My Book Proposal

I promised (if that’s the word) to keep my faithful followers updated on the progress of my proposed book. As I think I said a few weeks ago, every time I though of the proposal, I was overcome by lethargy and started writing the blog, doing the crossword, or making marmalade. However, I seem finally to have written nearly the amount of stuff that the Pluto people want; so I’m posting it here in case anyone would like to help me finish it off. Particularly if anyone knows of any competing books, where as I’ve said, I’ve no idea.




1. Provisional title: Mathematics, Money, Drugs, and War: the precise structure of domination in today’s world


2. Statement of aims: To demonstrate: a) how mathematics, with its claim to exact results, has become a central instrument of control; b) the problematical nature of its ‘exactness’, and how its failures are masked. This is done by a series of case studies in particular areas of application.


Why it is needed: There is enormous ignorance about the importance of mathematics – as opposed to technology – in the world today. I am not speaking of the obvious, all-pervasive internet, but of a number of techniques which – because no one really knows about them – have become completely dependent on mathematics for their successful operation. I could refer to banking, but an equally interesting example is the use of drones in warfare, Mathematics is used to design how they work, and to prove that their workings are effective – and in particular to deny the existence of civilian casualties.

It is my aim to uncover a number of places where mathematics is crucial in the present-day power régime, and to encourage readers to look for others.


The other points: The book is special and original because there is nothing else making the same point, and the point (which will have a wide appeal) needs to be made. It will be marketable because I shall write it in such a way that it appeals to readers – as I did with my previous book – not too long, well illustrated, interesting and readable. (My own opinion, but I think a fair one.) It’s suitable for the Pluto list for the obvious reason that it uncovers and analyses important aspect of the neoliberal power structure (which Pluto books are meant to be agin).


3. What it is about:

The book is not about mathematics; it is about the current structure of power and its relation to mathematics. The modern battleground could not function without the massive employment of mathematical techniques. The production and consumption of statistics at all levels, from the specialist to the popular, is essential in opinion-formation; while ‘financial mathematics’ is a new discipline which has transformed the practice of finance. And a wide array of security procedures, down to the simple Oyster card, depend for their value on the work of cryptographers who use abstract mathematics at all levels. These are all examples of how mathematics is central to the exercise of power in the world today.

This is not to say that mathematics is itself that power. Some of the most important analysis which remains to be done is the understanding of where human judgment is to be found and of how it uses mathematical means in pursuit of its ends.


Overall structure and level

In an introductory chapter, I shall set the scene; referring to Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic analysis of ‘instrumental rationality’, I shall point out how the advent of the computer, in particular, has led to an enormous increase in the ease with which the aims of power can be attained, at the same time as it obscures the process. This chapter will be a general discussion setting the scene. To quote the Dialectics of Enlightenment:

‘Thinking objectifies itself to become an automatic, self-activating process; an impersonation of the machine that it produces itself so that ultimately the machine can replace it. Enlightenment has put aside the classical requirement of thinking about thought. . . . Mathematical procedure became, so to speak, the ritual of thinking. In spite of the axiomatic self-restriction, it establishes itself as necessary and objective: it turns thought into a thing, an instrument. . . .’

This is the process which I shall discuss, in the context of a general outline of the current neoliberal regime – neocolonial dependencies, wars, and all. I shall briefly address here – because it can’t be skipped – the point that the whole structure does in certain cases work for ‘good’, as when the understanding of a mathematical structure in the geometry of the AIDS virus makes progress possible.  There’s no point in oversimplifying.

The succeeding chapters will be ‘case studies’ which unpack the relations between power and mathematics in important particular areas. Finally, in conclusion, I shall consider the gaps in my argument – the areas untouched by the process, and the areas of resistance.

As with my earlier history, I hope that the level will not be too demanding. It is possible to write about mathematics and its uses, even giving details of what is being done, without asking too much of one’s readers beyond intellectual curiosity. I recall (as I so often do) Hogben’s 1930’s text  ‘Mathematics for the Million’, which encouraged a mass audience to come to terms with some quite demanding ideas, on the basis that they were an important part of how we understand the world.


Main chapter headings

1. Introduction

Mathematics is true; and it works – these two aspects define its importance in society. Even before we refer to the present day and to the capitalist world order, we can see through history a ruling class who has exercised domination by abstracting from the complexity of its subjects and numbering them, quantifying their goods, their output, their lands. That this was already present at the dawn of ‘mathematics’ in Babylonian times is an interesting historical point. What has changed now is the extent of the mathematical mechanisms of control – and the extent to which they escape control. Bankers, generals, politicians, are increasingly dependent on mechanisms which they understand poorly, and we, their victims know even less. I shall give an outline of a classic argument (that of Adorno and Horkheimer), and indicate how, if exaggerated in the 1940s, it was prescient as regards today’s society.

2. Mathematics and smart warfare

Mathematics has for a long time been recruited as an aid to wage more efficient warfare; the problem being that the weapons could not be precisely described or controlled. After the disaster of Vietnam (mass inaccurate bombing, final defeat) came the ideology of the ‘smart’ bomb, a weapon which, thanks to a precise mathematical guidance system, would strike exactly the desired target; this arrived in time for the First Gulf War in 1990. This chapter will detail the interplay of military decision making with the development of guidance systems (GPS, etc); with the all-important arrival of ‘9/11’ and the shift from installations to ‘hostile individuals’ as targets. I shall also discuss the constant problems of the need to overestimate the ‘smart weapon’’s accuracy.

