Do Torturers Dream of Electric Sheep? Cybernetics, Law, and Technocratic Fantasies in Cold War Turkey

By Joakim Parslow
Submitted to Session P4891 (Law and Ideology in the Turkish Republic, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
From the early to mid-1970s, Turkish lawyers, judges, criminologists, and information scientists participated in a series of conferences on “cybernetics in law.” The initiative came from Toygar Akman, a philosopher, lawyer, and member of a circle of theorists consisting also of Ayhan Songar, a neurologist, Sedat Akal?n, an economics and business scholar, and Ali ?rtem, a management consultant. Although cybernetics had by then become the centerpiece of government-funded research programs as far apart as Chile and the USSR, in Turkey it had remained limited to this small group of thinkers at the margins of intellectual life. Yet from 1971 onward, their futuristic explorations took center stage with promises of computerized identification of criminals and automated judging machines that would prevent case backlogs and conflicting appellate rulings.

What explains this sudden interest in cybernetics among Turkey’s top legal thinkers and practitioners? What implications did it have for Turkish political-legal thought during the turbulent decade before the 1980 military coup? In this paper, I examine the extant conference proceedings and surrounding discourse on technological approaches to governing and judging to argue that Turkey’s short-lived cybernetics craze must be seen in the context of a wider turn toward technocratic governance, a turn which came in reaction to the violent politicization of state institutions such as the judiciary and police during the 1960s. After the March 1971 coup, when the Armed Forces installed an “apolitical” cabinet while allowing ultranationalists in the security forces to torture thousands of leftist detainees, statesmen from the center left to the far right sought a new scientific-administrative paradigm on which to build a more stable form of governance than the democratic Rechtsstaat embodied in the 1961 Constitution. Cybernetics appeared to offer an approach unblemished by association with the major schools of thought, whether Marxist, conservative, or Kemalist. Drawing on the history of second-generation systems theory, I argue that while much of this theorization manifested a creative, optimistic approach to technology and life that might now be labeled transhumanist, the brief but significant introduction of cybernetic thinking into Turkish state circles also signaled the longing for a disembodied and therefore morally and politically unassailable position of governing beyond the distinction between power and law, friend and enemy, rights-bearing legal subject and torturable bare life.