THINKING ALGORITHMICALLY: From Cold War Computer Science to the Socialist Information Culture

Event date: 21.06.2017 Time: 13:00 Hall: Golden Hall Organizer: Center for Science and Technology Studies Speaker: Xenia Tatarchenko, Geneva University, Global Studies Institute

The talk will be given within the Data and Society under socialism and beyond Workshop.

Cold War competition shaped the process of computerization during the second half of the 20th century. This article combines insights from Science and Technology Studies, which brought the analysis of Cold War technopolitics beyond the nation-state, with approaches of Critical Algorithm Studies, to question the algorithm's role in the global “computer revolution.” It traces the algorithm's trajectories across geographical, political, and discursive spaces to argue that its mutable cultural valences made the algorithm a universalizing attribute for representing man-machine interactions across the ideological divide. It shows that discourses about the human capacity to devise algorithms, a practice central to computer programming, became a site where different versions of modern subjectivity were negotiated. The article focuses on two related episodes to demonstrate how the notion of “algorithmic thinking” became explicitly associated with a range of politicized agendas. On one hand, the coupling of “algorithm” and “thinking” was used to describe a naturalized cognitive capacity shared among the members of the international scientific community and projected backward to the medieval scholar Al-Khwarizmi. On the other hand, the universal spread of “algorithmic thinking” became the educational goal of a late Soviet computer literacy campaign under the slogan of “programming, the second literacy,” a metaphor and a political agenda conceived to bring about the Socialist “Information Age.”

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