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Abstracts for Twentieth Century Think Tank

The Twentieth Century Think Tank offers broad coverage of 20th- and 21st-century topics in the history, philosophy and sociology of science, technology and medicine. The regular programme of papers and discussions takes place on Thursdays over lunch.

Think Tank meetings are held fortnightly on Thursdays, 1–2pm in Seminar Room 2. All welcome!

Organised by Mary Brazelton and Richard Staley.

Michaelmas Term 2019

Show overview

17 October Michael Barany (University of Edinburgh)
Making a name in mid-century mathematics: individuals, institutions and the open secret of Nicolas Bourbaki
In 1948, the American Mathematical Society received an application for membership from Nicolas Bourbaki, the pen name of a radical group of French mathematicians then rewriting the foundations of modern mathematics. While that application was quietly dismissed, a second application a year later and the correspondence it provoked together expose significant fault lines beneath the Americans' efforts to lead an international discipline in the wake of World War II. This article draws on a wide range of archival sources to situate Bourbaki's applications amidst the distinctive ways mathematicians established subjective identities in interaction with professional institutions in the mid-20th century. I show how Bourbaki's advocates parodied the period's norms of identification, exploiting newly important ambiguities and challenging newly reconfigured power structures in mathematicians' postwar disciplinary practice. The group's status as an open secret allowed its members to take special advantage of their new disciplinary circumstances while propounding an aggressively transgressive intellectual programme. I close by developing a tension – between individuals and institutions – made more or less explicit in Bourbaki's applications and the responses to it, which sheds new light on recent understandings of subjectivity and embodiment in the history and sociology of modern science.
31 October Arathi Sriprakash and Peter Sutoris (Faculty of Education, Cambridge)
The science of childhood: postcolonial development in India, 1950s
In this paper we examine how, in the decade following India's independence, the psychology of childhood became a locus of experimentation, and an avenue through which approaches to postcolonial development were expressed. Tracing the ideas of educational reformers, psychological researchers and child welfare advocates, we show how a 'science of childhood' in this period emphasised both the inherent potential and the emotional complexity of India's young citizens. However, while identifying this potential, these actors at times circumscribed it by deploying culturalist assumptions about Indian childhood that were linked to a teleology of the new nation state. These were ideas that shaped a 'pedagogic' approach to postcolonial modernisation. Nation‐building was not just a technocratic undertaking, but an educative project that was scientific, spiritual and therapeutic in orientation. We reflect on the need for a greater attention to the pedagogy of the state in analyses of past and present state‐citizen relations.
14 November Sarah Dillon (Faculty of English, Cambridge)
'The Ineradicable Eliza Effect and Its Dangers': Weizenbaum, Pygmalion and the implications of gendering AI
Preface 4 of Douglas Hofstadter's Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models and the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought (1995) is entitled 'The Ineradicable Eliza Effect and Its Dangers'. Hofstadter defines the Eliza effect as an 'illusion', 'which could be defined as the susceptibility of people to read far more understanding than is warranted into strings of symbols – especially words – strung together by computers' (157). More widely, the Eliza effect in computer science names our tendency to unconsciously assume that computer behaviours are analogous to human behaviours, with a consequent effect on our perception of their ontological status. Hofstadter considers this dangerous in its effects because it misrepresents the capacities and capabilities of the research, and the technologies it creates. 'The operational term here is', he says, 'hype', but with an interesting caveat, 'and yet it is', he repeatedly says, 'inadvertent' (167). He acknowledges that it benefits the researchers, but he describes it as merely an 'overly charitable way of characterizing what has happened' (157). For Hofstadter, the Eliza effect is not mal-intentioned, but 'like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates', he says, it 'seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms' (158). Hofstadter identifies this phenomenon, but he is doing so as a scientist, in relation to its consequence for scientists and scientific research. What he does not do is think about the social and ethical consequences of the Eliza effect, and about the role of rhetoric in triggering it. In this paper, I explore the Eliza effect in this regard, from a feminist and a literary perspective. The Eliza effect gets its name from the responses to Joseph Weizenbaum's first natural language processing software, ELIZA, which he named after the heroine of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1913). Understanding ELIZA's historical and literary origin stories highlights the role of gendering in triggering the Eliza effect, and its feminist dangers. This literary historical case-study can then inform contemporary debate regarding, for instance, the societal harm of the gendering of virtual personal assistants, in particular in relation to such social consequences as the objectification of women, and the replication of gendered models of power and subservience. More broadly, the paper demonstrates the role that literary narratives play in shaping the development, reception and impact of science and technology.
28 November Allegra Fryxell (Pembroke College, Cambridge)
The tempo of modernity: rethinking the history of modern time
Transformations in time and space are fundamental components of definitions of modernity, yet time has only recently gained attention as a crucial category of the modern in historical research. While historians have typically explored changing notions and experiences of time through new technologies or conventions for measuring time, this paper seeks to expand the conceptual definition of time in modernity by arguing for an interdisciplinary approach that brings the history of science into conversations with the history of art and literary studies. Focusing on the period from the late 19th century to World War Two, ideas of time manifest in period philosophy, psychology, theatre and science fiction are used to capture a general sense of temporality (and its relationship to historicity) in early-20th-century modernity. The paper presents a new form of temporality, palimpsestic time, as a common feature of Euro-American modernity that must be taken into account alongside popular theories of 'social acceleration'.