wheat tree
Magnus Rust MA
Assistant / PhD candidate
Philosophisch-Historische Fakultät
Departement Künste, Medien, Philosophie
Professur Krajewski

Assistant / PhD candidate

Holbeinstrasse 12
4051 Basel

Tel. +41 61 207 67 43

Technological innovations lead irrevocably to a loss of autonomy and to the alienation of man from himself. This diagnosis has accompanied industrialized countries since their emergence. But is there really such a thing as a dystopian technology spiral?

The research project investigates for the first time the work and sphere of influence of the German-American computer science pioneer and social critic Joseph Weizenbaum (1923-2008) and asks the question: What did the mutual development of computer technology and computer criticism look like? 

So far, anecdotal reviews have mostly condensed Weizenbaum's life to two milestones: First, 1966 publication of the program ELIZA/DOCTOR, which is considered the first chatbot in computer history. Second, 1976 publication of the computer-critical, i.e., social-critical book "Computer Power and Human Reason," which is still widely received in German-speaking countries today.

The research project follows Weizenbaum's biographical traces and attempts to trace the thought collectives and milieus in which he moved. Beginning with the U.S. Army's meteorological department during World War II and his work on the automated checks system ERMA in the 1950s; in the early 1960s, he made his first contacts with local psychologists and psychoanalysts in California's Bay Area, who significantly influenced the research layout of his later chat program ELIZA/DOCTOR. As a computer science professor at the elite university MIT, he increasingly appeared as a critic of technology and society from the 1970s onward, and until his death was given a label that he made his own: heretic of computer science.

The project traces Weizenbaum's work in the intellectual moiré of his time. Influenced by cybernetics and computer development, by the Shoah, the civil movement and the Vietnam War, by a European humanist tradition and a technological utopianism in the research field of artificial intelligence. The focus is on the reconstruction of his entanglements with colleagues and opponents such as Marvin Minsky, Edward Feigenbaum or Hans Moravec, as well as with like-minded people such as Lewis Mumford, Robert Jungk, Hubert Dreyfus, Herbert Marcuse or Hannah Arendt. Likewise, Weizenbaum's positions are placed in relation to sci-fi readings and images of the future in the USA post bellum.

In the wake of Weizenbaum's life, it is thus possible to understand the dislocations and contingencies of recent computer science history, which form the basis of our current information age. To follow Weizenbaum is to understand the origins of digitization, machine learning, the home computer market, and contemporary Internet criticism.