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<nettime> Re: cybernetics and the Internet
Brian Holmes on Mon, 12 Jun 2006 01:25:11 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Re: cybernetics and the Internet

Dear Kenneth Werbin and everybody -

By a simple, ironic fact of "information overload" (an 
overfull mailbox) I missed what is, to my mind, the most 
interesting post I have read on this list for years, which 
Mark Stahlman and Ronda Hauben then responded to, but in 
ways which have not, I think, exhausted the subject.

The original comments went like this:

"Today, we value information openings and fear closures 
against social noise; we fear the -isms they may produce. 
This is life in open social order, in cybernetic ecumenical 
society. And we are not here by chance. There is a legacy to 
this project, of which the internet is but one component. 
This legacy traces back to cybernetics and the mass adoption 
of a mathematical philosophy that is based on undertsanding 
both humans and machines as 'open information processing 
systems'. Through a variety of mapping techniques based on 
notions of feedback loops, cybernetics seeks to model 
socio-technical organizations and environments in order to 
subject them to simulation and experimentation with the aim 
of predicting movement and behavior, and ultimately 
controlling it. While early adoption of such mathematical 
philosophy was exclusively military, such notions quickly 
extended to questions of social order, leading to a series 
of initiatives spearheaded by the US government since the 
mid-40s to 'connect' people globally in the hopes of 
eliminating what an Adorno study on 'Racism in America' 
called the 'authoritarian personality'.

"Simply put, the idea was that the more 'open' and 
'connected' people are, the less inclined they will be to 
take extreme 'authoritarian' positions of hate. The adoption 
of cybernetics as a basis for a worldwide social order was 
cemented at the Macy conferences in Chicago in the mid 
1940s, which were attended by cybernetic and psychological 
luminaries including Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson, 
Margaret Mead, von Neumann, von Forester and Kurt Lewin, as 
well as the CIA. These conferences ultimately gave rise to a 
series of 'open' social experiments including the LSD 
experiments at Harvard, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters 
and also ARPANET. Contrary to many accounts of the impetus 
for ARPANET, the idea of an 'open social order' to encourage 
a world without hate was the fundamental goal behind the 
advent of the internet's predecessor, not fear of nuclear 

It seems to me that the position you are taking here is very 
complex, marked by a fundamental ambiguity. Based on your 
understanding of the Internet as a social experiment in the 
implementation of controlled complexity, you argue for a 
form of "closure" - the taking of positions, the filtering 
out of noise - that in your view, if I get you right, will 
be the only way to truly "open up" a digital culture that is 
being plagued by inertia ("information overload").

Now, I have a lot of reasons to be very interested in your 
argument, not the least of which is a paper I wrote years 
back, and which continues to be reprinted and translated in 
various languages, called "The Flexible Personality." It 
examines the development of the networked economy precisely 
as a systemic response to the spectre of the "authoritarian 
personality" described by Adorno et. al. You might find 
certain parallels to your ideas in my text, which if you're 
curious is in my archive at www.u-tangente.org, accessible 
under my name at the left, in the section "Hieroglyphs of 
the Future." However, the text has no particular importance; 
whereas I think the precise discussion that you are bringing 
up really does.

Over the years I have only become more interested in the 
ways that a cybernetic approach allows for the control of 
complex systems, by intervening, as Foucault once said, "not 
on the players but on the rules of the game." It seems to me 
that in the era of American-led networked globalization, if 
we are to rediscover any autonomy - any chance for a 
collective "self" (autos) to establish its own "law" (nomos) 
- then we will have to first perform a careful analysis of 
the large systems in which we are caught, and which 
establish our intellectual and communicational horizons. 
However, at the time when I did my first concentrated work 
on this problem, and still today, I did not have the 
references to the decisive, early period in which cybernetic 
thinking began to be appropriated and developed by the US 
government, military establishment and associated civil 
society. As time has gone on, through historical studies 
mainly based on world-systems analysis, I have increasingly 
come to recognize the determinant importance of WWII and the 
immediate postwar period in shaping the very parameters of 
the history in which we continue to live. Those parameters 
are logistical, they involve the ability to carry out 
industrial operations over vast distances, as first achieved 
in multi-theater warfare, then developed further through the 
development of civilian air transportation the sea-land 
container; but they are also communicational, they involve 
the creation of complex feedback systems to guide and 
continually adjust those farflung logistical operations, as 
James Beniger shows in his impresive book, The Control 
Revolution. For these reasons I would appreciate it very 
much if you could post any writing you have done on the 
specific subjects you touched on in your post, and perhaps a 
bibliography which those of us on the list, who are 
interested in persuing this conversation, could use as a 
basis for an informed discussion.

In particular I'm wondering where it might be possible to 
consult the 1951 edition of Wiener's "The Human Use of Human 
Beings." Was the entire book altered? Or only a key chapter? 
If so, could that chapter be scanned and distributed? Mark 
Stahlman refers to an alteration, but doesn't say exactly 
what it concerns.

Not long ago in Berlin, at a seminar organized by Geert 
Lovink and Anna Munster, the discussion turned to the 
foundation of nettime and the way that the "immanent net 
critique" of the mid-nineties was driven by the reading of 
Deleuze and Guattari's Thousand Plateaus - which, you might 
agree, is basically a counter-cultural appropriation of 
cybernetic theory (the title itself being a reference to the 
work of Bateson and Mead in Bali in the 30s). It was said 
that the difficulty of launching a new immanent critique was 
that no such master discourse was in sight; and then, as you 
can imagine, came the idea that we should have to invent the 
very discourse of a new critique. I think the ambiguity that 
you point to, in the deployment of cybernetic systems for 
the cause of an open society, and to the effect of a 
controlled one, could contain the germs of a new immanent 
critique which would allow us a much deeper and more 
powerful interpetation of the ways that globalization is now 
proceeding. That interpretation, in its turn, would make new 
practical experiments possible, beyond the limits and 
naivetes of the old tactical media paradigms. I think we 
ought to work on this!

Anyway, let's say it seems like Montreal nettime meeting was 
really not in vain.

all the best,

and thanks again for the brilliant post,


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