Do computers by definition set us free? Advocates make sweeping claims for their inherently transformative power: new and different from previous technologies, their widespread use constitutes a fundamental shift in our orientation towards established power, and by their very existence they effect positive political change in an “open,” “democratic” direction. Just keep in mind that the people who hold real power are probably OK with you thinking that.
In The Cultural Logic of Computation, David Golumbia, software-design veteran turned Professor of English, Media Studies, and Linguistics at the University of Virginia, confronts this orthodoxy, arguing instead that computers are cultural “all the way down”—that there is no part of the apparent technological transformation that is not shaped by historical and cultural processes, or that escapes existing cultural politics. From the perspective of transnational corporations and governments, computers enable the exercise of already-existing power much more fully than they provide the masses with means to distribute or contest it. Despite this, our thinking about computers has ossified into an ideology, nearly invisible in its ubiquity, that Golumbia dubs “computationalism”—an ideology that shapes our thinking not just about computers, but about economic and social trends as sweeping as globalization.
Driven by a programmer’s knowledge of computers as well as by a deep engagement with contemporary literary and cultural studies and poststructuralist theory, The Cultural Logic of Computation establishes a forceful and considered corrective to the glib, uncritical enthusiasm for computers that dominates the popular cultural discourse around them.
A couple of quick takes on the book:
Golumbia's argument is that contemporary Western and Westernizing culture is deeply structured by forms of hierarchy and control that have their origins in the development and use of computers over the last 50 years. I look forward to pressing this book on friends and colleagues, starting with anyone who has ever recommended The World is Flat to me. (Lisa Gitelman, author of Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture)
The Cultural Logic of Computation is a fascinating and wise book. It takes us with great care through the history of the computational imagination and logic, from Hobbes and Leibniz to blogging and corporate practice. Its range includes the philosophy of computation, the ideology of the digital revolution, the important areas of children’s education and education in general and glimpses of brilliant literary insight. Required reading for the responsible citizen. (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)
||| The Cultural Logic of Computation is available now.