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Cybernetics: researcher wanted

I’m into cybernetics. Or rather: I think that the cybernetics movement of mid last century is the hidden nexus of interconnected postwar history.

cybenetics interconnections

The 1946 Macy Conference is kind an aleph moment. In attendance were people intrinsically involved in computers and prosthesis (the collaboration of man and machine), modern anthropology and modern neuroscience (what it means to be human), game theory (the Cold War and the conversion of people into cogs). We can trace direct paths through counterculture and social organisation, decentralisation and the Web, and to a socialist Chilean internet. There are connections to cults, advertising, social software and games, rocketry, suburbia, complexity theory and ecology. Historical roots lie in golems and pneumatic tubes, science fiction and weaving, pataphysics and the telegraph. The language of our information society was created, often knowingly, by these people. Cybernetics is the beautiful and ugly and ambiguous heart of our information society.

I have a dozen or so books in my collection that directly speak about these era. Two that stand out are both by Steve Joshua Heims: Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group, 1946-1953; and John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death.

What’s wonderful about this history is that it’s a history of people. It’s all people who know people. The messy social world of this invented science that then vanishes undermines its own contention that humans can be modelled as components. It is a story that cannot be linearised, it is a hypertext history; a hyperhistory of actors and networks, only tellable through contradictory, subjective points of view. Yet there are aspects of known history that, I believe, only make sense when you see the hidden particle traces, the lives of the attendees of the Macy Conferences and who they knew.

It has been a pet project of mine, for a few years, to somehow tell this story. Many of the key participants are no longer with us. Understanding the modern world, in this time of change, is important. It should be known that common practices in our innocuous online spaces were thrashed out as military efforts. Conversely it should be known that the mindset computers were borne out of was reactionary and weird and perverse from the very outset.

Help wanted

I’d like some help assembling the research. I’m not sure precisely where it’ll go – for a while I thought I’d write a book, and now I have other ideas – but what I do know is that I’d like to work with a researcher for 3-6 months to turn books, articles and references into research notes: the foundation for future work.

I have a starting set of books, and a pretty clear idea of what I need as output (one reference point is Anne Galloway’s re/touch encyclopaedia). If you’re the researcher I’d like to work with, you’re already knowledgeable about postwar America and one or two of the topics associated with cybernetics. You’re good with book research, following leads like a hungry investigative journalist, and diligent with references. You’re probably in research academia in an allied field, and you may have your own use for this work. This is a part-time job, and it’s maybe another small piece of funding for you. You’ll be a self starter, and glory in interconnections and libraries both.

Why am I talking about this in public? Well, I don’t know the right researcher. Is this you, or is it someone you know? It’s speculative work – just following my nose – and I can put about £3,000-5,000 aside. If you’d like to have a chat, please do get in touch.

10 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. Jim Rossignol said on 22 October 2009...

    That sounds like an awesome gig. I’ll be interested to see what you turn up.

  • 2. Lee said on 22 October 2009...

    Good luck with this. I am also fascinated by this period and the confluence of so many influences and forces that shaped the way computing developed. I displayed my ignorance here:; but the reason I mention this is because you might want to talk to Richard Barbrook, whose book Imaginary Futures touches on similar ground – he might at least know some researchers to talk to. I blogged a lecture he gave in preparing the book here:

  • 3. _marks said on 22 October 2009...

    i thought i was into cybernetics for awhile. tried to read wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings, but was straightup bewildered.

    i look forward to your results.

  • 4. Andreas said on 22 October 2009...

    Sounds like it would be a fascinating, albeit very comprehensive study. I’ve only recently come across cybernetics myself through Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control, and I am now digging into the legacy of the cybernetics group.

    In that vein, you might be interested in my remix of Out of Control – which highlights the cybernetic elements of the book, which in itself is an exploration of how cybernetics have lived on after the original cybernetics group:

    I’ve tried to sum up the main themes in the introduction. I’d love to dig deeper and help you out with this, but there’s a lot of ground to cover before I’d be qualified to do so.

  • 5. Amber Case said on 23 October 2009...

