Sunday, May 13, 2007

Review of H. Crowther-Heyck, Herbert A. Simon: the bounds of reason in modern America

Herbert A. Simon: the bounds of reason in modern America. Hunter Crowther-Heyck. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Hunter Crowther-Heyck’s Herbert A. Simon: the bounds of reason in modern America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), is a biography of Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001), a political scientist and pioneering cognitive psychologist who was also a significant organizer of interdisciplinary, computer-assisted (or computer-driven) research into cognition on the international and national levels. The book is based on Crowther-Heyck’s 1999 dissertation, Herbert Simon, organization man (Thesis (Ph.D.)--Johns Hopkins University, 2000). Crowther-Heyck is currently an assistant professor of the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma.

Crowther-Heyck’s research, including his work on Simon, is devoted to what he calls the “bureaucratic worldview,” as expressed by the research interactions of the Federal Government, foundations, and large research universities since the New Deal. Implicit in Crowther-Heyck’s work is a concern with the fate of the individual in a public sphere dominated by large institutions.

Herbert A. Simon grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father, Arthur Simon, trained in Electrical Engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt, immigrated to the United States in 1903. The family was situated culturally in the German-American professional class of Protestant or Jewish origins (Simon’s father was Jewish; Herbert Simon became a Unitarian later in life) who strongly identified with the nonsectarian American civic ideal of the Progressive Era, which in Milwaukee was also the period of Socialist control of city government. In his autobiography, Simon recounted with some pride that he lived in a neighborhood where both corporate leaders and the Socialist mayor Daniel Hoan were neighbors (Crowther-Heyck, pp. 16-19, 22; Herbert A. Simon, Models of my life (Basic Books, 1991), p. 6).

In the first part of Simon’s career, starting at the University of Chicago, where he became a graduate assistant in Political Science (a program referred to as the “Chicago School” throughout the book) in 1936, he was involved with research into the possibilities of professional, nonpartisan urban planning and the improvement of public services. In the second part of his career, from the early 1950s on, based in the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at Carnegie Institute of Technology, later Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Simon became familiar with large, institutional, digital computers, and began to concentrate on making programs to study problem solving in collaboration with Allen Newell (1927-1992). This programming research led to Simon and Newell’s invention of artificial intelligence (Crowther-Heyck, chapter 10) and for Simon, an ever-expanding set of institutional relationships, a true research network. The question for a biographer is how to link up these distinct phases to form a picture of Simon’s work as a whole, and to explain the continuity of what Simon was trying to contribute intellectually.

Notes on the text. Crowther-Heyck’s book is organized around the events in Simon’s life up until the late 1960s. Many facts of the life are presented in an Introduction, “(Un)bounded rationality.” (The term “Bounded Rationality” originates with Simon.) Each period provides a starting point for intellectual histories constructed around the principal theme of the book, the juxtaposition of Control and Choice. In chapter 2, Crowther-Heyck uses the atmosphere of the University of Chicago in the 1930s to explain the background and outlook of the Chicago School of Political Science, particularly its preoccupation with control, here enlightened public administration within the context of representative government. In chapter 3, Crowther-Heyck presents a different facet of the same environment, the interest in applying mathematics and logic, the “sciences of control” to sociology so that research could be constructed and interpreted as much as possible in quantitative terms (“operationalism”). The chapter titles imply an almost mythological narrative about Simon’s lifetime intellectual quest following “forking paths,” an image borrowed from a short story by Borges (see Jorge Luis Borges, “The garden of forking paths,” pp. 19-29, in: Labyrinths (New Directions, 1964)).

The strength of the book lies in Crowther-Heyck’s explication of ideas and institutional relationships. To get at and to digest his interpretations, the reader has to navigate through Crowther-Heyck’s resistance to the ideology of liberal technocracy. This resistance emerges from statements about Simon’s personal beliefs that seem to resonate with the author.

For example, in discussing Simon’s attitude to gender as shown by his use of language and his treatment of women as students and colleagues, Crowther-Heyck writes “he was typical of a generation of liberal men who were taken rather by surprise by the need for a women’s movement in the late 1960s but who were friendly to it so long as it focused on equality of opportunity rather than equality of result” (p. 19). Why does the author feel obliged to insert a slogan about redistribution in an otherwise helpful observation about Simon’s relative gender neutrality?

Toward the end of the book (p. 312), Crowther-Heyck comments on a Simon colleague’s anecdote about his amazement at Simon’s compulsion to invent and solve problems on a car trip, in an effort to temper the impression of the colleague’s conventional and unqualified admiration for Simon, but digresses into the following:

"Most of us chose our field because we had a passion for ideas that was stronger than our passions for money or power or fame, else we would not have become academic scholars, to whom money, power, and fame are but nodding acquaintances. It is unfair to refuse to attribute to others the same 'noble' goals that we attribute to ourselves, just as it is unwise to refuse to analyze one’s own motives the way one analyzes those of others."

Reading this lament about the altruism and powerlessness of academics, one might forget that college teaching is one of the most privileged and personally rewarding occupations in the world today, or that Crowther-Heyck has spent much of the book showing how Simon was able to use the advantage of his academic positions to outmaneuver and overcome opposition (see pp. 258-259, an account of Simon’s lobbying to force the restructuring of the graduate program in Psychology at CIT).

