Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Atsushi Akera: Calculating a Natural World (2007)
"[T]he intensity of technological innovation during the Cold War years resulted neither from military foresight nor from academic influence, but rather from a fundamental pluralism in the demands that were placed upon research. The different aims and objectives of military, academic, and commercial institutions not only drew researchers in these three directions but also created a language of needs, interests, opportunities, and priorities that opened up many avenues of research." Akera's book surveys the early decades of electronic computing from the perspective of constructivist sociology and actor-network theory. Avoiding functionalist explanations and grand narratives, Akera pulls apart the concept of a Cold War military-industrial complex by immersing himself in the contingent details of early research into electronic computing. Contrary to those who claim the military was the "origin" of the computer (and hence its essence), Akera demonstrates the fundamental plurality of institutions, goals, and backgrounds present at the birth of the computer and throughout the Cold War. While military funding may have been decisive in the last instance in getting the computer built, the practices, management pressures, and goals of research varied widely in each institutional context. Because computing was not initially a unifed field, individuals from different educational backgrounds, professional occupations, and Cold War institutions also all left their mark on the history of the computer. One of Akera's goals is to trace the creation of stable professions, networks of information, and disciplines for computing from within this pluralistic institutional chaos. Burdened by the need to prove the strength of constructivist history, Akera deliberately attempts to make the book as eclectic in method and focus as possible, devoting chapters to examining how everything from institutions, individual biographies, changing professions, academic disciplines, and technical difficulties all contingently affected the development of mainframe computers. In the levelled ontology of the actor-network theory he deploys, everything is potentially of equal value for explaining the history of computing (which may explain why the chapters get too bogged down in a glut of information, since any principle of exclusion is made difficult to uphold by ANT). Akera begins by examining the "ecology of knowledge" that existed in pre-war research, interprets how the biography of John Mauchly helps us think about the ENIAC, and describes how John von Neumann eventually became the center of postwar knowledge or ideas about computing. He goes on to examine how the National Bureau of Standards (which acquired machines for other government agencies such as the Census) was a major player in early computing and analyze the management difficulties Jay Forrester faced in developing the Whirlwind computer at MIT. Akera describes how IBM's Applied Science men attempted to sell computers to scientists through informal networking, as well as how the IBM Users' Group Share distributed the cost of early programming throughout a voluntary group and assisted in the professionalization of programming and systems experts. Akera concludes by comparing the development of computing center as MIT and the University of Michigan, the elite science institution and the state educational one, contrasting the divergent paths research into computing took at each.