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Scientific Management, Statistics, and the Instruments of Thought

Wednesday 16 December 2020, 15:00–17:00 GMT


Co-facilitators: Prof. Andrew Meade McGee (Carnegie Mellon University), Jonnie Penn (University of Cambridge)


In the mid-twentieth century, speculation about the 'language' of human thought intersected with idealized logistics of management for organizing information using digital computers. Commentators in elite academic and policy corridors questioned how such tools would remake human-machine communication and, more profoundly, the nature of thought itself. Herbert Simon and Allan Newell sought institutional funding for audacious hypotheses like the notion that human beings were 'information processing systems'. Not all were convinced. Mathematician John von Neumann and sociologist Ida R. Hoos, among others, expressed skepticism in totalizing accounts of language and/or logistics, pointing to the insufficiencies of formal logic and scientific management to account for the stubborn and perhaps irreducible logics of cognition and administration. This session invites your reflections on these tensions between the brain as an information-processing device and the electronic computer as an extension of bureaucratic systems via a set of primary source documents from the United States and India from the 1940s to 1970s.

Assigned texts

(40 pages in total. Page numbers given below.)

  • Bush, Vannevar. 'As We May Think', The Atlantic (1 July 1945). Abridged version from LIFE Magazine (10 September 1945).
  • Hoos, Ida R. 'Systems Techniques for Managing Society: A Critique'. Public Administration Review (Mar.–Apr. 1973, vol. 33, no. 2), pp. 157–164.
  • Mahalanobis, P.C. 'Why Statistics?' Sankhyā: The Indian Journal of Statistics (1933–1960) 10, no. 3 (1950): pp. 195–200, 211–212, 221.
  • Newell, Allen, Alan J. Perlis, and Edward R. Schatz. 'Proposal for a Center for the Study of Information Processing submitted by the Carnegie Institute of Technology to the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense'. October 1964. Archival copy courtesy of the Carnegie Mellon University Libraries. pp. 1–5.
  • Ramo, Simon. 'The Systems Approach to Social Problems'. From 'The Systems Approach: Automated Common Sense', Nation's Cities 6 (March 1968): 14–19. Reprinted in Information Technology in a Democracy. Edited by Alan F. Westin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 93–96.
  • Simon, Herbert A., and Allen Newell. 'Models: Their Uses and Limitations'. In L.D. White, ed., The State of the Social Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956, pp. 1–6. Typescript reprint from Herbert A. Simon Papers, Carnegie Mellon University Archives.
  • Von Neumann, John. 'The Language of the Brain Not the Language of Mathematics'. From The Computer and the Brain. Edited by Klara Von Neumann. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958. pp. 81–83.

Recommended readings

  • Westin, Alan F. 'Prologue: Of Technological Visions and Democratic Politics'. From Information Technology in a Democracy. Edited by Alan F. Westin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 1–11.

Event summary

This reading group focused on an array of selections from mid-20th century texts, from the period following World War II to the 1970s, pertaining to scientific discoveries in this period as instruments of thought, organisation, and state-building. The session involved a focus on the authors of these documents as canonical figures to be contextualised, rather than any attempt to reinforce a (primarily white and male) canon. Before splitting into reading groups for further discussion among the community, Penn and Meade McGee offered such a contextualisation. Penn explored the roles of John von Neumann, Herbert A. Simon, and P.C. Mahalanobis in applying mathematical thought to understandings of human cognition, leading to the emergence of mathematics as a linguistic instrument of thought. Meade McGee continued this contextualisation through his discussion of Mahalanobis, exploring his dual role as a statistician and government official. Meade McGee emphasised the implementation of principles from the scientific world for the purposes of state-building in more contexts, drawing on the works of Vanavar Bush, Allen Newell, Alan J. Perlis, Edward R. Schatz, and Simon Ramo, and noting the resultant bureaucratisation and institutionalisation of the long history of AI. He also described critiques of these approaches by contemporaries Ida R. Hoos and Alan F. Westin. These presentations acted as provocations for further discussion in the form of questions and break-out, smaller-group discussion.

Works cited (in the chat)

AI rhetoric

  • Agre, Philip E. 'Phil Agre's Mind'. This is the website of Six Silberman. 12 July 2000.
  • Katz, Yarden. Interview by Justin Podur, 4 November 2020.
  • Miller, George A., Eugene Galanter, and Karl H. Pribram. Plans and the Structure of Behavior. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

Data culture in India

  • Mertia, Sandeep, Karl Mendonca, Sivakumar Arumugam, Ranjit Singh, Puthiya Purayil Sneha, Lilly Irani, Anumeha Yadav, et al. Lives of Data: Essays on Computational Cultures from India. Edited by Sandeep Mertia. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2020.


Systems theory and cybernetics