Cultural Illogic: David Golumbia and The Cultural Logic of Computation

David Golumbia does not like computers. Toward the end of The Cultural Logic of Computation, after lumping computers and the atom bomb into a single “Pandora’s Box” of doom, he observes:

The Germans relied on early computers and computational methods provided by IBM and some of its predecessor companies to expedite their extermination program; while there is no doubt that genocide, racial and otherwise, can be carried out in the absence of computers, it is nevertheless provocative that one of our history’s most potent programs for genocide was also a locus for an intensification of computing power.

This sort of guilt by association is typical of The Cultural Logic of Computation. The book is so problematic and so wrong-headed as to be shocking, and as philosophical and cultural excursions into technological analysis are still comparatively rare, the book merits what programmers would term a postmortem.

Throughout the book, Golumbia, an English and Media Studies professor who worked for ten years as a product manager in software at Dow Jones, insists that computers are creating and enforcing a socio-political hegemony that reduces human beings to servile automatons. They aren’t just the tools of oppression, they oppress by their very nature. Golumbia attacks the encroachment by “computation” on human life. He defines “computation” as the rationalist, symbolic approach of computers and logic.

Or at least he seems to sometimes. Other times “computation” stands in for an amorphous mass of cultural issues that just happen to involve computers. Much of the the book focuses on political issues that don’t bear on “computation” in the least, such as a tired attack on Thomas Friedman and globalization that adds nothing new to Friedman’s already-long rap sheet. Golumbia spends ten pages criticizing real-time strategy games like Age of Empires, complaining:

There is no question of representing the Mongolian minority that exists in the non-Mongolian part of China, or of politically problematic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, or of the other non-Han Chinese minorities (e.g., Li, Yi, Miao).

A true Hobbesian Prince, the user of Age of Empires allows his subjects no interiority whatsoever, and has no sympathy for their blood sacrifices or their endless toil; the only sympathy is for the affairs of state, the accumulation of wealth and of property, and the growth of his or her power.

The critique could apply just as easily to Monopoly, Diplomacy, Stratego, or chess.

Golumbia gives away the game, so to speak, when he implies that connectionism (a non-symbolic artificial intelligence approach used in neural networks) is somehow less politically suspect than the symbolic AI approaches he attacks. In fact, non-symbolic approaches like Bayes networks and neural networks are themselves used ubiquitously in the data mining he (rightly) worries about. Golumbia has confused science with scientism, and computers’ uses with their structure.

Without a critique of the technical side of computers, Golumbia’s book would be just another tired retread of Chomsky, Hardt/Negri, Spivak, Thomas Frank, and the like. Unfortunately, his actual excursions into technical issues are woefully uninformed. A surreal attack on XML as a “top-down” standard ends with him praising Microsoft Word as an alternative, confusing platform and application. He hates object-oriented programming because…well, I’m honestly not quite sure.

Because the computer is so focused on “objective” reality—meaning the world of objects that can be precisely defined—it seemed a natural development for programmers to orient their tools exactly toward the manipulation of objects. Today, OOP is the dominant mode in programming, for reasons that have much more to do with engineering presumptions and ideologies than with computational efficiency (some OOP languages like Java have historically performed less well than other languages, but are preferred by engineers because of how closely they mirror the engineering idealization about how the world is put together).

The lack of citation, pervasive throughout the book, makes it impossible even to pinpoint what this objection means. I’d be curious as to how he feels about functional languages like Lisp, ML, and Haskell, but Golumbia shows no signs of even having heard of them. Unfortunately, XML and object-oriented programming are pretty much his two main points of technical attack, which indicates a lack of technical depth.

Yet Golumbia’s greatest anger is reserved for Noam Chomsky. Golumbia devotes a quarter of the book to him, with Jerry Fodor serving as assistant villain. Somehow, Chomsky’s computational linguistics become far more than just a synecdoche for modern corporatism and materialism; Chomsky is actually one of the main culprits.

To Golumbia, Chomsky is “fundamentally libertarian”; he is a Ayn Randian “primal conservative” who accepted military funding. He has “authoritarian” institutional politics which require strict adherence to his “religious” doctrine:

Chomsky’s institutional politics are often described exactly as authoritarian.

[His work] tends to attract white men (and also men from notably imperial cultures, such as those of Korea or Japan).

The scholars who pursue Chomskyanism and Chomsky himself with near-religious fervor are, almost without exception, straight white men who might be taken by nonlinguists to be ‘computer geeks.’

Golumbia is evidently fond of the ad hominem. Golumbia also associates “geeks” with “straight, white men,” insulting 19th century programmer Ada Lovelace, gay theoretician Alan Turing, and the vast population of queer and non-white programmers, linguists, and geeks that exists today (many not even Korean or Japanese).

