All lectures are open to the public, thanks to the generosity of the Klopsteg fund, and (unless indicated otherwise below) are held in the Hagstrum Room (University Hall Room 201) on Mondays from 4:30-6:00pm.
Program Director: Professor Ken Alder (History)
October 8, 2018
We have recently come to understand “the economy” not as a feature of all societies, nor as an aspect of the emergence of market societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but as a mode of organizing material worlds and calculative agents that developed much more recently, in the mid-twentieth century. We imagine the economy as a macro-object, the product of new statistical work, regulation, and management organized at the level of the nation-state. But this is misleading, for making the economy was a work of scaling down and excluding things from calculation. The birth of the economy is better understood in relation to a wider and earlier development, the rise of the large corporation. If the economy involved what has been called “economization” (the work of rendering things calculable and creating economic agents), the large corporation involved the larger project of “capitalization.” The corporation emerged as a way of building technical-spatial arrangements—initially colonies, canals, and railways, later oil fields, dams, urban fabrics, industrial processes, and consumer worlds—whose scale, durability, and powers of control promised a future stream of income that could be traded speculatively in the present. The birth of the economy was a short-lived attempt to stabilize the increasingly unstable speculative futures on which capitalization had come to depend.
October 15, 2018
In this lecture, Professor Steenson probes the history of the relationship between artificial intelligence, cybernetics, architecture, and design. Starting in the 1960's, architects including Chistopher Alexander, Cedric Price, and Nicholas Negroponte with the MIT Architecture Machine Group took up AI and cybernetics through research and collaboration, decades earlier than we typically think of AI meeting the the built environment. These intersections gave rise to a variety of contemporary computational practices, including virtual reality, object-orientated programming languages, military simulators, remote warfare, Agile programming methods, machine learning and smart cities.
October 29, 2018
The magic number is 40,000. Supposedly, that is the number of patents personally analyzed by the Soviet inventors Genrich Altshuller and Raphael Shapiro in the 1940s, based on which they developed the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, known by its Russian acronym TRIZ. Arguing that all inventions regardless of the field or application shared a set of common features, Altshuller and Shapiro were determined to eschew the myth of the proverbial “aha moment” in favor of a more scientific process for solving technological challenges. Altshuller spent his life tirelessly promoting TRIZ, and with some success: the innovation algorithm he developed became well-known in Soviet technoscientific circles. Moreover, with the collapse of the USSR and the migration of ex-Soviet scientists and engineers around the globe, TRIZ spread beyond the former USSR, gaining an international following and a burgeoning of publications applying TRIZ to a wide array of contemporary technological challenges.
Is TRIZ a fanciful tale of innovation as an exact science, and, if so, what makes this approach compelling and even effective today? Professor Kurkovsky West will track the paradoxical history of TRIZ from the perspective of sociotechnical embeddedness of technology and the kinds of mythologies with which societies imbue the process of innovation. She will use the case of TRIZ and Altshuller’s biography to examine the co-production and co-functioning of the mythologies and the practices of Soviet innovation. She will then turn to the present-day rise in TRIZ-related publications to consider why and how these mythologies become reinscribed in contemporary practice.
Thursday, November 8, 2018 - 5:00pm - Harris Hall Room 108
Co-Sponsored with The Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities
Increasing our collective “resilience” has come, in recent years, to be embraced as the solution to a wide range of security problems: from securing cities against the ravages of climate change, to mitigating the vulnerability of the financial system to global crisis, to preparing the health infrastructure for the onset of a catastrophic disease outbreak. In these various contexts, the resilience of a given system indicates its capacity to withstand an unexpected shock while sustaining its integrity and adapting to new circumstances. This talk will examine the genealogy of “national resilience” in the United States, focusing on three key moments: first, the economic analysis of enemy industrial production systems during World War II; second, the invention of catastrophe modeling as part of Cold War civil defense; and finally, the assemblage of national preparedness for multiple potential threats in the early 2000s. In particular, the talk will focus on the under-appreciated history of stockpiling as a technique of resilience. How, it asks, have experts addressed the question: what supplies will be needed in order to ensure collective survival in the aftermath of an unprecedented future catastrophe?
