www.nettime.org
Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Cybernetics and the Control Society
Brian Holmes on Fri, 14 Sep 2007 14:01:12 +0200 (CEST)


[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Cybernetics and the Control Society


Hello everyone, greetings -

Here's some news from an inveterate lurker.

As some of you know, I gave a paper at the recent Ars Electronica
conference "Goodbye Privacy," basically about the cybernetic logic
behind most of what we call surveillance. Felix Stalder's text on
"The New Public Life," posted here a few days ago, was given at the
same event, organized by Ina Zwerger and Armin Medosch. In fact,
Felix was the bright and optimistic side to my dark and satirical
shadowland, and I really the think the two papers go together,
they are complementary, or even two sides of the same coin. Plus,
since mine comes really directly out of some intensely interesting
conversations we had here about two years ago, I wanted to tell people
about it and give the link, in hopes of pursuing those conversations
a little further. The paper is also a kind of homage to a late, great
Anglo-American filmmaker, and so it takes the name "FUTURE MAP, or:
How the Cyborgs Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Surveillance." It's
a bit long and involved to post on the list, it also has a kind of
incipient visual aspect, but anyway, you can find it right here:

http://brianholmes.wordpress.com/2007/09/09/future-map/

To my eyes, the extremely troubling recent developments on the
surveillance front are only the tip of a control iceberg which has
lent its dynamically regulated feedback patterns to way too much of
social interaction under the current regimes of transnational state
capital, as piloted, increasingly badly, by the declining United
States. I think that cybernetics has not ceased to be the applied (or
even engineered) social science of the liberal empire, and I also
think that, to the extent that it is being replaced by a cognitive
science on surer neurophysiological footing, with better informatic
simulations and with more effective nano implementors, the situation
of general remote control is just gonna get worse. For a long time,
the zombie-makers have been busy. The films are a bit exaggerated,
but still, Romero has been a prophet, as was Wegener before him (Der
Golem). The control society is real.

Let me just recall some of the most basic historical background to
all this, which I assumed (rightly or wrongly) would have been the
mother's milk of the computer artists and hackers in the audience:

At its origins in the wartime work of Norbert Weiner, way back
in 1941-42 just after the Battle of Britain, cybernetics was
an engineering problem and an urgent one: How to use real-time
information to aim a gun in advance of a dodging enemy pilot, and hit
him if not the first time, then at least the second or the third?
Error correction, or negative feedback, layered onto a predictive
algorithm and connected to a servomechanism, was the solution that
Wiener envisaged for his Anti-Aircraft Predictor. Information theory,
developed in parallel by Claude Shannon, would be key to this attempt,
where life and death might depend on the relation of signal to noise.

Soon after that research was completed (it was actually a practical
failure), Wiener, his engineer Bigelow and his cardiologist friend
Rosenblueth shared their ideas with the logician Walter Pitts and
the neurologist Warren McCulloch. And this is when things really got
going. Almost immediately, cybernetics became an interdisciplinary
research program into what McCulloch would later call "embodiments of
mind" - without any particular concern as to whether these embodiments
took place in the human, the animal or the machine. In effect, Pitts
and McCulloch conceived thought as the exercise of formal logic
articulated by a binary code; and they devised an ingenious system
of notation to show how combinations of neurons, by "firing" or not,
could trace out networks corresponding to logical propositions. Before
any digital computer had seen the light of day, out brains were mapped
as Turing machines.

The Macy Conferences, beginning in 1946, deliberately extended the
cybernetic logic to the social sciences (anthropology, sociology,
psychiatry, operations research, management science). At just about
the same time, the logical architecture of the stored-program
computer, developed by Macy Conference participant John von Neumann,
led to the creation of the first "machines who think" - or at
least, machines that compute in an open-ended, reprogrammable way
that had never been possible before, and at speeds that defied the
imagination. The persuasiveness of the new cybernetic paradigm,
inseparable from the technological breakthroughs that accompanied
it and from the overall civilizational prestige of the victors of
WWII, was so great that seemingly no modernist intellectual tradition
was left unaffected, particularly in Europe: the linguist Roman
Jakobsen was invited to the Macy Conferences, the anthropologist
Claude Lévi-Strauss saw the cybernetic logic as the key to a possible
mathematicization of basic cultural structures, the psychoanalyst
Jacques Lacan took the binary code of the computer as the foundation
of the symbolic in its distinction from the imaginary, and the
philosopher Martin Heidegger, challenged to very core of Being,
declared that cybernetics was "the metaphysics of the modern age."

