The Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History. Thomas Rid. London: Scribe, 2016.
Right away The Rise of the Machines must be declared a fantastic work, conveying an accessible history of a distant in time (yet still strikingly present) and technical scientific story. To succeed in making wave after wave of scientific innovations not only understandable, but to also place them in their intellectual, cultural, political, and strategic contexts in such a compelling manner is testament to why Rid’s book must hold high position in any technologically-focused reading list.
Rid begins by delivering a critical coup de grace on the origin of the term “cyber”, a necessary task due to the commonly recited tale from William Gibson’s science fiction novel Neuromancer. Rid advances his arguments by revealing that the term cyber goes back to the 1940s with the science of cybernetics, and that all later adoptions of the term cyber share this origin.[i] As Rid sagely establishes in the preface, the term cyber has since developed a deep attraction in application, becoming a ‘chameleon’ word that refuses to be either noun or prefix and that, no matter how it is used, is ‘always stirring, it is always about the future…’
Rid provides a healthy tonic to counter the promiscuous application of the term cyber in the current age. The word brings a powerful and seductive pull, making it vogue to add the prefix lavishly. By revealing the scientific inception of the term, Rid provides a huge service to contextualise not only that actual origin, but also societally. For example, Rid adeptly covers the adoption of the term by Gibson and the place of movements like the cyberpunks and cypherpunks in chapters six and seven. In tackling the lost history behind the current age’s obsession with all things cyber, Rid successfully disentangles that history decade-by-decade, myth by technological myth.
The Impact of the Machine
The single biggest component is the impact of the machine writ large. The impact of the machine informed visions of how society could automate itself, revolutionising - it was hoped - how humanity produces its goods, runs its services, and simply make life easier. The vision for automation, however, had its origins in trying to discover a way to automate defending society from aerial attack. This was the problem encountered during the Blitz against London in 1940, with automation allowing the direction of anti-aircraft fire against incoming bombers and reduce human error. It was this problem that motivated key innovators in Rid’s history, Norbert Weiner, and Vannevar Bush.
Automation - the topic of chapter three - was the intended answer, the solution logically still the same as a decade before: ‘detecting incoming enemy bombers, tracking them, computing target coordinates, and hitting them at the right moment.’ But there was a qualitative difference in the Cold War: “The bombs were far more devastating, the planes faster, and the distance wider.”[ii] Rid’s primary example to illustrate was the Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE), with automation at its heart. Rid rightly states the system as hugely ambitious, as it attempted to log the course, speed, altitude, and location of all flights across North America from a vast array of input sources, long range radar, airborne radar, patrol ships to radar sentries. SAGE would log, calculate and display the information inside 60 seconds to operators who would pass a semi-automated response to intercept aircraft fueled and ready to take off.
SAGE merged man and machine into a system, combining the predictive power of early computers - ‘thinking machines’ as Rid notes the parlance of the period - with the response of humans directed towards the target itself. The promise was ultimately theoretical, however, with the feared nuclear attack never occurring, it left the system never truly tested and allowed myths of certainty and promise that Rid’s central argument warns against to proliferate, adapt and persist.
While the vision of turning a war machine into a system, augmented with technologies to enhance human decision-making and optimising the application of force, continues to the present. The impact of the machine goes beyond just warfare. Rid also engages with the cyborg, the melding of bio cybernetics to the challenges of the nascent space program in chapter four.
NASA’s 1963 Engineering Man for Space: The Cyborg Study took a different turn to the notion of augmenting man and machine, instead pursuing the merging of man and machine. Projects such as Ralph Mosher’s Handyman robot inspired a plethora of science fiction interpretations, some of the most iconic visions of man and machine together, such as James Cameron’s ‘rip-off’ of Handyman in the movie Aliens. Science fiction took its cue for augmenting, merging, and automating humans from projects such as Mosher, and D S Halacy’s. The machine had a huge impact, inspiring science, technology, society, war, and exploration, the vision has a wide berth and is deftly handled throughout.