Finally, in the conclusion (pp. 326-327), Crowther-Heyck presents a sort of credo in Simon, explaining that after beginning “as an instinctive supporter of his views on economics and critic of his psychology and his political science,” he had accepted Simon because of what he had learned about Simon’s personal political beliefs. But these beliefs as Crowther-Heyck states them, including “equal rights for all, a federal government that actively supports those rights, stewardship of the earth’s resources, and rational tolerance of different peoples, cultures, faiths, and political views” seem like inarguable, mainstream liberalism. They do not explain the “forking” path that the author has taken us on.

In the Borges story, “The garden of forking paths” two characters have a dialogue about the central theme of a Chinese novel also called “The garden of forking paths,” that is constructed as a labyrinth. The scholar who has reconstructed and translated the novel concludes that the theme of the novel is “time,” because the Chinese words for time are never used. Therefore, time, as its omission shows, is the theme of the book. “In a riddle whose answer is chess, what is the only prohibited word?” “…Chess.”

In Crowther-Heyck’s biography of Simon, while sociology, social psychology, and social modeling are discussed at length, society and the social impacts of research and research tools are never mentioned. By their omission, we can conclude that Crowther-Heyck is profoundly skeptical about the potential for positive social change through the application of technology. To return to the Borges story, Society is what this book is about, but the narrative excludes it.

To complete Crowther-Heyck’s story of Herbert Simon, his historical context, and the social impacts of elite research communities after World War II, we have to look beyond his work. Through Simon’s autobiography, Models of my life, we get a clear portrait of a liberal scholar who through his interest in computer science transformed himself into a public intellectual, editorializing about rational approaches to reform in opposition to attacks on the “system” in the 1960s (chapter 18), serving on advisory committees at the federal level (see chapter 19, “The scientist as politician”), and traveling abroad to receive awards or as part of cultural missions (chapter 21, “Nobel to now,” 22, “The amateur diplomat in China and the Soviet Union”). Paul N. Edwards’s The closed world: computers and the politics of discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), explores the connection between the development of computers, game theory and other models of control, cognition, and behavior, defense research, and Cold War resistance to Soviet power. His presentation of the evolution of the concept of artificial intelligence (Edwards, pp. 250-255) is crucial to an understanding of Crowther-Heyck’s interpretation of its significance (Crowther-Heyck, chapter 10). From Jennifer S. Light’s book, From warfare to welfare: defense intellectuals and urban problems in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), we learn about how socially-conscious intellectuals positioned themselves in the defense establishment, taking advantage of postwar Federal largesse and an atmosphere of creative freedom to explore applications of systems research to urban problems. For the “defense intellectuals,” Simon’s colleagues, the military-industrial complex served as a refuge permitting experimental social thought within the context of applied research.

Evaluation. I found reviews of Herbert Simon: the bounds of reason in modern America in International Social Science Review, The journal of American history, Public administration review, and Technology and culture. The reviews are friendly, recognizing Crowther-Heyck’s pioneering effort to capture the range of Simon’s activities, and especially the academic milieux and schools of thought within which he worked. At the same time, there is impatience among reviewers both with the lack of a “romantic” emphasis on personal details, which to my mind underscores the work's reliability, and Crowther-Heyck’s reticence at drawing conclusions about the validity of Simon’s lifelong preoccupation with planning, modeling, and the understanding of cognition.

To conclude, I would like to suggest some lessons about Simon that might have been drawn from Crowther-Heyck’s extensive research, in the spirit of our class on Uncovering Information Labor. I agree with Crowther-Heyck that Simon embodies the classic German bureaucratic attitude, the notion that a highly trained elite, loyal only to public service and the State, would manage problems, and achieve public order and social control. Simon’s faith in this bureaucratic public sphere is sharply at odds with United States political and economic trends from 1980 to the present, and as Vincent Mosco has discussed, with the tradition of public planning by the financial elite in particular regions like greater New York City.

In contrast to today’s faith, albeit waning, in the power of unregulated markets to solve social problems by concentrating capital in the hands of winners best suited to lead, Simon proclaims, in effect, “I [my generation] am the Revolution!” In the chapter from Models of my life called “The student troubles” (pp. 279-289), Simon recounts with satisfaction his role in damping down revolutionary enthusiasm at Carnegie-Mellon by appealing to the potential for planning within the institutional framework. Clearly, he believed that the real Revolution had already taken place when the intellectuals were able to take charge of so much federally funded research during and in the aftermath of the New Deal. Nevertheless, he reserves a nice parting shot about the charisma of the newly affluent: “Whether the yuppie climate that replaced revolution has been, on balance, an improvement is a question….” Simon, unlike the class of “venture laborers” identified by Gina Neff, always protected himself by embracing the support structures of government and academic institutions. He seems to have little or no faith in a transcendent notion of individual freedom.

The weakness of Simon’s career is that he functioned entirely on an elite level, and that there were no apparent immediate, street-level benefits from his work. Part of the corrective to this perception lies in the greater public transparency to planning processes that is emerging, painfully, in the early 21st century. (The current discussion over the optimal location for a new power line in the Madison region demonstrates the potential and problems of public inputs.) As Amy Slaton suggests, why should the public not participate in engineering decisions that will have significant impacts on their environment? For public participation to work there must be greater and more general technological and environmental literacy. Had Herbert Simon spent more of his time contributing to public as opposed to elite education into the benefits of his many research directions, his legacy would be less troubling.

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