960s? According to Cortada, we cannot attribute this swift emergence of the computer merely to the ideas and inventors behind it. Any technological invention/commodity can only be widely adopted because of information networks, recognized business potentials, and financial imperatives. Cortada, a student of Alfred Chandler, slowly traces the distribution of information about the computer among scientists, businessmen, and finally the public. He also traces the ways different businesses, from large corporations like IBM and Remington Rand, to small start-ups lacking in capital took up the potential market of the computer. This makes for some dry reading filled with long sections of banality (how much info do we need on accounting trade journals?); but Cortada's book is helpful in stepping back from the mystique of the computer (i.e. that the brilliance of the idea simply promoted itself into ubiquity) and examine the practical, material, and economic circumstances that had to occur before the computer could achieve its current success.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
The chapters on finance are some of the most fecund in all of Marx's work; in them one can find the outline of the ideas later worked out by Berle & Means (separation of ownership and management), Alfred Chandler (the development of the hierarchical organization and control of the market), and Joseph Schumpeter (the destruction of capitalism within capitalism). As the economy collapses, Marx's rants against the "insane forms" of "fictitious" capital are worth re-reading. In a lesson that each generation seems to need to re-learn, Marx shows how money capital is fetishized as a "self-valorizing value," where money seems to generate money "automatically" through the form: M-M'. But this "mystification" erases the steps of production which necessarily mediate the generation of surplus value or profit. Marx also insightfully shows how new forms of property, most importantly the stock of corporations, duplicate real capital without giving control over that capital, leading to a market of paper value that can rise and fall without reference to actual changes in production.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
The source of the infamous argument about "creative destruction," the book spends more time presenting a kind of conservative Marxism, in which socialism is not achieved as the result of capitalist contradictions fueling a socialist revolution, but rather as the result of the success of capitalism draining itself of the creative sources and institutional supports it requires, leaving the field open and prepared for socialism. Much of Schumpeter's theory relies on his extolling of the entrepreneur, who serves the vital function of innovation. Echoing Max Weber, Schumpeter sees the success of large, bureaucratic organizations as automatizing the function of the executive and socializing property to an extent that it no longer serves the same motivating role. The entrepreneur gives way to the bureaucracy or technocratic manager, which then easily gives way to socialist ownership. The revival of interest in Schumpeter's work in writings on post-Fordist firms relies on the re-emergence of the entrepreneur as the corporate strategist in the flexible firm. Once Weber's grand narrative of the culmination of Western business/society in the rigid bureaucracy crumbled, Schumpeter's history also seemed reversible, and the entrepreneur could once again appear at the helm of the progressive business.
The foundation of the Marxist regulation school of economics. Aglietta argues that capitalism's development of productive forces is inherently unstable and leads to crises. Capitalism therefore relies on historically contingent modes of regulation in order to achieve a coherent form or regime of accumulation. A mode of regulation acts as a set of mediations that allow accumulation to continue in a regular manner and for capitalism to take a form compatible with the demands of a society. Much of the book focuses on Fordism, which formed a coherent articulation of intensive accumulation through mass production and raised levels of consumption among workers. Aglietta writes in the midst of the turn towards post-Fordism, which he sees as the result of the breakdown of the Fordist mode of regulation. Perhaps the book's key innovation is the addition of a high level of contingency into Marxist theory. Aglietta not only sees capitalism changing over time, but also does not reduce those changes to an inevitable teleology of capital. Mediating mechanisms such as corporations, government regulations, different distributions of profit between capitalists and workers cannot be deduced from any axiom of capital.