AFCLC, Air Force Culture and Language Center, Air Force's Global Classroom

Speaking Air-Forcefully: The Gonculator Knows Best

  • Published
  • By Dr. Angelle Khachadoorian, AFCLC Associate Professor of Anthropology
  • AFCLC

Today’s Speaking Air Forcefully term is “the gonculator” – a mythical, mysterious problem-solving machine that crunches overwhelming masses of data and then offers an optimal solution. 

Do you have to make a solid and informed decision about a complex issue, but the process feels paralyzing? Send the whole mess to “the gonculator!” Or abstractly reference “the gonculator” to the affirming nods of your audience. (Worth noting: the term is “the gonculator,” not “a gonculator,” as there is apparently only one that everyone uses). Calling in the gonculator highlights several things: your struggle in making a solid decision in the situation, your commitment to accurate data analysis, and your subtle admission that you won’t be doing your own data-crunching stunts.  

The gonculator’s enigmatic nature is key to its appeal – you don’t need to know how it works; you need to trust its results. First, information is entered into the gonculator’s innards, and then it does something undefined and unwitnessed to produce an actionable, accurate answer (unlike, say, when you “kludge” something together). 

I first heard this term in a meeting evaluating a cost-saving suggestion for a project. There were concerns about possible negative impacts to the program. In response, the meeting chair announced, “Let’s put it into the gonculator and see.” I was puzzled because the phrase was so cutesy and Seussian, and the meeting chair was neither of those things. I tried using context clues, but all I could imagine was a multi-person musical instrument played in Whoville. The more I learned about “the gonculator,” which I long assumed was spelled with a “k” like “junk,” it sounded less sweet and silly and more like a 1960s mainframe, silently filling a vast, sterile room, its face-panel covered with oscillators and flashing lights.  

Where is this gonculator? Who is responsible for maintaining it? How does it get its data? The mysteries that swirl around the gonculator help to keep it free from human biases or interference. The gonculator’s results are more precise than answers offered by a Magic 8Ball and more benign than anything dreamed up by SkyNet. It is everything that humans wish a computer was, but with no risk of being told, in a polite yet homicidal British voice, that it has locked you out of the space station, leaving you to drift to your doom. (As far as I can tell, gonculators don’t talk. They just figure things out.) 

I find three characteristics of the gonculator concept particularly interesting: 1. Its origins, 2. Who has access; and 3. Its relationship to other helpful technologies. 

First, like other Speaking Air-Forcefully terms, the term “gonculator” is derived from technology, even though that technology is not real. The original gonculator is a pop-culture reference, a technological farce. It was a plot device from an episode of Hogan’s Heroes, and it does nothing more than smoke and spark. Hogan’s crew pretended it was a piece of secret technology held by the Allies. It was an Enigma machine whose purpose was itself an enigma to all of the characters on the show. The original gonculator did none of the computing tricks or tasks of the contemporary term, and the characters treated it as being so secret that no one could admit to its existence. The original gonculator’s job was to create confusion in the form of a literal smokescreen for a character to escape off of the show’s soundstage. 

After entering Air Force lingo, gonculator shifted from being an object whose sole responsibility is to sow confusion to becoming an imagined technology that literally serves to clear up confusion. I think the word’s origins are part of its appeal – the gonculator is a “complex” piece of mysterious technology from a military-themed television show with a secret purpose, which helps to move its users to their goal. It is a playful way to acknowledge that sometimes a technology clearly works, but the user would be hard-pressed to explain how. 

Second, the gonculator plays an interesting role in assisting but not driving the human decision-making chain. It falls in the center of a “helpful technology” triangle, the sides of which are composed of a robot, desktop computer, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). The roles of these three technologies are built into their names: The robot labors for humans (from the Russian verb ‘to work’ --robotat / работать), the desktop computer “computes” or solves problems, and AIs make intelligent, informed decisions. The gonculator does all of these things, but without needing human effort to complete its tasks (who enters data into the gonculator in the first place?) and without the threat of enacting solutions that disregard human agency, choices, or safety (as much science fiction warns us about AIs). 

Lastly, the gonculator is a term whose usage is fundamentally entwined with power dynamics. Using the gonculator is not an option for just anyone; it’s only for those in leadership roles. Leaders are responsible for decisions, not raw labor, so they don’t need to know how the data-analysis sausage gets made. The figuring will be done off-site and out of sight, and the answers will be useful and unbiased. Colonels can send things to the gonculator. A newly minted second lieutenant, I will note, cannot send things off to the gonculator because, in many cases, they are the gonculator. 

The appeal of having a gonculator is obvious – the name is silly, so we are not afraid of it. It solves all kinds of problems, yet it does not have agency or individual identity. Instead, it simply helps humans make good decisions, producing scrupulous answers off-stage so as not to scare us with any sparking or smoking or horrible grinding sounds, all without trying to erase humanity from the earth.
 

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