Disciplining Technopolitics: Physics, Computing, and the ‘Star Wars’ Debate

Journal Articles

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Scientific Cultures, Technological Challenges, page(s): 221-239


scientific cultures slayton pub


How do experts evaluate complex techno-political futures? This essay addresses the question by showing how scientists and engineers confronted U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s call to render “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Popularly known as the “Star Wars” missile defense program, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative launched a world-wide debate that continues to echo today. I argue that experts used disciplined projections – predictions based on generally accepted, mathematical rules of scientific disciplines – to produce certainty and authority about the future of SDI. Importantly, different disciplines highlighted distinctive aspects of SDI, and generated different kinds of political authority. Physicists analyzed idealized systems and mobilized a form of disciplinary objectivity. By contrast, computer experts analyzed complex, faulty systems, and made their arguments persuasive by appealing to common sense. These differences reveal the influence of technological enthusiasm in U.S. political culture.

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