Arcana Mathematica Imperii: The Evolution of Western Computational Norms

January 21st, 2017

“Arcana Mathematica Imperii: The Evolution of Western Computational Norms”, in: Maria Hlavajova et al. (eds) Former West. MIT Press, 2017. +PDF

German trans.: “Arcana Mathematica Imperii: Über die Entwicklung westlicher Rechennormen”. In: Anselm Franke et al. (eds) Nervöse Systeme. Berlin: Matthes und Seitz, 2017. +PDF


Etymologically, statistics is knowledge of the state, of the forces and resources that characterize a state at a given moment . . . this was an explicit part of raison d’État called the arcana Imperii, the secrets of power, and for a long time statistics in particular were considered as secrets of power not to be divulged.
— Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, and Population, 1978.

In the nonspace of the matrix, the interior of a given data construct possessed unlimited subjective dimension.
— William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984.

Abstract. The essay follows the metamorphosis of the symbolic form of Western power in the age of global datacenters and machine learning algorithms. Three cases studies of numerical governance (or algorithmic governance) are discussed: Compstat — a system of crime record visualization developed by the New York Police Department since 80s; SkyNet — a NSA classified program for metadata analysis of communication networks in the ‘war on terror’; Ayasdi — a company sponsored by DARPA (the research agency of the US Department of Defense) that has developed sophisticated techniques for topological data analysis.

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