The interesting thing is that after the intense scientific activity
of the 1950s - not only in the US, Britain and France but also in the
Soviet Union (yes, the American Society for Cybernetics was founded
in 1964 after fears of a "cybernetics gap" with the former USSR were
raised among policy wonks and in the press) - cybernetics went from
being a theoretical offshoot of control engineering and a more-or-less
speculative paradigm in the social sciences to a full-fledged popular
utopia, due above all to the brilliant holistic ideas of Gregory
Bateson, but also to the slogans, gadgets, consumer catalogues and
light-shows of people like Stuart Brand. Floating around in the air
of that time was the immensely enthusiastic idea - echoed in dry and
rational terms by a theorist like Karl Deutsch, author of "The Nerves
of Government" - that a little feedback could go a very, very long way
towards transforming the deadly determinism of objectivist science
into something much more flexible, agile, adaptable, ecological,
capable of helping us over the hump of a possible nuclear war and onto
much nicer things like the Age of Aquarius.

Personally, I grew up in California on all this, along with the Tao
of physics, the Zen of motorcycle maintenance, the Now of Alan Watts
and the hash pipe that my parents brought back from Kathmandu. I'm not
saying this utopia was entirely void. But nonetheless, from around,
well, let's just say, 1978 onwards, the whole interdisciplinary
complex of ideas that had been called cybernetics fell into a kind of
entropic disarray, and gradually retreated from the world stage of
ideas to the point where, bizarrely, strangely, inexplicably, by 1994
when the seeds that all those people had planted suddenly blossomed
into the enormous fin-de-siecle phenomenon of the World Wide Web,
nobody had a thing to say about cybernetics anymore. Net.art and net
everything-else developed basically without that reference (although
please, please tell me there were exceptions); and maybe just a little
bit worse, the current dystopia of Total Electronic Surveillance has
developed without any very clear genealogy, either in technical or
philosophical terms. Why that's the case is on one level obvious -
people were sick of hearing about a theory that had been beaten to
death (and do you spend your Saturday afternoons on deconstruction
anymore, by the way?). But on another level, every repression is
always an enigma.

Now, at some point in the foregoing I just tossed off the term
"liberal empire." It so happens I firmly believe that cybernetics,
particularly in its control engineering aspect, participates deeply
and intimately in a far older tradition of liberal governance, whose
latest incarnation is in effect a neoliberalism whose practical,
institutional contours would be unimaginable without a proliferation
of cybernetically calculated feedback relations (and Geert, when
are you ever gonna come out with that critique of SAP you once
promised?). It seems that one must read Otto Mayr's books on the
history of feedback devices and their metaphorical regimes in
order to understand this better. In the text "Future Map" to which
this little ditty here is an introduction, I do try seriously
to make the point, via Foucault, that the liberal notions of
self-regulation, supply-and-demand, dynamic equilibrium and so forth
are the eighteenth-century forerunners of a social order which today,
under contemporary neoliberalism, is instantiated in oh-so-flexible
servomechanisms governed by informational loops. But what's more
than that (and please tell me if this is not clear when you read the
paper) I think that the "servomechanisms" in question are machinic
assemblages, complex infomechanical "devices" which include us,
the "human element" of servomechanical loops. Surveillance is the
informational corrective that is supposed to keep us at our proper
paces. The thesis that I develop is basically this:

"The automated inspection of personal data can no longer simply be
conceived as an all-seeing eye, a hidden ear, a baleful presence
behind the scenes. The myriad forms of contemporary electronic
surveillance now constitute the irremediably multiple feedback
loops of a cybernetic society, devoted to controlling the future.
Conflict lodges within these cybernetic circles. They knit together
the actors of transnational state capitalism, in all its cultural
and commercial complexity; but their distant model is Wiener?s
antiaircraft predictor, which programs the antagonistic eye into
a docile and efficient machine. Under the auspices of a lowly
servomechanism coupled into an informational loop, we glimpse the
earliest stirrings of the Golem that matters to us today, in the age
of data-mining and neuromarketing. And this Golem is ourselves, the
cyborg populations of the computerized democracies."

Yes, this is a journey into shadowland. As I said at the outset,
however, I do think the whole thing is ambiguous. The more I read
and reflect, the more interested I am by the utopias of second- and
third-order cybernetics (Bateson, von Foerster, Maturana and Varela,
Prigogine), and by the people such as Guattari or a thousand other
activists who really give them their embodiments, not just in texts
but above all in the form of desiring machines that only "work" by
going off-track, indeed by breaking down, by crossing a threshold and
becoming something other - something which was not at all included in
the initial, and seemingly total, model. So if you like to read the
paper, do give it a critical and optimistic read, and think that there
are many Felixes out there, past, present or yet to come, for whom the
purview of the CCTV cameras (even in ultra-surveilled China) is not
the only stage on which we can play our embodied destinies....

best, BH




#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} kein.org and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org