Modelling Worlds: The Politics of Simulation

A guest post from Nathan Coombs who is an incoming Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He edits the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Politics of the Event: From Marxism to Contemporary French Theory (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). His current research interests are in financial algorithms and financial regulation. He can be contacted at n.coombs (at)



Over the last decade, scholars have become increasingly interested in what we do when we make use of models and simulations. An emerging consensus – often legitimated through reference to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory – is that mathematical models and computer simulations are not passive tools but rather a material force in their own right. Agents may employ such technologies in order to achieve pre-determined ends, but the technologies themselves have an effectivity that exceeds their users’ intentions, and set in place path-dependencies that serve to proscribe the range of political and economic possibility.

This concern with the politics of technology cuts across multiple disciplines including Sociology, Communication Studies, International Relations, International Political Economy, and Management Studies. However, the Social Studies of Finance (SSF) has perhaps gone furthest in exploring the practical implications of modelling and simulation technologies. Applying Austinian and Barnesian notions of performativity, researchers in this field have sought to grasp the way in which economic models shape markets, and to dig into the mathematical and technical details that underpin this process.

Donald MacKenzie’s book An Engine, Not a Camera (2008) is exemplary of this approach, and a common point of reference for scholars in SSF and all the aforementioned disciplines. In his analysis of the development and uptake of the Black-Scholes option-pricing model in the 1970s, MacKenzie aims to show how the model’s employment of the efficient market hypothesis – where stock prices are considered to accurately reflect their risk – led to a period in which the pricing of options came to reflect that predicted by the model. The point of MacKenzie’s analysis is not to endorse the neoclassical economic assumptions codified in the model. Rather, it is to point out how models serve to socially facilitate evaluation practices in the face of complexity, uncertainty, and epistemological opacity. On this basis a model can also contribute to financial instability when it is both widely employed and based on assumptions that are confounded by ‘real world’ contingencies.

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Damage, Reincorporated: A Carbon-Based Author Responds

Paul has produced a couple of highly stimulating posts (here and here) reviewing three books concerned with the contemporary interface between war and technology (Manabrata Guha’s Reimagining War in the 21st Century, James Der Derian’s Virtous War and my own The Scientific Way of Warfare) and that involve both pointed comments on the respective texts and some wider considerations of the challenges posed by the study of present transformations in the exercise of collective violence. With so much to reflect upon, a full post is called for in order to respond to the rich lines of thought suggested by Paul and I will attempt to do so here, however incompletely, by taking on specific comments directed at my own work before offering some brief remarks on its relation to the two other books reviewed.

War is War, PERIOD

Paul points to the limitations inherent to the periodisation I propose and I would accept that, for all the caveats and qualifications I have sought to make, the neatness of the technoscientific typology developed inevitably leaves it open to a range of criticisms. It necessarily occludes or minimises the other influences that have impacted military change, it papers over much of the cultural and historical particularities of national military organisations, and it does not really allow for the ebb and flow of different doctrines that cut across different periods. The empirical evidence supporting such a periodisation is likewise obviously selective and, at their weakest, I think the connections I draw between scientific ideas and military practice are more impressionistic than as thoroughly substantiated as I could have wished. Sweeping as it does through four hundred years of history, the work is unabashedly a much more generalising and grand theorising undertaking than the careful and painstakingly detailed studies into the interplay of technoscience and war that have been produced within the field of science and technology studies on topics such as missile guidance or the origins of cybernetics and therefore may well have fallen prey to some of the pitfalls of such a perilous exercise. At the very least though, I would hope the typology is a useful heuristic device for thinking through various tensions inherent to the organisation and application of military force.

In its more forceful defence however, the typology is not intended to imply that in any given period all contemporaneous ideational and social constructs are ruled by the scientific and technological frameworks of the day (something which my use of the term “technoscientific regime” might unfortunately suggest – I remember agonising a long time over the terminology and never settled it to my entire satisfaction). Rather these frameworks act as pregnant sources of meaning among others but with the particularity that they are endowed with the special prestige granted to scientific rationality in modern societies (science in turn being shaped by its wider cultural and institutional settings). In this sense, the notions of metaphor and resonance I employ point to a much more partial and piecemeal role in the shaping of thought than the episteme presented in Foucault’s The Order of Things and in this more limited regard I think the periodisation continues to stand up quite well.

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