A fascinating account that links “the sociology and history of science and technology, […] post-structuralist critical theorists, […] philosophical studies of artificial intelligence, [… and] the interpretive sociology of computer communities” (Edwards, p. xviii), The Close World demonstrates how computers and technological change served as a means to achieve military objectives during the Cold War Era, and in so doing they had larger, unsuspected performative effects on scientific development, political discourses, subjectivity formation and popular culture in America and the capitalist bloc.
The Close World is a superb case study of how to study rationalization and subjectification in a field with a “fundamental experience” (Foucault p. 779), that being cognition and the “human-machine integration” problem (Edwards, p. 1). The book offers a most pertinent example of how interdisciplinarity helps tackle both material and cultural aspects in historical works. By understanding computers as machines and metaphors, and by advancing the closed-world concept as a “closed system, rationally ordered to produce carefully defined outputs […] not only military but rhetorical” (Edwards p. 6), the author offers a compelling case of how rigid disciplinary divisions cannot guide the craft of history. A specialized approach would have disembedded the economic, cultural, military, technological and political aspects that Edwards manages to bring together superbly, illuminating our understanding of the Cold War era by demonstrating the need to study capitalism as a complex, globalizing system that was at the time threatened by the emergence and relative success of socialism. The Closed World embeds technology and its symbolism as fundamental parts of “the social process” (Edwards, p. 40)
The Closed World becomes an enclosing, encompassing analytical framework to study in depth the logic and dynamics of containment and anticommunism policies. The United States might be the geographic area studied by Edwards, however, the forcefulness of his argument, the representativity of the phenomenon he observes, and the richness of the book’s theoretical foundations, could make this book to be included in several fields, those of American, international and transnational history, intellectual history as well as the history of technology and science. I found Edward’s book to offer elements to explain of the theoretical impact of structures, large(r)-scale approaches, social science insights and quantitative methods in different historiographical traditions, namely social and economic history during the 1960s and 1970s.
This is among the best readings we have had in the course so far, and I cannot help but thank Edwards for providing a way to approach and historicize pop culture and science fiction, notwithstanding the fact that his book proves to be relevant to understand the lack of “integrity and authenticity” (Edwards, p. 364) in our present time. Published in 1996, The Closed World turned out to be prescient of the problems riddling our generation. We are in front of an enduring, firmly grounded and captivating narrative, history as it should be.