Review: The Cultural Logic of Computation
Harvard University Press, 2009
In his work The Cultural Logic of Compuatation, David Golumbia explores what he calls "computationalism" in culture. The framework purports the power of computation as a way to understand, address and fix the world that permeates a wide range of areas such as how academic fields have chosen their lines of scholarship, computers are developed and multi-national corporations function. The book is divided into four parts.
Part One and Part Two explore how the idea of computationalism developed and impacted the academy and the development of computers. Golumbia locates the idea of understanding the brain as a computer and therefore language as computation in the work of linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and shows how intellectuals embraced and expanded this theory in fields such as computer science and linguistics. By the 1970s, Chomsky’s theory had become a given and by the 1980s developed into a powerful doctrine that shaped western analytic philosophy, particularly functionalism, which likened the brain to the computer with thinking equated to computation. The brains “psychological states’’ were equated to ”`computational states” and these ideas permeated the academy. As a result, computers could act like the human mind if the right systems and computational languages were developed spurring decades of research particularly in artificial intelligence and natural language processing.
Golumbia does an excellent job walking the reader through how scholars such as Chomsky and Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam (who later retracted and offered a powerful critique) alongside their former student and MIT philosopher Jerry Fodor theorized analytic functionalism focusing in particular on the assumptions that shaped their philosophies and how they impacted the academy. The irony the author shows is that while these intellectuals worked to create a doctrine that effaced the role of culture on the mind and therefore computer, their philosophies were the result of and produced a cultural politics that has shaped the late 20th century. For example, by thinking of computers as “neutral” technology, they have been problematically distributed across the world enforcing western paradigms of computational logic along with a reliance on English, the language of programming. While seen often through the lens of democratic access to technology, Golumbia argues rather that this is a form of globalization that is particularly pernicious due to the guise of scientific neutrality the computer is imagined to possess. It is a colonizing force that dominates other potential logics and asserts a narrative that argues that technology means progress. This point in particular should give humanities scholars pause and it a rich area being opened up for future scholarship (and that many have taken up since the book was published in 2009 particularly in forums such as HASTAC and the efforts to expand DH through the work of post-colonial scholars).
In Part Three and Four, Golumbia looks at how the idea of computation permeates culture and expands top-down, hierarchical power. He explores several areas of how this works. For example, he shows how the games Age of Empires and Civilization are examples of the computationalist view of world history. The goal of the game is to control the world. The player does this by competing for resources to help develop the highest levels of technology in order to dominate and colonize the world. He follows this with a particularly scathing critique of Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat arguing that technology has limited democracy, not expanded it as Friedman states. In fact, the most problematic example is how our faith in technocratic progress has put multinational corporations instead of the nation-state as the central power holder. Rather, these companies have unprecedented data on people that they can use to cater and sell products in service of neoliberal capitalism or sell the data itself. While I agree with the author that multi-national corporations have gained power, recent events involving the surveillance state are an acute reminder of the power of the state. There is plenty of room to explore how government and multi-national corporations are working together. There is no better example than recent events with the NSA augmented by their relationships with companies like Google to run one of the largest spying and data aggregation projects in the world. The NSA is an example of computationalism at its finest. It sees the world as computable hence the focus on data aggregation and computing processing as seen by the large construction of data centers and labor force of data analysts.
How did we let this happen, one might ask. Golumbia argues that the tie between computionalism and rationalism has fed our faith in computers. If our brains at the level of language and syntax are logical and computers are based on the brain, then computers are logical and “neutral.” Like the brain, the computer is a natural tool for providing technological democracy. Such "logic" is exactly the opposite of what Golumbia argues for computers centralize power into the hands of those who shape the hierarchical language of the computer and have the most computing power.
In all, The Cultural Logic of Computation is a rewarding read. It is a dense theoretical work that at times opens up more questions than it satisfactorily answers, but those questions are important for he asks us to shift from technical questions to questions about the role and function of computers in our lives and their political and cultural impact. For all of the talk of "more hack, less yack" in the digital humanities and programming, Golumbia offers a sobering reminder to question what exactly we are hacking. For humanities scholars more generally, this is an important set of questions Golumbia brings to the fore, and for the purposes of HASTAC, an area the collaboratory can proudly say they have been on the cutting edge of.