Ctrl + All. Computing the Social

Project "Computing the Social. Psychographics and Social Physics in the Digital Age"

In 1967, at the dawn of the age of digital information technology and in the middle of an escalating guerrilla war in South Vietnam, the U.S. Army set up a massive data-processing system. It was designed to contain all available information on the social structure of South Vietnam's rural population and to be able to survey and depict the political acceptance of the government. Data-processing in the Vietnam War can be considered as as an early historical attempt of monitoring, modelling and manipulating the attitudes and activities of societies with means of digital information technology and data-processing.

"Computing the Social. Psychographics and Social Physics in the Digital Age" is a 4-year research projcet funded by the "Ambizione" scheme of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The project is based on the assumption that databases and their management systems constitute primary sources in their own right. Thus the project explores the general potential of reviving historical database-management-systems and re-enacting their functional principles. Thereby, it also explores the general preconditions and requirements for archival preservation of historic data-processing systems and their analysis by historians.


The project is committed to the principles of open science and free and open-source software. Being of highly explorative and experimental character, the research process is rendered as transparent as possible. As a publicly funded research project, it and makes all results and software developed as part of the project freely and publicly available. Code and full documentation is maintained on codeberg.


Principal Investigator is Dr. Moritz Feichtinger, software is developed by pukkamustard.

Historic Backgound: Databasing and Population Control in the Vietnam War

The US-Army operated several automated data processing systems during the war in Vietnam, for example for supply and logistics inventories, mission records, or records relating to pay, pensions, and so on. This research project, however, is interested only in such systems that related to the counterinsurgency effort, specifically. The central agency to coordinate the political aspects of anti-guerrilla war, the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS, founded in 1967) made ample use of computerized data processing. Some of these databases were designed to capture the demographic structure, but also the political attitudes and aspirations of the rural population in South Vietnam, as well as their reactions to government and US-forces policy and programs. This project will revisit three data-processing systems in greater detail, the Hamlet Evaluation System (HES), the Pacification Attitude Analysis System (PAAS), and the Psychological Operation Information System (PSYOPSIS).

System and Formats

Data processing in the Vietnam War era was carried out on IBM S/360 mainframe machines. Some of the data was stored in IBM's own EBCDIC format, and some in a format called NIPS 360 FFS: The National Information Processing System Formatted File System. NIPS was a file management system format that emerged from the 1400 Formatted File System and was specially developed for the US military. This early database-like system was developed in the 1960s and used in many instances by the US Department of Defense and the military. NIPS formatted records consist of a control set, a fixed set, a periodic set (or several, including sub-sets), and a variable set (or several). It includes File Format Tables to describe the structure and nature of records in their first segments and therefore belongs to the family of self-descriptive file formats.

Approach: Experimental Re-Enacting of Historic Information Processing

The research project is overall exploratory and experimental. The aim is to gain fundamental and transferable experience with the conversion and analysis of obsolete file formats and the critical simulation of historic database systems. The project proceeds in four major project steps:

  1. conversion of the data sets (from obsolete formats) and extraction of structural and metadata containing information on the functionality of the system;
  2. annotation of the converted data (with information on provenance, integrity and position in the overall system) and integration into an RDF knowledge graph;
  3. Simulation of the historical processes and routines and analysis of the application context of the systems in the course of the war and political process;
  4. Publication of annotated data sets as linked open data and in the form of a web-based simulation of the overall system.