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Paperback | $34.95 Trade | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780262550284 | 462 pp. | 6 x 9 in | August 1997

The Closed World

Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America


The Closed World offers a radically new alternative to the canonical histories of computers and cognitive science. Integrating political, cultural, and technological history, it argues that we can make sense of computers as tools only when we simultaneously grasp their roles as metaphors and political icons.

In this extended exploration of the relations of science and engineering to the evolution of modern society, Paul Edwards argues that what people have said, thought, and experienced through computers—as reflections of the nature of their minds; as solutions to political, commercial, and military problems; as icons of rationality—is as significant as anything computers have actually accomplished. Social and cultural context has shaped the growth of computer technology as much as it has been shaped by it.


About the Author

Paul N. Edwards is Professor in the School of Information and the Department of History at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1996) and a coeditor (with Clark Miller) of Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance (2001), both published by the MIT Press.


"The Closed World is astonishing. One of the most important books ofthe 20th century." —Howard Rheingold, editor, Whole Earth Review

"A fascinating glimpse into the history of computing and a cogentreminder of the extent to which this history continues to inform ourvision of the future." —Grant Kester, The Nation


“What is the social role of the computer? Scholars have approached this question from a broad range of vantages—the history and sociology of technology, cultural studies of the Cold War, critical theory. What many readers have awaited is the kind of creative synthesis that integrates these very different approaches and points us toward a more expansive realm of inquiry. Paul Edwards has started us on that path. He offers great originality, unshackles erudition from jargon, and releases the insights of a variety of academic disciplines from the compartments that so often limit their interplay. Readers from many quarters will be grateful for the clarity and sweep of this exciting book.”
Michael Smith, Professor of History, University of California, Davis

The Closed World brilliantly re-envisions the role of computer in post-World War II American history and society by simultaneously situating them as metaphors, technological artifacts enabling the formation and pursuit of Cold War politics, and conceptual thinking machines. The many discourses The Closed World marshals and analyzes make it a richly provocative work that anyone interested in computers, cyborgs, or the Cold War must read.”
N. Katherine Hayles, Professor of English, University of California, Los Angeles

“In his brilliant interweaving of the history and culture of computing, Paul Edwards reveals a wealth of tantalizing links and interactions between computers as technology and computers as mythology. He shows how both the development and the understanding of a technology are deeply rooted in political and social concerns, and he offers a thought-provoking interpretation of our life with computers from a new perspective.”
Terry Winograd, Professor of Computer Science, Stanford University

“Paul Edwards, in this wide-ranging introduction to postmodern technology, boldly argues that computer metaphors, as well as computer tools, invasively shape our intellectual spaces: films like Bladerunner become, for him, extended computer metaphors; cognitive psychology depends on computer analogies; and the Gulf War takes on the characteristics of a virtual-reality video game.”
Thomas P. Hughes, Visiting Professor, MIT and Mellon Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania