The Government Machine
A Revolutionary History of the Computer
564 pp., 6 x 9 in, 52 illus.
- Published: December 16, 2016
- Publisher: The MIT Press
- Published: September 26, 2003
- Publisher: The MIT Press
An examination of technology and politics in the evolution of the British "government machine."
In The Government Machine, Jon Agar traces the mechanization of government work in the United Kingdom from the nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. He argues that this transformation has been tied to the rise of "expert movements," groups whose authority has rested on their expertise. The deployment of machines was an attempt to gain control over state action—a revolutionary move. Agar shows how mechanization followed the popular depiction of government as machine-like, with British civil servants cast as components of a general purpose "government machine"; indeed, he argues that today's general purpose computer is the apotheosis of the civil servant.
Over the course of two centuries, government has become the major repository and user of information; the Civil Service itself can be seen as an information-processing entity. Agar argues that the changing capacities of government have depended on the implementation of new technologies, and that the adoption of new technologies has depended on a vision of government and a fundamental model of organization. Thus, to study the history of technology is to study the state, and vice versa.
In this richly detailed and subtly argued study of British bureaucracy since the eighteenth century, Agar shows how mechanization, both discursive and material, gradually transformed the 'machinery of government' from a metaphor to a guiding force. Viewed in that longer historical perspective, the computer takes its place in a line of technologies inspired by a technocratic vision of public administration and designed to extend the informational resources on which it rests. In bringing out historically specific differences between the development of computing in Britain and the United States, Agar provides new ground for discussions of the social forces that have shaped computing and been shaped by it
Michael S. Mahoney, Professor of History, Princeton University
The Government Machine is a major contribution to our understanding of the history of computing. Agar deploys metaphor and analysis like a two-edged sword to cut through two centuries of British bureaucracy and calculation, revealing a striking view of why the computer came to play a central role in politics. I highly recommend this book to anyone who prefers history to hype and analysis to anecdote.
Robert W. Seidel, History of Science & Technology Program, University of Minnesota
John Agar's book provides a compelling analysis of a key element of the modern era: the systematic operation of government. It is an important work, and it provides new theories of how governments gave us the metaphor of organization as machine and adopted systematic procedures, statistical methods and electronic computers.
David Alan Grier, Associate Professor of Computer Science and International Affairs, George Washington University