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Dissent and the machine

Anti-computing explores forgotten histories and contemporary forms of dissent – moments when the imposition of computational technologies, logics, techniques, imaginaries, utopias have been questioned, disputed, or refused. It also asks why these moments tend to be forgotten. What is it about computational capitalism that means we live so much in the present? What has this to do with computational logics and practices themselves?

This book addresses these issues through a critical engagement with media archaeology and medium theory and by way of a series of original studies; exploring Hannah Arendt and early automation anxiety, witnessing and the database, Two Cultures from the inside out, bot fear, singularity and/as science fiction. Finally, it returns to remap long-standing concerns against new forms of dissent, hostility, and automation anxiety, producing a distant reading of contemporary hostility.

At once an acute response to urgent concerns around toxic digital cultures, an accounting with media archaeology as a mode of medium theory, and a series of original and methodologically fluid case studies, this book crosses an interdisciplinary research field including cultural studies, media studies, medium studies, critical theory, literary and science fiction studies, media archaeology, medium theory, cultural history, technology history.

Narrative and new media

This book is a defence of narrative in an age of information. Stressing interpretation and experience alongside affect and sensation, it argues that narrative is key to contemporary forms of cultural production and to the practice of contemporary life. Re-appraising the prospects for narrative in the digital age, the book insists on the centrality of narrative to informational culture and provokes a critical re-appraisal of how innovations in information technology as a material cultural form can be understood and assessed. It offers a careful exploration of narrative theory, a critique of techno-cultural writing, and a series of tightly focused case studies. All of which point the way to a restoration of a critical — rather than celebratory — approach to new media.

Open Access (free)
A provisional taxonomy
Caroline Bassett

In this chapter anti-computing is introduced, being explored from two connected directions.

First it is defined as a series of dissenting responses to computerization, and its social or cultural impacts which have arisen since the 1950s are identified. What these share is that that they refuse the powerful and teleologically inspired myth that computational progress automatically constitutes progress in general, or in common. Dissent takes heterogeneous forms, operates in different registers, and rarely fully succeeds, since digitalization continues to expand its reach globally and at expanding scales – but it persists and rearises, older arguments finding new salience in relation to developing events.

Responding to this anti-computing is elaborated as a critical theoretical approach drawing on media archaeology, media theory, and media history, constituting a means through which computational dissent, found ‘on the ground’ or ‘in theory’ can be explored. In the final third of the chapter this approach begins to be operationalized; a series of provisional taxonomies of anti-computing being generated and briefly explored.

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
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
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
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