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<nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet
Brian Holmes on Thu, 16 Oct 2008 23:52:36 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet

Hello everyone,

Way back whenever, Nettime gave itself the goal of developing an 
immanent critique of the Internet - the quintessential "open system." In 
the eyes of perhaps a majority the time for such a critique is now over, 
the net has stabilized and you might as well do a critique of your 
doorbell or your toaster. Some nettimers go on valiantly hacking into 
Web 2.0. I was always less interested in the toaster itself and more in 
the ringing at the door, so I've tried to move from the immanence of the 
electronic environment to the genealogy of the militarized American 
society that produced it. And I've tried to show how the development of 
the cybernetic discourse has accompanied the USA's metamorphosis into 
liberal empire. The immanence of networked communications is exactly 
what we just experienced in a month of excruciating financial crisis. 
The crisis is not over and it's clear that the critique of the 
communications networks has not been completed.

One of the ways for a cultural critic to move across this strange, 
crisis-ridden "ground" that we now share - that is, the virtual ground 
of real-time global communications - is to sink historical probes 
through the contemporary media field, in order to connect with past 
metaphors of technological change, seized within their social and 
material conditions of emergence. What this allows you to do is to 
follow the evolution, not just of mutating artifacts, epistemologies and 
organizational forms, but also of the enigmatic images that people have 
used both to grasp those changes and to ward them away. History itself 
then becomes immanent in the present, and you end up with a lot more 
handles on current situations - and with a lot more impatience towards 
the reigning consensus, which according to the old law of the commodity 
is usually based on a total denegation of the social and political 
stakes of whatever you might have to deal with.

Inspired by conversations on this list, I've been trying out this 
approach for a year or two, taking my departure points from Adam 
Curtis's fascination for game theory and the Nash equilibrium, or from 
Norbert Wiener's speculations on "God & Golem, Inc." I've just finished 
a critical review of Lutz Dammbeck's film, Das Netz - which imho is the 
best existing documentary about cybernetics and the Internet. Lutz's 
film focuses purely on the symbolic: that is, those points of 
condensation where societal laws and norms reveal themselves, not just 
with, but *as* their own contradictions. What I do is retrace some of 
the theoretical and historical backgrounds from which each of those 
symbolic elements springs, and in that way give some discursive depth to 
the extraordinary insights and scandalous affects of the film. I've also 
developed some unexpected consequences of Warren McCulloch's notion of 
"experimental epistemology." Since so many people are passionately 
interested in this stuff I guess there may be some objections! What's 
more, I have hidden a bizarre sub-agenda in this piece, and given the 
current context, I want to lay it bare for your examination.

After reflecting for years on that "thing" called political economy 
since 1945, I have become convinced that it, like cybernetics, has 
developed according to two key organizational paradigms, neither of 
which ever managed to cancel each other out and both of which continue 
to inform the present that has forgotten them. The first corresponds to 
the military desire for command and control: it uses feedback 
information to coordinate vast logistical supply lines of industrial 
production and distribution, it organizes people into a functional 
hierarchy, and it always seeks to home in on a predetermined target 
(production, sales, efficiency, etc). These were the major issues of the 
Fordist economies of scale in the 1930s-60s, which gradually caught up 
to the global scale of simultaneous multi-theater operations attained by 
the military in WWII. Clearly, the kinds of logistical control at a 
distance provided by first-generation cybernetic systems were key to 
this expansion of industry and trade.

The second paradigm is a self-reflexive one, which was there from the 
very inception of cybernetics but which, in economic terms, corresponds 
closely to the need for a new type of semiotic production and 
consumption arising after the saturation of the developed world with 
consumer durables. This same self-reflexivity (of the kind that Soros, 
for example, never ceases discussing) is part of the early-1970s shift 
to a financialized economy, which, as Keynes pointed out long ago, is 
not about who wins the beauty contest, but who people think will win it: 
bets on bets on bets on bets, market reflexivity.... The movement toward 
semiotic production was also a way to mediate a much more complicated 
and fractious society, where discipline was no longer the name of the 
game and methods had to be found to integrate each person's individual 
motivations into some kind of flexible give-and-take with the functional 
requirements of larger organizations. So you get very sophisticated 
strategies which include room for the construction of different 
purposes, multiple-stakeholder scenarios and the like. In this second 
phase of postwar political economy, during the 1980s and 90s, 
"second-order" cybernetics and complexity theory were put into 
managerial practice everywhere, creating fractal organizational forms 
and technologies that can interface with a far wider range of cultures, 
desires and individuals. The "open systems" of networked communications 
are the technological face of what (neo)liberal thinkers, in the wake of 
Popper, call the "open society."

The 'second-order economics" which we have known for the last thirty 
years, and which reached its peak in the new economy, is only dealt with 
very briefly at the end of the paper on Das Netz. I will include a lot 
more on it in a following article on Guattari and cybernetics, which 
I've been writing in parallel to this one.

What seems to happen in our own time, since 2000, is that we are 
confronted with the atavistic return of a Cold War mentality, dominated 
by the command-and-control model of target-seeking, even while the 
ecstatic neoliberal reflexivity of global finance has gone on building 
its semiotic castles in the air. Two technopolitical paradigms, whose 
problematic origins most people have just forgotten, have spun out of 
control at the same time. I think that Lutz Dammbeck, perhaps more fully 
than any other single artist, has crystallized the inherent paradoxes of 
these two paradigms, along with the presence of their recalcitrant 
Others - those human universes that the cybernetic society effectively 
excludes. As you probably know, Dammbeck's film is not only about 
cybernetics but also about terrorism, of a home-grown American variety.

The documentary can be obtained on DVD, by ordering it over the Internet 
(and there's  a torrent out there for the German version). As for my 
article, it is immanent to our medium:


best, Brian

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