Merlin, the Brain, and the Market: Intelligent Machines and Global Order in Public Debates in Britain 1945-50

Change log
Rees, Peter 

During and immediately after World War Two (1939-1945), influential public debates in Britain concerned the postwar settlement. This was a global war and Britain was a global empire in its final epoch. A crucial aspect of several schemes for reconstruction and the establishment of global order concerned the place of science—an ostensibly global knowledge form—in the social order. Historians have tended to draw on a relatively narrow range of interlocutors to interpret this polemical landscape as a debate over freedom and planning. This thesis offers a new account of this set of influential polemical interactions by examining a richer cast of participants and by attending to the reflexive quality of the media technologies they used to articulate their arguments. I focus on the programmes forged by three major public intellectuals: J D Bernal, C S Lewis, and F A Hayek. These figures are rarely considered in direct relation to one another and are identified with very different intellectual contributions and political positions, but I show how they were each intensely concerned with the nature and role of science in the social order. All three articulated an image of science as a self-organising system of intelligence which would form the basis of global order.

Setting these three figures in their social and intellectual milieux, I compare and contrast how Bernal, Lewis, and Hayek articulated their different notions of the global and images of the intelligent machinery which would secure global order. These images included Bernal's technoscientific world brain, Lewis’s fairy-tale protagonist Merlinus Ambrosius, and Hayek’s market or price mechanism. I show how, in each case, the media through which they articulated these images claimed to manifest and exercise the power of the intelligent machinery which they described. These figures’ work to articulate these images in mass media to educate their audiences was the work of forging the new global order. They each attempted to transform readers’ attitudes towards and tacit assumptions about science and the globe and to thereby transform the body politic and reconstitute the relationships between humans, nature, and technology. Often exciting and entertaining, their accounts invited and trained public audiences to participate as actors in a world and to see their enemies as occupying different consciousnesses, times, or worlds. I show how these works were cosmological interventions by examining the rhetorical and iconographical strategies they employed to project the techniques of their own cosmology onto the global history of science. An important output of the thesis is its provision of a historical explanation for why images of science matter in public culture. I argue that these figures deployed images of science to define the criteria for who counted as legitimate experts on human affairs. Finally, I use this analysis to reinterpret significant aspects of the genesis of British sociology of scientific knowledge. My first two chapters focus on Bernal, the third and fourth chapters on Lewis, and my fifth and sixth chapters on Hayek.

Staley, Richard
Schaffer, Simon
C. S. Lewis, F. A. Hayek, J. D. Bernal
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Royal Society (LJ/R2/19100097)
The Royal Society