The Cultural Logic of Computation

by Rob Horning

23 July 2009

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cover art

The Cultural Logic of Computation

David Golumbia

(Harvard University Press)
US: Apr 2009

In the past few decades, computers have steadily insinuated themselves further and further into our lives, with the process taking on an air of inevitability. They took over offices and then they found their way into most homes, and now many people carry small computers around with them at all times. More and more of the media we consume has become digitized, more and more information is instantly accessible and open to reprocessing, our means of communication has become digitized, and most recently, the hub of many of our social lives seems more and more dependent on online networking capabilities. Soon, if we don’t post our plans or our experiences to Twitter or Facebook, it may seem as though they haven’t happened at all.

At this point, one might be tempted to brandish an iPhone and say, So what? Computerization has inarguably made our lives more convenient and our work more efficient. (Sure, that productivity boost may not have been passed through to workers in the form of higher wages yet, but eventually ...)  We can access more stuff, thanks to virtually infinite digital inventory space and such services as automated recommendation systems, and get more done with that stuff than ever before. We’ve never before had such tools to organize, manipulate, and transform the material of our lives, and we’ve never before had such apparently equal access to the most powerful means of production and distribution. With real-world advantages seemingly “flattened” by the internet, the meritocracy of ideas shimmers within our grasp. Also, we can stay in touch with the people in our lives with less effort and a greater, more granular sense of control of how intimate we become. Besides, it would be curmudgeonly, standoffish, to opt out of social systems that rely on network effects for their benefits. You’re only hurting yourself by not sharing more.

The way in which technology disrupts lives and businesses has come to seem unavoidable, so it figures that optimists would conclude that therefore the process must be benevolent, tending to aid human progress toward the realization of universal freedom and fulfillment. If anything, they might argue, we need more computers, and fast, to extend their munificence to even more people in the developing world. (Never mind the power the machines consume or the way they standardize English as the lingua franca.)

But there’s no good reason to accept the computer’s hegemony as inevitable, or to reflexively adopt a technoutopian perspective, which assumes that any technology we adopt must automatically improve our lives in the aggregate—otherwise we wouldn’t have adopted it. As David Golumbia, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, argues in The Cultural Logic of Computation, these assumptions are thoroughly ideological, and as with all ideological notions, it’s hard not to mistake them for common sense. The degree to which the benefits of computers are assumed is precisely the degree to which this ideology has served its purpose. It seems self-evident that computers have benefited everyone; arguing to the contrary tends to make people think you are a Luddite, a Unabomber-like crank with a grudge against society.

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