The Cybernetic State: Social Science, Information Technology, and American Government, 1955-1985

The Cybernetic State: Social Science, Information Technology, and American Government, 1955-1985

In 2012, the U.S. government committed over $200 million to a Big Data Research Initiative designed to explore how the analysis of massive collections of digital information might do everything from capture terrorists to improve educational outcomes. The merger of computation and governance has generated excitement and concern: will it enhance democracy or produce totalitarian social control? Does it offer new insights into social behavior or are its findings merely artifacts of idiosyncratic data sources? Because so much big data is owned by private entities, does its policy application threaten to privatize government? Despite the hype about the novelty of these questions, they are not new. Understanding the political and intellectual implications of data-driven governance requires historical investigation. Beginning in the 1960s, social scientists and public officials embraced information technologies as valuable tools that promised to recast complex political and social problems, from urban blight to international conflict, as straightforward technical challenges. Their efforts left deep marks on the social sciences and public policy. Information technologies helped increase social scientists’ policy relevance and endowed public officials with efficient data management systems. But by equating computational rationality with sound research and optimal policy, scholars and policymakers devalued other forms of knowledge, including qualitative case study, applied ethics, political theory, and the experiential knowledge of citizens. In a moment when social researchers and computer scientists proclaim the revolutionary possibilities of big data, my research turns to history to find answers to the question: how can the history of computational approaches to policy offer grounds for reassessing the value of big data and reasserting the legitimacy of humanistic knowledge in public policy?

This project—the first historical study of the nexus of social research, information technology, and public policy—examines the origins and consequences of data-driven, computational approaches to governance in the United States. I trace researchers’ and policymakers’ efforts to create what I call a cybernetic state—a policy approach that used cybernetic theory and new computer tools to predict social change and manage social systems at scales ranging from the local to the international. In the 1960s and 1970s, federal, state, and city agencies contracted with social scientists and computer specialists to develop new technologies for research and governance. They reasoned that social problems were so complex that only information technologies—data-management systems, computerized social simulations, and powerful statistical software programs—could render society understandable and manageable. Projects uniting social science, technology, and policy were ubiquitous; my research focuses on some of the most ambitious. For example, I trace the Defense Department’s multi-million dollar investment in international relations modeling at the University of Southern California which resulted by the early 1980s in the installation of an automated conflict monitoring system in the White House. I follow the work of aerospace corporations, including RAND and Space-General, that teamed with the cities of New York and Los Angeles to manage urban policy in the wake of rioting by predicting criminal activity and forecasting the spread of blight. By examining both national security and domestic programs, I show how malleable the computational approach to society and politics was; its data-driven, managerial, technical ethos could serve the optimistic ends of the Great Society and reinforce U.S. global power. By placing cybernetic governance projects in the context of American political and diplomatic history, I also show how the aspiration toward government by computer was as much fantasy as reality. The messy human world of competing political interests and social values pushed back against clean cybernetic models of value-free politics.