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ELIZA the more than mechanical therapist
Caroline Bassett

This chapters asks what happens when technophilia falls out with its object. It tells the story of ELIZA, an early chatbot developed by the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum as a rudimentary artificial therapist. The reception accorded to ELIZA and what it might presage led Weizenbaum to reappraise his thinking on artificial intelligence and human reason and to call for limits to the expansion of computational thinking in human culture and society. This chapter explores these arguments by focusing in particular on the question of the therapeutic – set aside by Weizenbaum and yet central to questions about the limits of computational reason and computational being.

Contemporary discussions of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the increasing use of bots in everyday life resonate with these issues, while the contemporary rehabilitation of behaviourism produces once again a demand to consider the tensions between modulation (computational nudges, for instance) and forms of therapy based on an increase in the individual capacity for decision making.

in Anti-computing
A distant reading of the contemporary moment
Caroline Bassett

This chapter maps out the landscape of the current moment of anti-computing through an informal experiment in a form of distant reading drawing on digital humanities methods and approaches. Using a machine-recommendation system, it identifies over sixty publications linked to anti-computing themes which together point to the outlines of the contemporary anti-computing moment. This is explored for itself, but is also considered in relation to earlier forms, and specifically in relation to the earlier and more general taxonomy – enabling identification of new categories of dissent, new elisions and dominant forms, and the recurrence of older tropes. Identifying accelerating tendencies to respond to anxiety and hostility to computational saturation with personal ‘cures’ rather than with demands for political or public responses, it then returns to consideration of what might constitute a fully critical mode of anti-computing, this latter constituting the conclusion of the work.

in Anti-computing
Open Access (free)
How anti-computing time-travels
Caroline Bassett

This chapter considers the temporal dynamics of anti-computing, focusing on the tendency of tropes of dissent and anxiety around the computational to rise and fall but also to return and trouble the present. The goal of the chapter is to produce a form of thinking the technological that is apt for the consideration of anti-computing formations – taking cognisance both of their material underpinnings and the ideological heft of computational capitalism and its claim to be compulsory. The route taken goes first by way of a critical but appreciative engagement with media archaeology, approached by way of Foucault’s discussion of the sleep of history. Media archaeological approaches, drawing on this, but exchanging the document for the technical material, and focusing on disjuncture and on non-linear accounts are then explored, and deployed to develop a sense of anti-computing as non-continuous but recurrent.

The focus then shifts to consider systemic factors that media archaeology largely sets aside in its concentration on the material effects of technical media; this demands a consideration of anti-computing as a formation produced by and within computational capitalism – and produces the conundrum of resistance within what has become compulsory. Finding a way through these conflicts it is argued that anti-computing itself can present a challenge to strongly new materialist forms of media archaeology whilst also making evident the need for forms of cultural materialism that continue to reach beyond representation and that find new ways to grapple with the specificity of digital media.

in Anti-computing
Treachery, the archive, and the database
Caroline Bassett

Drawing on the Harvey Matusow Archive at the University of Sussex, this chapter undertakes a medium-theoretical analysis of the life of Matusow, a Communist Party member, a McCarthyite informer, and a man who recanted. In later life Matusow, who understood the destructive power of lists and databases, became a vocal opponent of computers and of the database society, founding an anti-computing league to fight against the tyranny of the automated sort and the automated cache. At one point he claimed as many league members as there were computers in England. Drawing on documents from the archive, this chapter tells an anti-computing story with medium transformation, mediatization, and the politics of automated identity and witnessing at its heart. It plays into the present as an early iteration of database anxiety, and haunts partly because it foreshadows the dangerous mixture of ignorance, incompetence, and authoritarian malice that characterized dealings around the Snowden events.

in Anti-computing
Open Access (free)
Arendt, automation, and the cybercultural revolution
Caroline Bassett

The first Cybercultural Conference was held in New York in the mid-1960s and took as its subject cybernation and the evolving society. Focusing on cybernation and calls for the end of wage holding, it drew heavily on a report exploring the Triple Revolution of automation, weaponry, and rights. It brought together individuals from the liberal and radical left, unions and civil rights groupings, the new tech industry – and Hannah Arendt, who was a speaker at the conference.

Arendt’s intervention set out arguments developed in her major work On the Human Condition to a committed audience with its own entrenched positions, at the moment of the cybernation scare. Against the cybernation optimists, she argued that the coming leisure society would not produce cultural flourishing but introduce a form of life characterized by deadly and endless passivity. This chapter considers Arendt’s paper, asks how it relates to other positions emerging at the conference, including those that demanded that attention be paid to the politics of transition, and uses it to refocus issues concerning media technologies as they arise in Arendt’s thinking more generally.

