Soviet Computers, Communist Robots: Cultural Epistemologies of Digital Media

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2023

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Abstract

The dissertation explores the cultural archive of the Soviet cybernetics, computer science, and popular science fiction to see how they all contributed to a distinct “trustful” image of the computer. As interdisciplinary research originating during the Second World War in the USA, cybernetics sought to understand human nature in terms of man-machine metaphors. Within the Western context, cybernetic metaphors dethroned the human from the center of the universe and blurred the distinction between natural and artificial (or technological). Although cybernetics failed to establish itself as an academic discipline in the USA, its influence has been profound and its aftereffects can still be registered today both in academic discussions on digital media and posthumanism and broader cultural mythologies regarding AI takeover and evil machines (be it the Terminator and The Matrix franchises or replicants from Blade Runner). In contrast, the USSR, while having enthusiastically adopted cybernetic ideas and metaphors, didn’t see technology as an existential threat but rather a tool of self-discovery and as a friend who invites for an ethical dialogue.

The dissertation draws upon Michel Foucault and media archaeology and reconstructs the cultural episteme of the computer which is characterized by the fundamentally mathematical understanding of digital technologies, where mathematics not only framed human-computer interaction but, in so doing, “defused” man-machine analogies which were at the origin of the figure of the cyborg in American culture.

The dissertation thus contributes to contemporary debates in comparative media studies. By drawing on the French philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon, the dissertation argues that digital media inaugurate a new stage in the evolution of technology. If the development of industrial technology is conditioned by the potentialities of matter and physical world, digital technologies explore the potentialities of operative representations encapsulated in programming languages, computer abstractions, and interfaces. Since operative representations serve to communicate with both humans and machines, in the case of digital technologies, the cultural is embedded withing the technological. The entwinement of the cultural and the technological accounts for the differences not only in the public image of the computer but also in scientific research, like, for instance, in the case of the AI research used as a case study in the dissertation.

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Lukin, Vladimir (2023). Soviet Computers, Communist Robots: Cultural Epistemologies of Digital Media. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/29170.

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