November 12, 2018
What drove the automation of financial markets? For some historians of economic thought, automation of a cybernetic project to render markets into computational machines. Couched in the politics of neoliberal societies, metaphors of computing underpinned efforts to change and represent financial worlds—from the invention of trading systems, to information-inspired regulations, to theories and concepts of market dynamics. In this talk, Professor Pardo-Guerra will present the alternative interpretation of computers as loose metaphors that both linked and divided groups in their understanding of finance. By analyzing three domains – patents of market devices, financial regulations, and economic theories – he suggests that metaphors of computers performed different and at times divisive forms of work, lead to uneven patterns of change. Rather than stressing a single process guiding the evolution of markets, he suggests an open-ended process of contest and adaptation occurring across the different temporalities of trading, organizations, knowledge making, and material tinkering.
January 14, 2019
Between the 1960s and the 1980s, economics became more influential in a range of U.S. policy domains. Although much of this spread was driven by center-left technocrats, the institutionalization of an economic style of reasoning was particularly constraining for the political left. Professor Popp Berman illustrates this argument with the case of antitrust (competition) policy. Historically, antitrust aimed at limiting corporate power and protecting small business, as well as ensuring competition. During the 1970s, however, consumer welfare, usually understood as allocative efficiency, was institutionalized as the sole legitimate purpose of antitrust, reducing enforcement in the process. The end of the Reagan administration saw new efforts to step up antitrust enforcement, but the centering of efficiency limited the arguments that could legitimately be made—limits that can still be seen in debates over competition policy. Although antitrust is unusual in just how fully institutionalized economic reasoning became, a growing focus on efficiency, incentives, and tradeoffs had analogous effects in a range of social and regulatory policy domains.
January 28, 2019
How does social organization affect the conduct and practice of science? To explore this question, Professor Vertesi presents empirical data from a comparative ethnographic study of work on two NASA robotic spacecraft mission teams. While the robots appear to be singular entities operating autonomously in the frontiers of space, decisions about what the robots should do and how they accomplish their science are made on an interactive basis by a large, distributed team of scientists and engineers on Earth. As spacecraft team members negotiate among themselves for robotic time and resources, their sociotechnical organization is paramount to understanding how decisions are made, which scientific data are acquired, and how the team relates to their robot, with implications for team solidarity, data sharing and scientific results.
February 11, 2019
Critical approaches to capitalism often argue that profit-oriented market practices exacerbate inequality. Drawing on fieldwork from U.S. based oil companies in Equatorial Guinea, this talk argues that markets are in fact made by that inequality. Global markets, the oil market chief among them, do not merely deepen racialized and gendered postcolonial disparities; they are constituted by them. Drawing from material on subcontracts and marriage contracts in Equatorial Guinea's oil industry, Professor Appel shows how forms of racial segregation and heteronormative domestic intimacy come to proxy for "the rules of the economy." More generally, the talk draws attention to the licit life of capitalism— contracts and subcontracts, infrastructures, economic theory, corporate enclaves--practices that are legally sanctioned, widely replicated, and even ordinary, at the same time as they are messy, contested and, to many, indefensible. Rather than bring critical attention to the scandals that saturate capitalism’s daily life, not least in the oil industry, and not least in sub-Saharan Africa, she suggests that oil in Equatorial Guinea counter-intuitively offers an ideal place in which to explore what we might take to be the opposite of scandal. Contracts and corporate enclaves, offshore rigs and economic theory were the assemblages of liberalism and racialized labor, expertise and technology, gender and spatialized domesticity, that made an industry operating on the edge of legitimacy and legality formally legitimate, legal, and productive of extraordinary profit.
February 18, 2019
From “cuddle chemical” to “moral molecule,” oxytocin has been lavished with descriptors that are scientifically misleading and inaccurate. Recent research even ties the hormone to race prejudice and ethno-nationalism, greatly complicating its contribution to neurobiological arguments about trust, altruism, and sociability. Even so, the hormone remains integral to current advocacy for “moral bio-enhancement,” a project built on heavy doses of idealism and promised empowerment whose actual effects, this talk argues, are more often disempowering, undemocratic, and prone to fail.
