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Blog posts tagged as 'cybernetics'

Tangled histories


I saw Brian Eno and Steven Johnson in conversation on Monday night at the ICA, and Johnson talked about an approach he calls the long zoom or maybe consilience. The invention of air (the subject of his book) must take in the context of the Enlightenment; the energy and machines released by the Industrial Revolution; discussions, letters and social relations; and the shift from alcohol to coffee. All scales interconnect. None determine.

I enjoy these interwoven histories. In Pandora’s Hope, Bruno Latour tells how Pasteur and microbes bring each other to life, buttressed by laboratory experiments and arguments in letters to other scientists. Pasteur, microbes and instruments each have their own capacities to act and collaborate, and it’s only in their actions that we remember any of them; that history is made.

Yesterday morning I had an exciting meeting with a potential cybernetics researcher. I hope it works out. We found tight knots and long arcs: gnosis, McLuhan, Shannon’s information theory, mind/body, and Neuromancer; racism, eugenics, Mead, post-structuralism; prosthetics and body modification.



We’re now 20 years after the Prague Revolution of November 1989, that threshold year for modern Europe. It is a tangled history: all views of the events are partial and are often contradictory. No single factor determines. Historical trajectories lasting five decades are as important as lies told to credulous protestors, and as important as an invisible-to-us political game played between the secret police of Soviet Russian and Czechoslovakia. All we can do is tell stories.

The Prague revolution is a history best seen as constructive interference; a kind of aleph moment of trajectories and events; a cloud formation in a particular spot brought about by humidity and foliage and gaps in the clouds, a nest or complex of feedback loops; a self-reinforcing discontinuity.

Some years ago I made a timeline from journals and journalism I could find online. 1989 is right at the beginning of online personal narrative, which is one of the qualities that attracted me. In the end I wrote a story about Martin Smid, the student who didn’t die, but whose death at the hands of the police catalysed the revolution: Listopad, Prague 1989.

I don’t know why I write this. I’m interested in tangles and multi-actor histories, and how you tell stories in them. Books are for the linearisable. Hypertext is for hyperhistories. I’m curious about how simple patterns in behaviours or social relationships somehow persist, complexify and grow over decades and hundreds of thousands of people, and somehow don’t die away.

That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in cybernetics — surely it’s important, the weird individual relationships, the probes into the nature of being human, the mix of countercultural and military-industrial, the attitudes and ideas, all fermenting in the bottleneck population that contributed so much to modern culture? Surely those patterns persisted and weren’t diluted, and will throw light on the here and now? Beginnings matter.

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.

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