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Stephen L. Talbott

I'm going to pursue a brief exercise in parallel with the one Henry Perkinson so adroitly executes in his book, No Safety in Numbers: How the Computer Quantified Everything and Made People Risk-Aversive (1996). My aim is not so much to quarrel with Perkinson as to suggest some additions to his analysis that would deepen its explanatory power and perhaps also avert a few problems.

What is Perkinson's Thesis?

Perkinson speaks of the rationalistic dream of Descartes, which presents us with a mathematically structured world we can expect to understand. This rationalism, he writes, "ushered in a period of unlimited optimism that human intelligence -- if enlightened -- could construct a better, if not a perfect, civilization or culture" (p. 172). The advent of the computer, with its superhuman, nearly perfect mathematical and modeling capabilities, was the ideal tool for fulfilling this Cartesian hope.

But, Perkinson tells us, something else happened along the way. When applied to the humane and social studies, the computer drained those disciplines of their traditional significances. Scholars eventually had to be satisfied with abstruse, mathematical models that didn't relate to much of anything they had previously cared about, or else they had to resort to an epistemological relativism that made their own views impregnable (if also hardly worth defending) before the compu