David Young will round out our Digital Society Seminar series, with a seminar on December 7th (11-1pm | Room CMB Seminar Room 5)

Please note that a reading accompanies this seminar and will be emailed to all MSc in Digital Society students. If you would like a copy of the reading, please email K.gregory@ed.ac.uk to request.

Discipline and Manage: Systems Training and the Human Factor in 1950s U.S. Air Defence

Throughout the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force funded the development of a new continental air defence system called the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE). This system is often a central case study in histories of Cold War computing–it was an important point of origin for a whole array of novel technical concepts that are now fundamental in network communications, software engineering, digital memory, and user interface design. Somewhat less well-known however is its influence on organisational management. Crews were trained to operate SAGE’s complex equipment through a sophisticated programme of scenario role-playing and simulation, warding off fictitious Soviet invasions designed by a team of psychologists at the RAND Corporation. Humans and computers were said to behave like ‘organisms’, learn through ‘feedback’, and self-optimise their ‘information-processing’ capabilities. As their programme developed, these psychologists saw an opportunity to transgress the specificities of air defence, proposing a set of generalised principles for the ‘optimisation’ of human-computer organisations beyond the war room.
Grounded in an analysis of a set of technical manuals and administrative reports produced by RAND scientists, this paper charts the relationship between the technical engineering of an advanced computer system with the operational demands of its end-use. I ask: how did the technical design of the computer system shape the management and training practices developed at RAND? How, and with what effects, were they installed in the ‘live’ command and control centres of SAGE? When it comes to optimisation, what counts? In answering these questions, this paper provides an account of a period when definitions of computing and its associated practices were contoured by geopolitical and institutional exigencies as well as the scientific rationalities of think tanks such as RAND.

David Young is an M3C/AHRC-funded PhD researcher based at the University of Nottingham. His research examines the interplay of technologies, institutional politics and forms of knowledge which contour “command and control” systems and the operational practices which animate them. More broadly, his interests include archiving technologies, the politics of open source software, and the use of ‘experimental’ arts practice to query histories and possible futures of networked media. He has presented at Transmediale, Disruption Network Lab, Edinburgh Arts Festival, V2 Rotterdam, and the Science Gallery Dublin.

Digital Society Calendar
Friday, Sept 28th: Zara Rahman (Data & Society, The Engine Room)
Friday, November 2nd: Natalie Nzeyimana (Oxford Internet Institute)
Friday, November 23rd: David Moats (Linköping University)
Friday, December 7th: Dave Young (University of Nottingham)

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