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Re: <nettime> Whatever Happened to Cybernetics?
Brian Holmes on Sat, 3 Nov 2007 22:51:02 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Whatever Happened to Cybernetics?

Robbin Murphy wrote:

> Your time frame, 1978 to 1994, fits roughly between the death of
> Robert Smithson - who I would call a cybernetic artist, maybe the last
> - in 1973 and the reprise of cybernetic thinking, if not the term
> itself, caused by the popularity of the net after '94 

Even as a very latecomer to all this (late 90s) I would agree that
something very "cybernetic" was in the air of that time. The idea
that a boundary decision is both an aesthetic and a political one,
delineating a system, bringing it to consciousness, asking questions
about its development and destiny, and finally, taking material and
symbolic action to support its particular ecology - all that was
very much the spirit that I discovered, basically through nettime,
then by meeting and working with all kinds of hackers and artists
and net activists. However, I would say that in the 90s, most people
were quite mesmerized by complexity theories, with their notions of
phase-changes occurring through some kind of collective alchemy that
could catalyze the chaotic relational processes of networks. In other
words, we were caught up in the multiple ramifications of second-
and third-order cybernetics. Most people did not realize that more
centralized forms of decision-making could still be imposed, precisely
through a systems logic that had grown out of control engineering
models in the post-WWII and Cold War period.

> It's amazing now, looking back, how fast things happened and how
> overpowering the California Ideology was. Within months an industry
> was born and without alternative funding artists had to find a way
> to work with it. Few artists, it turns out, profited much from the
> setup financially or artistically. And the art world. Harrumph.
> They protected their little turfs and are only now taking little
> steps outside their huts for a look-see clutching their copies of
> "Relational Aesthetics".

Ha ha, on iDC I just read a post doing exactly what you say, it's
truly lamentable, let's not waste the bandwidth. More interesting is
the question, Who was doing systems analysis a la E. S. Quade in the
early 1990s? Or in other words, who was taking exactly the role that
Jack Burnham wanted to assign to the artist, as a kind of Duchampian
arbiter of technocultural development?

I don't know, but I have a guess for research: the planning
consultants for the business consortia that installed the routers and
GIX accelerators after the migration of the net out of the National
Science Foundation. I would look there, rather than to the cable
companies who also made huge investments, because for them, it was
a kind of no-brainer, they were already in the business, demand was
rising etc. But installing the commercial routing infrastructure
must have been (correct me if I'm wrong) a highly speculative
enterprise, and to carry it out must have required some predictive
system modeling, in order to convince all the people involved that
they were making the right kinds of decisions. And then, upstream of
that, one could also look at the regulators who made the decision to
migrate in the first place. We are told, e.g. by Janet Abate in her
book Inventing the Internet, that it was done because of laws about
strictly public, non-commercial use of government infrastructure,
such that you couldn't charge even nominal fees for any kind of
service, which became untenable in a situation of expanding and
diversifying participation. But I would be oh so curious to know if
there were other calculations involved. Because if any technostructure
or power elite ever had to take a systems ecology into account, in
economic terms, it was for those very complex bets on what was still
an experimental and highly anarchic technology. Of course we know
very well the ideologues who pushed for it (Brand, Kelly, etc.).
But I am sure there is a layer or two of mediation between them,
the governmental decisions, and the money that ultimately made the
California Ideology real.

> But I digress. We've been talking about this, and whatever happened
> to Jack Burnham's System Esthetics, for a while and I think it's a
> worthwhile subject to pursue until we get some answers that aren't
> quite so evident.

Well, yes, I totally agree with you. I would be very curious to know
more about your conclusions, or even the way you frame the question. I
looked up Burnham's text (took a while to find time to read it, which
is why I have been so slow to answer) and his concluding remarks about
the productivist artists and architects being absorbed into the Soviet
industrial system sound very ironic in today's light. Because today,
not just net.art and its kissing cousins, but almost all of aesthetics
has been absorbed into the globalized American industrial-financial
economy, where culture -- i.e., entertainment and advertising, as well
as high-end tourist attractions like the "Bean" sculpture out here on
Chicago's grotesque Millennium Plaza -- forms just one more subsystem,
whose value is relentlessly calculated and whose contours are reshaped

What I find curious in the Burnham text is that he places such a
strong emphasis on the artist as "Homo Arbiter Formae" without ever
exploring the ontological and epistemological bases on which such
world-shaping aesthetic decisions would be taken. But maybe there
are other aspects of his writing which are not reflected in this one
article? I think such a romantic or demiurgical idea of the artist is
still interesting, because its very naivete points raises the question
of the values, the aspirations, the dreams or the drives on which
decisions about our increasingly artificial environment are made.
Become your own subsystem, and try your damndest to steer it at cross
currents, seems to be the surviving cybernetic wisdom for collectives
of thinkers and doers today.

Let's continue these discussions,

all the best, Brian

E. S. Quade: http://rand.org/pubs/papers/P4053/

Burnham text: http://www.volweb.cz/horvitz/burnham/systems-esthetics.html

Gold-mine site by Robert Horvitz with extensive info about Burnham:

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