March 4, 2019 - Harris Hall, Room 108
The founder of modern horror writing, Edgar Allan Poe, was an expert on the science of his time as well as a shrewd analyst of the effects of technical media. Now as then, new media often make it hard to know who or what to believe. This talk explores the relations between science and the demos by returning to the USA in the 1830s and 1840s, the era of Andrew Jackson, P.T. Barnum, and a communications revolution— in print, transport, photography, and telegraphy. Two opposed tendencies characterized this moment’s public culture: on one hand, an explosion of new periodicals, audiences, lecture halls, and authors; on the other, coordinated strategies by elite experts to control knowledge through centralized and hierarchical institutions. The Lyceum movement and Barnum’s “American Museum” typified the first; the U.S. Coast Survey, directed by Benjamin Franklin’s great grandson, polymath Alexander Dallas Bache, exemplified the second. Like Bache, Poe trained at West Point and wrote frequently about the sciences; yet he also invented new forms of literary sensationalism and publicity aligned with Barnum. In the decades before the Civil War, American science was being “forged” in two senses: in projects to establish a unified and regulated intellectual infrastructure, and in the production of believable fakes which fed popular skepticism. In a decisive moment of industrial modernity, Poe’s diverse works offer prophetic, incisive, and dramatically conflicted commentary on science, its publics, and the stories it tells.
April 8, 2019
Computers ought to produce in the long run some fundamental change in the nature of all mathematical activity.” These words, penned in 1958, capture the motivation behind an early field of computing research called Automated Theorem-Proving or Automated Reasoning. Practitioners of this field sought to program computers to prove mathematical theorems or to assist human users in doing so. Everyone working in the field agreed that computers had the potential to make novel contributions to the production of mathematical knowledge. They disagreed about almost everything else. Automated theorem-proving practitioners subscribed to complicated and conflicting visions of what ought to count and not count as a mathematical proof. There was also disagreement about the character of human mathematical faculties - like intuition, understanding, and reasoning - and how much the computer could be made to possess them, if at all. Different practitioners also subscribed to quite different imaginations of the computer itself, its limitations and possibilities. Automated theorem-proving practitioners built their competing visions of mathematicians, minds, computers, and proof, directly into their theorem-proving programs. Their efforts did indeed precipitate transformations in the character of mathematical activity but in varied and often surprising ways. They crafted new formal and material tools and practices for wielding them that reshaped the work of proof. They also reimagined what “reasoning” itself might be and what logics capture or prescribe it. With a focus on communities based in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, this talk will introduce different visions of the computer as a mathematical agent, software that was crafted to animate those imaginings, and the novel practices and materialities of mathematical knowledge-making that emerged in tandem.
April 15, 2019
The ethos of innovation and entrepreneurship, honed in high-technology firms, has colonized philanthropy, development projects, government policies, and even thinking about international diplomacy. Innovation competitions, hackathons, and corporate mythologies around figures such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs proliferate optimism that passionate dreamers can change the world. States offer resources or even new forms of citizenship to such promising individuals. In this talk, Professor Irani traces the history of this entrepreneurial form of citizenship in India, from colonial era practices to contemporary ones, at once legal, economic, and cultural. She then turns to ethnography of design work, drawn from fourteen months of fieldwork in Delhi, to trace the social and knowledge practices by which public, private, and NGO actors turn the planning of development into the production of “opportunity.” These practices subsume hope, she argues, and discipline politics in turn. The talk draws from her forthcoming book Chasing Innovation: Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India (Princeton University Press).
April 22, 2019
At the heart of Transforming Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development and State Formation (Cambridge University Press, 2017) is the concept of an “economizing logic.” Professor Young develops the concept of an “economizing logic” in order to explain how Sudanese policymakers even working with the best of intentions and using state of the art decision-making frameworks could develop and enact development plans and budgets that upheld racial and regional inequalities. Without relying on narratives about corruption or ethnic and religious chauvinism, he uses the case of Sudan to emonstrate how mid-twentieth century concepts of development and international relations made it inevitable that Sudanese policymakers and many of their global contemporaries would emphasize catching up more than equality. His research is based on extensive archival work in the National Records Office of Sudan, British and American archives as well as international financial institutions, such as the World Bank.
May 6, 2019
Over the past four decades, ethnoracial demographic change has emerged as a major object of U.S. public discourse and politics. From headlines to speeches, infographics to cartoons, talk about the so-called browning of America has become ubiquitous. While demographic projections have fostered widespread consensus that the country will look and feel dramatically different in 2050, they have also fueled anxieties (and anticipations) about what this future means and how it should be met. Despite this, scholars have devoted little attention to contemporary temporal politics about demographic change. Seeking to address this gap, Professor Rodriguez-Muniz's research offers an in-depth look into one political project: national Latino civil rights advocacy. In his talk, he will leverage this case to explore the following questions: How are ethnoracial demographic futures being imagined, constructed, and brought to bear upon on the present? How is the current political context—and its specific temporal regularities and contingencies—shaping and shaped by these efforts? And finally, what do struggles over demographic change tell us about the meaning of race and, more broadly, about the politics of time and time of politics
Back to top