Yet Golumbia finds time to praise Wikipedia, founded and run by fundamentally libertarian Ayn Rand acolyte Jimmy Wales. It’s strange for Golumbia to call Wikipedia a salutary effort to demote expert opinion when Wales himself says it should not be cited in academic papers. And strange for Golumbia to see Wikipedia as progressive when many of its entries still come from that well-known bastion of hegemonic opinion, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. (The explicitly racist ones have been scrubbed.)

Beyond the technological confusions, Golumbia’s philosophical background is notably defective. The book is plagued by factual errors; Voltaire is bizarrely labeled a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker, while logicians Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege somehow end up on opposite sides: Russell is a good anti-rationalist (despite having written “Why I Am a Rationalist”), Frege is a bad rationalist. (He also enlists Quine and Wittgenstein to his leftist cause, which I suspect neither would have appreciated.) He thinks Leibniz preceded Descartes. He misappropriates Kant’s ideas of the noumenal and mere reason.

Here is a typically confused passage, revealing Golumbia’s fondness for incoherent Manicheistic dichotomies:

In Western intellectual history at its most overt, mechanist views typically cluster on one side of political history to which we have usually attached the term conservative. In some historical epochs it is clear who tends to endorse such views and who tends to emphasize other aspects of human existence in whatever the theoretical realm. There are strong intellectual and social associations between Hobbes’s theories and those of Machiavelli and Descartes, especially when seen from the state perspective. These philosophers and their views have often been invoked by conservative leaders at times of consolidation of power in iconic or imperial leaders, who will use such doctrines overtly as a policy base.

This contrasts with ascendant liberal power and its philosophy, whose conceptual and political tendencies follow different lines altogether: Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dewey, James, etc. These are two profoundly different views of what the State itself means, what the citizen’s engagement with the State is, and where State power itself arises. Resistance to the view that the mind is mechanical is often found in philosophers we associate with liberal or radical views—Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx.

So it is not simply the technological material that is the problem. The quality of even the academic, philosophical portions of the book is dismaying, and the general lack of evidence and citation is egregious. Harvard University Press, who published the book, have a fine track record in the general areas that Golumbia inhabits. I am not certain how The Cultural Logic of Computation slipped through, nor how many of its blatant errors were not caught. It is an embarrassment and will only confirm the prejudices of those who feel that the humanities have nothing to offer the sciences but spite and ignorance.

For contrast, Samir Chopra’s Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software (Routledge) is an excellent and rigorous examination of some of the political and social issues around software and software development, strong on both the technical and philosophical fronts. I would urge anyone looking at Golumbia’s book to read it instead.

8 thoughts on “Cultural Illogic: David Golumbia and The Cultural Logic of Computation

  1. On initial quote, Harvard Int’l Review lauds Edwin Black in a review 5 years after publication of “IBM and the Holocaust”: I suspect an inclination that computation and engineering dilutes Harvard’s cultural brand. But so far as Golumbia goes, it’s tempting to forward him a copy of Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science” …

  2. Thanks for the enlightening review. Saved my ‘would have been wasted’ time by reading the book. Even the above listed inaccuracies and misinformation in the book is simply alarming, and there may be more in ‘waiting’ for a potential reader. Being pursued philosophy and computer science during my academic years and is keeping both as my passion (a computer programmer/architect by profession, and a student of philosophy by passion) I feel these kinds of inaccuracies and misinformation is simply unheard of. Especially, for anyone who have come across great works of philosophy (including cultural/media studies, critical theory, cognitive science etc), science, logic etc. (Example are plenty, from Descart to Frege to Russell and from Kuhn to Turing/Godel to Penrose to Dawking to Dennett to Churchlands).

    • I’m glad it was helpful. In my experience it’s common within certain subfields of academia, though this book is an especially egregious example. Fortunately, there’s some good work being done by people like Nick Montfort, who know their stuff.

      • Thanks for the info about Nick Montfort (I wasn’t aware of it and is currently trying to read his works).

  3. Since you do not tell us what the core argument of this book is, we are unable to assess whether your attacks undermine it. I mean, “David Golumbia does not like computers”? Seriously? I am not familiar with his work–which is why I read your review–but I doubt that this is his position. You present us with a litany of apparent flaws but provide little sense of why its author went to the trouble of writing the book, which gives the impression that the “spite and ignorance” might be your own. What was the man trying to accomplish here? Does he in any way succeed? Why or why not? In the answers to these questions reside the difference between a book review and a hit piece.

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