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Re: <nettime> Zittrain's Foundational Myth of the Open Internet
t byfield on Fri, 17 Oct 2008 08:04:23 +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 11:13 AM +0200):

> 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!

More than that, there's a great deal of truth to it. But my concern 
is that the meta-discursive quality of a lot of 'cybernetic' thought
lends itself to triumphal glosses. You understand better than most 
how much it's contributed to postwar capitalism (e.g., claims that 
sufficiently complex instruments made global capitalism homeostatic, 
made governmental regulation obsolescent, etc, etc). It's important 
to disassemble these sorts of heroic myths and historiographical 
hangovers. Really, who benefits from the reduction of cybernetics to 
a 'classical' history of great men, speeches, and battles? Those who
want to preserve a world inhabited by handfuls of generals, captains
of industry, and leaders of state -- and 6.5 billion extras. 

The current financial crises may go a small way toward dampening claims 
about the virtues of complexity, the pretensions of baroque  mathematics 
in which every variable points toward qualitative factors, and economic 
autonomism -- for a while at least. 

But I disagree that cognitive sciences are a meta-discourse in the way 
that cybernetics is one, for the obvious that cybernetics encompasses
animals *and machines*. There's no doubt that fields like cog psy owe
an immense debt to cybernetics, and a very unhealthy one inasmuchas it 
straitjackets their understandings of, say, subjectivity. But I don't
think that blanket condemnations made on grounds of guilt by association 
and genealogy are either historically 'sensitive' (more than merely 
accurate) or effective.

> > 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!

Which month in 1945 was it published in? Was that an accident? Which 
day of the month? Was that an accident? Silly questions, obviously,
but they show how frail -- and rhetorical -- periodization can be. 

Let me give you another example. Joseph Campbell's (truly awful) _Hero 
with a Thousand Faces_ was published in '49, and Erich Auerbach's (much
more interesting but flawed) _Mimesis_ was published in '46. Both books 
laboriously show and tell us how we shouldn't be misled by cultural
difference. And on certain levels they're right, fine, OK, whatever; 
but it's much more useful to see their advocacy of transhistorical and 
transcultural universalism in the context of WW2 -- a conflagration so 
terrifying that it'd make even the bitterest misanthrope start singing
kumbaya. 

When you strip away the self-lionization of cybernetics, what do you 
get? Bald assertions that "beneath it all," everyone and everything 
-- *literally* everything -- is the same. Now, as it happens, I have 
a lot of respect for the work of many early contributors to cybernetics; 
but I also think they were often full of shit. Like many things that 
aspire to GUT (Grand Unified Theory) status, the analytical powers of 
cybernetics can be breathtaking; but its prescriptive powers? Not so 
much.

That's important, because it directs us to one thing that cybernetics
can't analyze at all: history. And, along the same lines of my silly
questions above about which month and day, it's not at all clear where
the line(s) between 'now' and 'history' lie -- and so it's fair to ask,
if cybernetics and its spawn can show us how subjectivity works in the
here and now, how far from here and now can it go before it begins to
break down -- and why? (This, BTW, is why I'm skeptical about Dupuy 
(though I agree it's a good book) and prefer Heims, in particular _The 
Cybernetics Group_.) 

Note also that themes with notable similarities to some touchstones of
cybernetics -- quantification, the search for cycles and relations 
tending toward homeostasis, systems that encompass humans and their 
technics -- can be found in *historical* work pretty far afield from 
cybernetics: the Annalistes and structuralist anthropology (though
Roman Jacobson was a regular guest of the Macy Conferences). I think
this argues very strongly that casting cybernetics mainly in terms of
WW2 is mistaken: its origins are more properly industrialization and, 
in particular, the rise of electromechanics. That's one reason I'm 
skeptical about Dupuy: explicit efforts to understand the "mind" in
terms of technics goes back several hundred years (Theweleit's done 
some really brilliant and hilarious work on this in his _Buch der 
Koenige_). By the time the attendees of the Macy Confs got going in
their respective fields, well before the confs were a twinkle in 
anyone's eye, the dozens of attendees had junkyard upon junkyard of 
"technical" -- i.e., cultural, *poetic* -- representations of the 
human being to draw on. Cybernetics was, among other things, a 
science of, by, and for bricoleurs.

> > 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. 

Oh, please. And journalists have ways of dealing with politics. If 
there's a truly messy category in this discussion, it's "movement."
As a movement, cybernetics had more in common with, say, Dada than
with universal suffrage.

>          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...

There's no question that there are zombie processes operating under the
rubric of "cybernetics," but it's a mistake write its epitaph just yet. 
First, because it won: ideas about feedback, homeostasis, formalization, 
etc are everywhere and becoming increasingly dominant. Second, because 
the second-order cybernetics, both in substance and in its associations, 
moved in a completely different direction than the Pax Americana aspect
you've focused on. True, it's much more marginal than the heroic-period 
work; but it doesn't make much sense to dismiss that marginality as 
morbidity in order to save the theory.

> > 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."

One of the abiding dilemmas of cybernetics is how well it comprehends
the ways in which everything is deeply intertwingled, yet how naively
its practitiones were willing to isolate this or that as a discrete
system. The question isn't whether a properly controlled flow of info
can change a system's telos -- rest assured that it can. Rather, the
question is WHEN. For example, does the universe of possible periods
include an infinitesimal moment and/or many generations? Of course,
the answer is YES; but then the cybernetic services on offer probably
aren't very useful to the Pentagon or Wall Street. And so, instead, 
the field tended toward observations and exoplorations that were more
client-friendly. It's on this basis, not on vague claims about WW2 
etc, that one could actually *condemn* these people. And it's on this
basis that one can see why they ended up putting so much emphasis on 
cognition. The time scales were manageable, and there were paying 
clients. But that's endemic to science, not unique to cybernetics.

> > 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

But the determinism isn't so much grounded in cybernetics as in how and 
where it's been applied. Don't get me wrong: I'm allergic to arguments 
that abstract knowledge from practice, and it isn't my intent AT ALL to 
preserve some imaginarily pure vision of cybernetics. My point is only
that the origins of (or need for) the determinism lay elsewhere.

> 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...

By this reading, Bakhtin's theory of the novel is liberal empire too:
a seemingly terminal genre animated by an insatiable appetite for 
contradiction, a system that can (indeed must) absorb and integrate 
opposing views. And maybe it is. If so, we're screwed.

Cheers,
T
- 
http://b1ff.org


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