Peters - The Computer is Not a Brain

Ben Peters
Am Sande 5
21335 Lüneburg

Benjamin Peters is a media scholar and author of How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet (MIT Press) and editor of Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture (Princeton 2016). He is broadly interested in media history and philosophy around contemporary information science and technology, with a special emphasis on the Soviet century. He is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Tulsa and affiliated fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. 

Forschungsprojekt - The Computer is Not a Brain: How Smart Tech Lost the Cold War, Outsmarted the West, and Risks Ruining an Intelligent World

My plan this summer is to complete a draft of the scholarly book project tentatively titled The Computer is Not a Brain: How Smart Tech Lost the Cold War, Outsmarted the West, and Risks Ruining an Intelligent World. This project will be the first nonfiction book to describe for a general scholarly audience how and why “smart media” have made idiots out of the West in the literal Greek sense of private persons. This history of smart media argues that the industrialized West has “smarts” upside down. It charts the rise and international diffusion of cold war military research that advanced the dawn of “smart computing technology” that attributed success to an individual’s capacity to outsmart another—the consequences of which have shipwrecked both our current media and natural environments.

Drawing on previously uncovered archival and scholarly sources in America, northern Europe, and the former Soviet Union, it charts a twentieth-century history of how research and public talk about intelligence and machinery has mistakenly translated the vices of yesterday’s cold war rationalist—strategic self-interest, networked nations, mental machismo, and even (trickily) open-mindedness—into the virtues of today’s online personas. It asks: What does the computer-brain analogy reveal about its maker, and why was the human brain held up as a model for computer processing (how did the “i” get in the iPhone)? How has “smart”—a near-cognate for the German for “pain” (Schmerz, as in “Ouch, that smarts”)—come to decorate our prized smartphones, smart cars, smart cities, smart algorithms, etc., and in turn shape the dreams and fears of modern life, and at what cost? This timely history and analysis about how the industrialized West has fashioned smart media brings to light timeless historical insight central to the humanities—about our changing sense of the mortal self, cooperative and competitive intelligences, and the sources of our current global environment crises. This same narrative also lays a foundation for detoxifying our media environment and rebuilding a more humane future for our often foolishly smart species. 

This book lays out a unique and longer narrative on-ramp for the broad general interest in the field of “smart tech”—artificial intelligence, machine learning, learning algorithms, and feminist criticism of Silicon Valley’s toxic “brogrammer” culture. This project draws together diverse scholarly resources for backlighting a global stage for the smart media drama with scripts predating the cold war. In the process, it challenges how the history of technologized individual intelligence (the private brain, the talking head, the serial processor) emerged out of the collaboration of research groups. In all, it aims to show how digital media become so smart and at once so toxic while also reclaiming a foundation toward a more humane and intelligent media environment.

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