How fear paved the way for the computer

-onengst has been an important factor in the introduction of the computer. Fear convinced governments, industry and consumers that they would be left behind if they did not embrace this technological revolution. Ginevra Sanvitale has investigated how this mechanism worked in Italy during the Cold War. Her PhD research, with lessons for our time, earned her a cum laude.

Olivetti, personal computer desktop M20, 1982. Photo:
Sailko via Wikipedia

“Emotions and politics are often seen as a barrier to technological development. In addition, the technology promises to simplify political processes and overcome emotional discomfort,” notes Sanvitale. “Yet, after a century of these promises, our world seems more politically complex and emotional than ever. Although we live in a world where technology is central, technology alone cannot explain or solve our societal challenges.”

Black Box Entanglement

According to Sanvitale, ’emotions’, ‘technology’ and ‘politics’ are always deeply connected. Her research focuses on a technopolitical configuration that she describes as ‘Black Box Entanglement’. This configuration relied on the one hand on the “fear of falling behind” to promote the use of computers during the Cold War, and on the other hand on their design as “black boxes” that users could not study or change.

Marketing computers as black boxes was a conscious design choice, says Sanvitale. “It made the design process determined by engineers and software developers, and the space for democratic participation by citizens was limited.”

In addition, the use of the term ‘fear of falling behind’ has depoliticized the social significance of computers. “It flattened the political debate by favoring a phenomenological approach (which asks how technology solves a problem), over a dialectical approach (which asks Why The solution must necessarily be technological).

Cold War

Sanvitale’s thesis is a case study of Italy during the Cold War (1965-1990). “The Italian context is a particularly fertile place to explore the intersection of emotion, technology and politics because of the variety of political debates that unfolded during the Cold War,” Sanvitale said.

These debates, especially on the left of the political spectrum, are also linked to the Italian history of computer science. Italy has a well-established and flourishing hacker tradition, historically linked to left-liberal traditions.

In addition, the Italian Communist Party was the main political party in Italy that led public debates about computers. It was also the largest communist party in the Western Bloc and the most openly critical of the Soviet Union.

Finally, Italy also had its own computer company, Olivetti, which, despite its eventful history, was recognized as a pioneer both nationally and internationally. Famous frontman Adriano Olivetti is also known for his commitment to liberal socialist politics.

Hackers and open source

What makes the Italian case particularly interesting is the fact that several local actors, such as hackers and the open source movement, oppose Black Box Entanglement. They did this by mobilizing emotions other than the fear of falling behind. Instead of rejecting computers, as one might expect, they pointed to alternative technopolitical visions for the computer age.

In this way, what Sanvitale calls ‘Technopolitical Resonance’ arose, a connection between historical actors based on common feelings and thoughts about the social and political significance of technology.

As such, they played an important role in repoliticizing the national and international debate about computers and their design, which the researcher believes is still relevant today.

A new black box

“These movements present an alternative view of digital technology and social media, based on individual autonomy, decentralized power, solidarity and human-centered development. Their insights can provide an important alternative to the digital age as presented by the EU, which still sees more technology as the only way forward,” says Sanvitale.

“This is especially important at a time when we see an increasing use of smart algorithms that are not transparent. They are a new black box, just as the computer was during the Cold War.”

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