3. Finance – money detached from its generation

Here I begin by considering a spectacular event – the 2008 crash and the subsequent unraveling of the Western financial system. It’s generally accepted that a key role in the crash was played by the practice of ‘securitization’ and the construction of complex mathematical financial ‘instruments’ whose value was never precisely determined. The question which arises is, are financial mathematicians, or those who employ them, conscious of the defects in the methods which they promote? The Nobel prizes awarded to financial mathematicians suggest that their discipline is thought to be based on secure foundations.  It seems that it is not.

4. The digitization of the individual – codes and biometrics

Again, the attempt to codify the characteristics of individuals for purposes of surveillance etc is an ancient one, with modern twists. The chapter starts from the story of the transfer of the ‘biometric records’ of one million Iraqis to Virginia by the US Army, and asks what has been transferred, and with what aim. I shall investigate the way in which, through the DNA code, individuals can be reduced to a ‘digital’ signature; and the uses and pitfalls of DNA profiling. I shall also consider simpler records of biometric data such as iris codes. Once again, the questions raised are: how far, by mathematical means, individuals have been/can be replaced by digital records; and what exaggerated claims need to be made for this replacement.

5. The elimination of the individual, or statistics

A much longer history can be ascribed to statistics – a science in which humans cease to exist as individuals and become the simple objects of a counting exercise. Once again, the question is: counting with what aim? The statistician always decides who constitutes the ‘population’; and then, how it is to be subdivided. A well-known example is the ‘poverty line’ for households, currently set at 60% of the median national income. This definition is not always accepted, and has strange consequences – for example, if the median income falls (as has happened recently), the poverty statistics may improve. Other examples involve classifying the population according to ‘race’ or gender. In each case, all qualities of the person are abstracted from apart from the chosen indicator – to what end?

6. Security

This overlaps with several of the preceding chapters, in that where any technology is developed, it will probably involve encoding procedures, or ‘security’. The role of encoding in society is much wider than this, sometimes well-known, sometimes suspected (do the government read all our text messages, or, why would they want to?), sometimes completely unknown. Here, the work of modern algebraists has enabled crucial advances, which are used by the internet community and the manufacturers of mobile phones, but also, predictably, by the military.

7. Conclusion

To an extent the preceding tour d’horizon is intended to give an image of a world in which the powerful control everything, since mathematics is always right. As we know, both statements are oversimplifications. There are limits to technology, and there are ways of contesting it. The world is more complex than its mathematical reduction; resistance is possible on many fronts, including both the ‘marginal life’ of those who escape scrutiny and the deliberate counter-mathematics of hackers.


4. Format

The anticipated length should be about 60,000 words (six chapters) – including notes, references and bibliography.

I hope very much to incorporate quite a number of illustrations – line drawings and photographs- from various sources. I appreciate the point about copyright – my previous book had a large number of illustrations, and I cleared the copyright wherever it was necessary.


5. Delivery

If the proposal is approved, I would hope to submit the manuscript by December 2013.


6. Market

Rather than dividing into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’, I’d like to point in two directions:

(i) students on university courses in ‘history/philosophy of science’, many of which now incorporate modules which focus on the place of science in contemporary society.

(ii) members of the ‘technologically literate’ general public (one could think of readers of various magazines such as Wired, or contributors to internet forums on technological developments) – those with an anti-capitalist oppositional viewpoint.


Subject areas:

Politics, History/Philosophy of Science, Technology


Main national markets

No particular restriction, given the global theme.


Readership level

As with my previous book, I do expect readers not to be afraid of mathematical language, diagrams, explanations. That said, I don’t plan to introduce any concepts which aren’t explained. For example, the ‘Li copula’, widely blamed for the 2008 crash, is a mechanism for assessing the prices of complex financial instruments via correlation. It’s important to know this fact, and a simplified explanation of what it is, and does, can be found in dozens of places on the Internet. Clearly, it’s not beyond a certain generally defined ‘common reader’.


7. Competitive Books

I have worked quite hard at this, and honestly there is nothing. comparable; internet searches involving such obvious (to me) terms as ‘global’, ‘finance’, ‘mathematics’, and ‘power’ give results which, while sometimes containing interesting insights, are not books aimed at a general market.

[Comparison with Hardt and Negri’s Empire]


8. Me.

I have been a career academic mathematician – which has involved teaching students all varieties of mathematics from the 1960s to my retirement around 2003.  Since then, I have continued to teach history of mathematics, and wrote, for my course, the textbook A History of Mathematics: From Mesopotamia to Modernity, (OUP 2005), now in paperback.. I have also been involved in left politics of one kind and another for the last 55 years, with varying degrees of commitment. Most recently, in relation to the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign.

So as not to vegetate, I took a course leading to an LL.M. degree in human rights law at Birkbeck two years ago; although I’m rather too old for anyone to use the skills I acquired, there’s always a possibility.





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