Maintaining Humans

Teaching Machine

This chapter, from the edited collection Cold War Social Science, forms part of a flourishing interest in histories of maintenance. It explores how maintenance and repair became an object of intense interest for cold-war psychology. Electronic failures were everywhere in the late 1950s — burnt-out vacuum tubes, shorted capacitors, smoking resistors. They plagued the sprawling defense infrastructures of the early Cold War, threatening strategic plans for World War III. In that context, the figure of the maintenance technician emerged as a focus of intense observation and anxiety for the military-funded human sciences. Taken up by engineering psychology, the problem of maintaining and repairing electronics was, for engineering psychologists, a problem of defining repair technicians as figures who could think and act in trustworthy ways. Tracking those concerns through wider anxieties about “teaching machines,” human rationality, and cultures of distrust, the chapter explores how the history of maintenance is central, not only to the history of technology, but to the history of the Cold War.

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