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1999.11.09. - Felix Stalder, Computers as conservative technologies

Subject: Computers as conservative technologies
From: Felix Stalder
Date: Tue, 9 Nov 1999 10:56:00 -0500

We are used to associate with computers concepts like 'new' or 'revolution.' We tend to believe that we live in times of unprecedented change, driven by technology; that old knowledge is obsolete, old thinking is bad. But this obsessive concern with the now and the next ten minutes, limits the attention to the surface while underneath it, the currents might flow in a somewhat different direction.

Joseph Weizenbaum, in a book on the social impact of computers written nearly 25 years ago, described computers as a fundamentally conservative technology. This still seems apt in many ways. After all, is there really so much difference between Walmart and amazon.com?

"Many of the problems of growth and complexity that pressed insistently and irresistibly during the postwar decades could have served as incentives for political innovation....Yet, the computer did arrive 'just in time.' But in time for what? In time to save--and to save very nearly intact, indeed, to entrench and stabilize--social and political structures that otherwise might have been either radically renovated or allowed to totter under the demands that were sure to be made on them. The computer, then, was used to conserve America's social and political institutions. It buttressed them and immunized them, at least temporarily, against enormous pressure for change. Its influence has been substantially the same in other societies that have allowed the computer to make substantial inroads upon their institutions: Japan and Germany immediately come to mind." (p.31)

Weizenbaum, Joseph (1976). Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company

Weizenbaum, a MIT computer scientist, is best known for his 1965 development of ELIZA, a computer program that could emulate a psychiatrist in a basic conversation with a patient.

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