The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer (History of Computing)

The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer (History of Computing)

Jon Agar

Language: English

Pages: 576

ISBN: 0262012022

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


In The Government Machine, Jon Agar traces the mechanization of government work in the United Kingdom from the nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. He argues that this transformation has been tied to the rise of "expert movements," groups whose authority has rested on their expertise. The deployment of machines was an attempt to gain control over state action -- a revolutionary move. Agar shows how mechanization followed the popular depiction of government as machine-like, with British civil servants cast as components of a general purpose "government machine"; indeed, he argues that today's general purpose computer is the apotheosis of the civil servant.Over the course of two centuries, government has become the major repository and user of information; the Civil Service itself can be seen as an information-processing entity. Agar argues that the changing capacities of government have depended on the implementation of new technologies, and that the adoption of new technologies has depended on a vision of government and a fundamental model of organization. Thus, to study the history of technology is to study the state, and vice versa.

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artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE, in Latin CIVITAS, which is but an artificial man . . . .28 Tangled together, deliberately, were a mechanical philosophy of nature (the body

sovereign and the judiciary and executive directed along predictable mechanical paths. There was still a separation of powers, but the powers were arranged vertically rather than horizontally, and they were under mechanical control. This, we shall see, has surprising echoes in the work of Charles Babbage. The transition from checks and balances to dynamic machines as metaphors of government machines is most clearly seen in the work of Walter Bagehot (figure 1.1). Bagehot wrote concise, sharp

labor,” he was convinced that Derby’s reply would backfire. The prime minister had refused the offer of Difference Engine No. 2 on four grounds: “indefinite expense,” “problematic success,” “expenditure certainly large,” and “utterly incapable of being calculated.” (How bitter that line must have been to Babbage!) But, thought Hawes and Babbage, these were merely “bold assertions” made by “an unprofessional man about a machine the drawings of which no professional person would venture to give an

1989, p. 28 1992 504,000 Theakston 1995, p. 123. Excludes industrial staff. Total: 565,000. 1999 460,000 Britain 2001, p. 61 want of efficiency must be regarded with consideration.”3) They administered the Poor Law (until 1834), regulated the police, and ruled on local finance and trade. They were opposed to the growing centralized power, as incarnated in custom-house officers, excise officers, stamp distributors and postmasters and other tax gatherers. Parliament was the meeting place of

for the study of certain social problems (the importance of which is now increasingly being recognized) such as the comparative fertility of married couples in different social positions, and of different occupations, and the bearing of social position, occupation and ages of parents upon infantile and child mortality.27 George Handley Knibbs—a proponent of eugenics, a statistician-led technocracy, and an Imperial Statistical Bureau—stated “emphatically” to Mallet that “these questions have not

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