Presentation Orit Halpern - Business as Unusual: Financial Crisis, Computing and Money Machines

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Dr. Orit Halpern (us)

Paranoid Formations: Rationality and Crisis in Cybernetics


This paper historicizes our current discourses of “crisis” by examining how discourses of rationality and paranoia replaced those of crisis to define systemic failure in cybernetics and its related social, cognitive, and communication sciences.


While the immediate relationship between “crisis”, computation, and rationality might not be evident, a closer examination reveals otherwise. I demonstrate how, after the War, rationality came to be redefined in game theory and cybernetics as algorithmic, rule bound, and logically representable in a manner that had little to do with reason, consciousness, or autonomous choice, but everything to do with rethinking humans, machines, and systems in terms of communication, control, and information.


Counter, however, to our commonly held assumptions, rationality, even in game theory, was often defined as paranoid, dissociated from consciousness, and pathological. Early computer programs demonstrated that only the profiles of paranoid schizophrenics could be programmed, and cybernetically informed psychology studies found rational people the most likely to be brainwashed and become violent. Rationality, then, was a blessing and a curse—a technological opportunity and a self-destructive tactic. Could rationality be affective and logical, paranoid and reasonable, centralized and networked? All at the same time? Designers, social scientists, and engineers all recognized that the more successful you were at building a science of control and communication the greater the risk that systems would internally generate chaotic and self-destructive behavior. Reconciling these dialectics became a fantastical imperative for re-engineering everything from machines to minds; a technical mandate that has fundamentally changed what crisis is, and what the discourse can do.