American Literature Association

I’m looking forward to be participating in ALA’s annual meeting for the first time. We’ll be in San Francisco May 24 to May 27. The Digital Americanists Society has put together an exciting panel focusing on critical interventions in DH. I’ve included the panel details below along with my paper proposal. In addition to all the regular conference excitement, I’m thrilled Ishmael Reed will reading on the first night. It promises to be a fun few days.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Session 21-B
Digital Interventions: DH Perspectives on (Dis)ability, Feminism, and Ecology.
Organized by the Digital Americanists Society
Co-chairs: Stefan Schöberlein, University of Iowa; Stephanie M. Blalock, University of Iowa; Kevin McMullen, University of Nebraska—Lincoln.
  1. “Computer, But More So: Autism and Artificial Intelligence,” David Squires, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
  2. “Cyberfeminism: Exploring Feminist Rhetoric and Digital Literacies in New Media,” Cristen Fitzpatrick, St. John’s University
  3. “Magazine Ecology: Network Theory and Nineteenth Century Environmental Periodicals,” Braden J. Krien, University of Iowa


“Computer, But More So: Autism and Artificial Intelligence”

Cybernetics emerged during World War II as an interdisciplinary field at the forefront of theorizing and building computational systems. Thanks to the work of eminent figures such as Alan Turing and Norbert Wiener, theories of artificial intelligence and autonomic computing grew influential beyond scientific circles to capture the imagination of post-War cultural producers. As Orit Halpern explains in her recent study Beautiful Data, cybernetics influenced developments across the humanities, arts, industrial design, and urban planning, marking “a radical shift in attitudes to recoding and displaying information that produced new forms of observation, rationality, and economy based on the management and analysis of data.” The beginnings of digital computing not only created tools to aid human cognition but changed the way people represented and understood cognition as shared by humans and machines.

Building on Halpern’s work to document the social construction of contemporary cognition, this paper shows how cybernetics laid the groundwork for what now appears as the stratified classes of neuro-typical and neuro-atypical subjects. Starting with popular representations of autism, I explain how mainstream and literary fiction has conflated autistic intelligence with computational technologies. The paper then shows how architects of modern information systems relied on the brain as a descriptive metaphor, giving rise to mechanistic theories of intelligence that continue to inform cognitive science. Tracing the emergence of “mechanical brains” will clarify how autism has become the testing ground where cognitive science wrestles with an intractably dichotomous view of material intelligence: at once mechanical, schematic, and robotic as well as chemical, synaptic, and organic.