An exploration of the stakes of the early cybernation debates, and of Arendt’s position within them, opens up questions of computation, leisure, and the end of work, finding new salience today as political questions around automation accelerate.

in Anti-computing
Two Cultures and a hat
Caroline Bassett

The Two Cultures debate produced a furore in the modernizing era of the early to mid-1960s. The scientist C.P. Snow’s diagnosis of a cleavage that should be healed between the sciences and the arts is still widely invoked. Less well remembered is that his protagonist F.R. Leavis also argued for the benefits of one culture; not the one arising out of a capitulation to technologically administered utilitarianism, but the culture he discerned within a tradition of community, largely lost in everyday life, but held in the English language and in its literature.

This chapter engages with Leavis’ arguments. The mode of radical liberalism Leavis espoused in the journal Scrutiny in the early to mid-20th century produced a response to technology far from technological optimism, but also distanced from Marxist critiques of technocratic rationality. This radicalism is hopelessly tarnished by the chauvinistic nationalism that framed and constrained it, which became increasingly marked in later years. However, Francis Mulhern, amongst others, has convincingly argued for a more nuanced reading of Leavis and the ‘moment of scrutiny’, and this prompts a re-reading of Leavis’ thinking around the specifically technological and a reappraisal of the position he took at the time of the Two Cultures debate.

The combinatory force of an attachment to nation, a distrust of technocratic forms of knowledge and its claims to universality, and a moment of technological expansion, has been felt in disturbing ways in recent years – notably around the new chauvinism of the Right.

in Anti-computing
Science fiction, singularity, and the flesh
Caroline Bassett

This chapter explores singularity as a posited artificial intelligence future, with particular focus on the rise of various forms of post-human or anti-human being and native artificial intelligences, engaging with writings from three waves of science fiction, each of which judges various forms of life.

Science fiction has long dealt in artificial intelligence, singularity, and the computational. Claiming a privileged relationship to the technological future, it explores, invents, and/or speculates on possible forms of life. Further, it can care about these lives in particularly intense ways, making it ideal grounds for exploring claims for and prospects for emerging forms of artificial being.

Recognizing the tendency of utopian and dystopian accounts to reverse their charge, this chapter avoids polemical accounts (of artificial intelligence ‘life’ as simply for the good or as evil, for instance). The chapter explores aspects of the anti-computational, and considers judgements made on new forms of life, through the more ambiguous explorations of fictional future being in works by Gibson, Piercy, Mieville, and Rajaniemi spanning from the 1980s to the contemporary moment.

in Anti-computing
Lessons Learned from an Intervention by Médecins Sans Frontières
Maria Ximena Di Lollo, Elena Estrada Cocina, Francisco De Bartolome Gisbert, Raquel González Juarez, and Ana Garcia Mingo

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, it rapidly became apparent that older individuals were at greater risk of serious illness and death. The risk was even greater for residents in care homes, who live in close proximity and may be suffering other comorbidities. Such facilities also saw a high turnover of staff and visitors, meaning an increased risk of transmission. Data has suggested that care home residents may account for up to a half of all COVID-related deaths in Spain.

As morbidity and mortality for COVID-19 was increasing in March 2020, MSF offered support to Spanish care homes during the first wave of infections. Our intervention included different axes: advocacy, knowledge sharing, training and implementation of measures for a reduction in transmission and for infection prevention and control (IPC).

The situation for care home residents was dire, with many people dying alone, away from loved ones and without access to palliative care. Staff were overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with the scale and complexity of this tragedy.

Although technical interventions to reduce transmission were crucial, it became clear that other people-centred activities that supported residents, their families and staff, were of equal importance, including facilitating contact between families, providing emotional support and offering adequate pain management and palliative care.

Residents in care homes have the same rights as everyone else. In the event of future crises, the most vulnerable should not be neglected.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
A Realistic Ambition?
Pierre Mendiharat, Elba Rahmouni, and Léon Salumu

Despite a concerted international effort in recent decades that has yielded significant progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the disease continues to kill large numbers of people. Although there is still no definitive cure or vaccine, UNAIDS has set an ambitious goal of ending the epidemic by 2030, specifically via its 90-90-90 (‘treatment cascade’) strategy – namely that 90 per cent of those with HIV will know their status, 90 per cent of those who know their status will be on antiretroviral therapy and 90 per cent of those on antiretroviral therapy will have an undetectable viral load. These bold assumptions were put to the test in a five-year pilot project launched in June 2014 by MSF and Kenya’s Ministry of Health in Ndhiwa district, where an initial NHIPS 1 study by Epicentre (MSF’s epidemiology centre) in 2012 revealed some of the world’s highest HIV incidence and prevalence, and a poor treatment cascade. Six years later, a new Epicentre study, NHIPS 2, showed that the 90-90-90 target had been more than met. What explains this ‘success’? And given the still-high incidence, is it truly a success? MSF Deputy Director of Operations Pierre Mendiharat and physician Léon Salumu, Head of MSF France Kenya programmes, discuss the political, scientific and operational challenges of the Ndhiwa project in an interview conducted by Elba Rahmouni.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Open Access (free)
The Politics of Infectious Disease
Duncan McLean and Michaël Neuman
Journal of Humanitarian Affairs