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Re: <nettime> Zittrain's Foundational Myth of the Open Internet
Brian Holmes on Thu, 16 Oct 2008 13:47:07 +0200 (CEST)


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


Hello Ted -

So let's see what we can do with this "agree and disagree" structure!

t byfield wrote:

> 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.

Indeed, the way "cognitive science" is a meta-discourse. Jean-Pierre
Dupuy has written a great book called "The Mechanization of the
Mind" where he argues that cybernetics - as articulated by the "hard
science" core of the Macy conferences - was the direct ancestor of
the contemporary cognitive science program, and that its failure is
significant for understanding the new program's own limitations. I
disagree with Dupuy when he belittles the significance of everything
else that was bundled up with cybernetics, but still it is a great
book, the best on the subject imho. Of course, like every book on
cybernetics it points to the key papers of Wiener, Rosenblueth and
Bigelow on the one hand, McCulloch and Pitts on the other, both
published in 1943, both noticed by operations research managers who
then orchestrated the Macy conferences.... So, origins are complex,
but there is some truth to what I said!

> 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 complexity), 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
> them.

Yes, to my mind, it was the intellectual atmosphere of a period. But
that period was very much infused with the economic and scientific
liberalism. It is no accident that Popper's book "The Open Society and
its Enemies" was published in 1945!

> 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.

Well, critics and historians definitely have ways of dealing with
movements that recognize themselves as such, and cybernetics was one
of them. As its tombstone, I quite like the little volume "Purposive
Systems," published to inaugurate the American Cybernetic Society. In
the preface, Margaret Mead addresses some rather hilarious remarks to
the assembled scientists, to the effect that a few years ago, there
was this great hope that all the world was going to be understood
under the categories of cybernetics, and then it came to nothing. The
rational, controlled organization of very large systemic totalities,
she pointed out, is what was not coming down the pipe. It was 1969!
Society was in chaos! From that point onward the whole discourse of
cybernetic goes into a kind of zombie afterlife, quite an extensive
and busy one with societies, colloquia and so on, which actually still
continues...

> 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 transparency, 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 dream.

Yes, the way to deal with movements is to go into the details of
individual contributions and see what is the glue that holds them
together. And that's particularly important when it's a skeleton!
But still we subtly disagree: because I think that the skeletal
or structural character of cybernetics was the key to its immense
influence, and to its zombie afterlife. The idea that a properly
administered flow of information can reshape the purpose or goal -
the telos - of any dynamic system remains the most widespread logic
of governance in our era, even though, as Mead pointed out, it does
not really work! Its influence, through a succession of different
strategies, has been decisive on the transformation of American
civilization into globalism. That much I think I did demonstrate with
my text "Future Map."

> 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 me, this is the whole point. There is a real paradox involved in
an objective, deterministic science of human intelligence, just as
there is a real paradox in fighting wars of conquest and economic
domination for the principles of liberalism and the open society! And
you must admit, both of these have become American specialties...
It goes on and on, and indeed, one cannot reduce the people who are
articulating such dilemmas to the mere instruments of a given period.
What I think, rather, is that this contradiction itself forms a
system. I call it liberal empire. It gains its consistency as a system
from the fact that it is structured around a basic contradiction,
which allows the integration of opposing views. To see just how deeply
technological these political concepts of integration are, one can
apparently read the historian of technology Otto Mayr on "Authority,
Liberty & Automatic Machinery in Early Modern Europe." It contrasts
the clock to the steam-engine governor, and the divine right of kings
to checks and balances, separation of powers, etc. There is a lovely
picture of a dynamically self-adjusting windmill mechanism on the
cover, and I am still hoping for that proverbial rainy day to really
get into it...

More on this soon, great to toss a few ideas around,

best, Brian





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