A Realm of Myths, Projections, and Fears
Arguably the biggest surprise in The Rise of the Machines is chapter five, which deals with the cultural interpretations and projections placed onto cybernetic futures, and human existence within cyberspace. From Maxwell Maltz’s 1960 Psycho-Cybernetics, to Stewart Brand’s 1967 Whole Earth Catalogue and more, Rid reveals how cybernetics and technological advancements were viewed as tools of liberation. The 1960s provided fertile ground for views such as Michael Rossman’s, which “technology wasn’t on the side of authority any longer.” Predating the rise of the personal computer by only a decade, a successful stage in that liberation is revealed as the rise of the computer game.
Rid harkens back to the video game Spacewar, when Stewart Brand’s forecasted this as the flattening of power structures and the empowerment of individuals. Those empowered individuals became known as hackers, who evolved decade on decade to reflect not only the projection of, as Rid contests, utopian dreams of liberation that challenge centralised authority, but also the continued place of myths. With the promise of the technology constantly exaggerated, the myth “simply shifts its shape and escapes again into the future.”[iii]
Rid’s success navigating the hippy adoptions of cybernetic ideals contextualises the waves of hacker cultures, who paralleled the development of the personal computer through the 1970s and 1980s. This cultural turn in the book paints a fascinating picture between, at its most arbitrary, an East Coast view projecting visions and fears of future war, and a West Coast one projecting either the flattening of central authority enabling individual liberation, or fears of a victory for the dystopian surveillance society.
The Minds Behind Innovation
The most understated achievement of the work is the centrality of people. In such a technically driven history, full of myths, fears, and rising machines during the period of the computer’s unstoppable charge, the key driver remains human agency. In this Rid shares much with Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators, with mutual actors encountered throughout their respective investigations.
Rid goes from Weiner’s science, through Bush’s wartime problem set, to scholarly engagement with Ross Ashby and John von Neumann. Rid and Isaacson both encounter Stewart Brand’s influence, the writing of Maxwell Maltz, the activism of Michael Rossman. Just as Isaacson serves as an antidote to clichés such as “Alan Turing invented the computer” and “Tim Berners-Lee invented the Internet”, Rid - while not having such obvious targets in cybernetics - similarly introduces readers to a catalogue of innovators whose place in history should not be devalued through simplistic attribution.
The core point is that the rise of the machines is intimately paired with and driven by people. Allied with Isaacson, Rid’s work makes for compelling reading on not only the relentless drive of technology but also, importantly, the relentless drive of those minds behind innovation, as well as those inspired to try and make sense of the advances. This importance of humans in a technically driven history raises the core critical point with Rid’s analysis. Notably, in his concluding chapter, Rid rightly states the humbling fall of the machines, ending by reminding readers that the story, with which he began, Weiner’s mission to predict pilot and aircraft actions for 20 seconds in combat, ultimately failed.
Unfortunately, although not Rid’s intent, his sheer criticism of the fall of the machine and the dangers of myths risk a perception of cynicism. The reader risks overlooking the extraordinary achievements made throughout an ever-accelerating technological era, changes that captivated and, if not united, certainly brought shared obsessions among a diverse range of people who have contributed to shaping not only what is technically possible, but thought about what was politically and societally desirable from these advances.
What the reader should strive to take away, alongside Rid’s strongly crafted and fully justified warnings against the myths and promises of technology and its consistent inability to fulfill the promise, is the underlying, almost hidden message throughout of the centrality of the individual in driving and informing innovation. The lost history of the machine is intimately human; Rid’s only failing in the work is not making this message more explicit.
To conclude this review, The Rise of the Machines is essential and captivating reading, quite simply a must buy not only for students of war, but also for anybody with interest in historical narratives that make the deeply technical easily accessible. Rid’s campaign to sensibly inform and tame the hyperbolic assertions of this technophilic age marches on apace!
Dr. Danny Steed currently specialises in cyber security after having worked for the British Government in CERT-UK. Formerly a Lecturer in Strategy and Defence at the University of Exeter, UK, his research interests lie in war and strategy, disruptive technologies, intelligence, and cyber security and warfare. His first book, British Strategy and Intelligence in the Suez Crisis, was released by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.
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