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Re: <nettime> Zittrain's Foundational Myth of the Open Internet
t byfield on Thu, 16 Oct 2008 08:37:28 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Zittrain's Foundational Myth of the Open Internet

brian.holmes {AT} wanadoo.fr (Thu 10/16/08 at 12:20 AM +0200):

> > I doubt it makes much sense to see Popper as crypto-cybernetic        
> > nor does there seem to be any substantive connection between          
> > Popper's notion of an "open society" and current notions of "open     
> > technology/open media", except in one aspect which I will come back   
> > to.                                                                   
> Mmm, I could hardly disagree more, where cybernetics is concerned, and 
> this time I am very happy to be on the side of Florian Cramer! The 
> cybernetic project originated during the Second World War, under 
> definite military imperatives. But this war was explicitly and 
> consistently conceived by the Americans as a war for liberalism. The 
> technological notion of "open systems" is directly related to the 
> philosophies of liberalism, centered around the motifs of tansparency, 
> rationality and the rule of law. The clearest case in point would be the 
> liberal humanist Norber Weiner, who coined the word cybernetics. And the 
> association only grows stronger with time. Check out a classic 
> cybernetic book called "Nerves of Government" (1961) by the American 
> political scientist Karl Deutsch, you will see what I mean.

Brian, one thing I really enjoy about your work is how quickly I find 
myself oscillating between agreement and disagreement. But in this case 
I disagree with you pretty much across the board. 

It's too simplistic to say that the "cybernetic project" originated
during WW2. There was definitely a self-conscious project, and a key
goal of that project was to articulate a transdisciplinary (or even 
"universal") science; but it failed. The project began as an effort
to bring together an almost lunatic range of disciplines and methods;
the process led to some tremendous insights, but it ended as it began,
with the contributors drifting off in different directions -- some of 
them back into the fields they came from, others in new directions,
all with varying degrees of success. It's less a monolith than a meta-
discourse. But when, as it seems, you describe it in monolithic terms,
you're grounding your argument more in its heroic ambitions than in 
its messy realities -- hilarious mistakes (for example, about the 
abysmal depths of compexity), profound disagreements (about which 
disciplines should dominate), and fractions about the best or most
appropriate ways to proceed (pure research vs 'social engineering').
It originated in the tensions within and between a shifting array of
porous and unstable disciplinary distinctions, and it fed back into

(Other ideas did too, like quantification: look at the Annalistes.)

To consign this all to WW2, "definite military imperatives," or the
stated intent of the war (when did we start accepting *that* kind of
statement uncritically?) is to condemn everyone involved and every-
thing they did to a historical caricature. Of course I agree that the 
war forms a very stark backdrop. But if we aren't willing to grant 
legitimacy and significance to particular ideas and actions under 
the 'constraints' of the past, then -- among other consequences -- we
undermine the grounds on which we base our analysis now. If, OTOH, we 
accept that specific choices of individual contributors in particular
contexts might carry the legitimacy of autonomy, then the proposition
that cybernetics was monolithic falls apart.

Assuming that you accept that argument, we can still say, as you do, 
that cybernetics was "related to the philosophies of liberalism, 
centered around the motifs of tansparency, rationality and the rule 
of law" -- but the question becomes *how* was it related? We can still
answer that question much as you do, but the contributors and their 
activities no longer appear as creatures or instruments of immense
historical trends; instead, the historical trends become *our own* 
generalities, a shorthand way to gloss over individual exigencies -- 
and cybernetics becomes what I argue it was even then, a skeletal 

You mention that Wiener coined the term without noting how strange 
his choice was, naming his new science -- a very old utopia -- after
a steersman. Good PR but a bad choice maybe, because it suggests some 
sort of extrinsic intelligence rather than an immanent principle. But
that ambiguity -- between cybernetics as an understanding that could
free us or enslave us -- was the crux of Wiener's _The Human Use of
Human Beings_. He couldn't have posed that dilemma more explicitly;
and while we can certainly disagree with his "political" choices (as
well as those of many other contributors), we can hardly accuse him 
of serving as a simple instrument of a given period or power.

For the rest, I think a lot of what I say applies to trendily pious 
invocations of openness. It's not one thing at all; instead, it's a
tension that's recognized, expressed, and enacted in various ways
(naive, cynical, benighted, etc) across an absurd variety of fields
and contexts. In some of them it's very productive paradox, in others, 
it's empty verbiage; but it makes no more sense to invoke its most
fruitful uses to legitimize the worst than it does to invoke its 
worst to delegitimize the most fruitful. One could try instead to 
trace the genealogy of the word or idea as it's propagated, but I
think that's an exercise in papyrology, not in hermeneutics. 


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