    I am a cyborg anthropologist studying human and non-human interaction. I work as a consultant to support my research efforts, but my consulting work requires quite a lot of research. My colleagues are very connected to various scholars in this field, and we talk about the subject often. Looking further into this is something I would be interested in. I do not have the time to do research full-time but could contribute part-time for a longer period. I could also tap my network for insights as a journalist does.

    I would love the opportunity to dedicate time to cybernetics research. It is difficult to write a book or long paper alone, and I would welcome someone to bounce notes off of. My E-mail address is included above if you decide to take these short paragraphs more seriously.

    Cheers and best of luck with your research!

  • 6. Dan Olner said on 23 October 2009...

    I’m fascinated by the parallel histories/politics of cybernetics and complex adaptive systems. I think – well, a few people think – Hayek was a proto-CAS thinker. It’s telling that he has an honoured place in CAS research – see e.g.

    – but cybernetics appears to have been barred from the economic/political party. See e.g. Reading Uni’s Cybernetics page – cybernetics “can be applied to a great variety of systems, technological, involving animals and the environment. It can also be applied to economic systems, but at Reading we don’t pretend we can control the economy!”

    Cybernetics is still terribly… Soviet, isn’t it? Despite underpinning a great deal of operations research to this day.

    I’d love to see a parallel biography of Hayek and Stafford Beer: both of them coming into their own after WWII, in different ways – Hayek with the Road to Serfdom (serialised in the US in the Reader’s Digest!) and Beer forging his cybernetics in huge industrial companies. By the time of the Chilean coup, Stafford Beer’s dream is broken and Hayek is coming in out of the cold, soon to be Godfather to a whole political movement – including private lessons for Thatcher.

    Both Hayek and Stafford Beer had a grasp of complexity: the best socialist economists were managing after WWII was to take neoclassical equilibrium models and say “well – replace the mathematical auctioneer with an *actual* planning board, you got yer socialist state right there!” And now we have the curious situation where Hayek is more central to people’s thinking about modelling complex systems than e.g. Stafford Beer, despite never having really analysed any systems, er, systematically.

    Anyhoo – here’s a link to me being all incredibly excited, having just discoverd Stafford Beer. There’s a link to a video of him outlining his VSM work in Chile that’s well worth watching.

    I’m trying (and failing currently) to get some cybernetics in my PhD modelling, and talking to some people who knew Stafford Beer. If any kind of little research cluster gets going from this I’d love to lurk / occasionally throw in the odd blogwaffle.

  • 7. Bill said on 23 October 2009...

    I assume you’ve read Ross Ashby’s stuff. He wrote a good book calle “An Introduction to Cybernetics”. You can get a free .pdf here:

    Also a good site with digitized versions of his journals:

    Good luck with your project, sounds pretty cool!

  • 8. Fouzi Ben-Ali said on 16 April 2010...

    Just posted a working paper on my site titled “History of Systemic and Cybernetic Thought From Homeostasis to the Teardrop” which reviews the contributions of the eminent cyberticians and systems theorists for the past century. It took some three years to put the paper togther with the prime objective to summaryze the area of study for my Arabic graduate students who had great difficulty in obtaining and reading the works of the pioneers. I believe it is of value as an introductionary handout to any student of systems and cybernetic theory. I did my Phd thesis on Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model and was fortunate to have had the Late Professor of Cybernetics as my external thesis examiner. The use of “teardrop” in the title is reflective of my sadness to the loss in the past 15 to 20 years of most of the great pioneers that laid the foundation for these sciences. Comments on the working paper are welcomed by mail on and write in subject line “cybernetic teardrop paper” so I will know it is not spam. Posting the paper online for anyone to use it is because I have often seen many third world students unable to obtain copies from the systems and cybernetic journals because they simply cannot afford it or lack a credit card. Knowledge should be available to anyone that seeks it.

  • 9. Dan W said on 9 June 2011...

    That sounds like an interesting plan. Are there any public results from this project?

  • Trackback: Cybernetics, the ambiguous heart « Justin Pickard 2 December 2009

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