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Re: <nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet
Brian Holmes on Sun, 8 Mar 2009 13:23:03 -0400 (EDT)


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Re: <nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet


t byfield wrote:

Oh please. Could you be a little more blatant about your straw men?
You yourself admit your ideas were based on first readings, whereas
others (at least a few of who've been thinking about this for years) couldn't see or [cue the ominous music] couldn't *face* the truth?

Ted, could you explain who these "straw men" might be? I am uncertain what you mean. If it is yourself, that's a misunderstanding. What I have written does not respond in any particular way to your previous posts, even though they are always interesting. Kenneth Werbin was the one who set off the lightbulb for me, back in 2006 -- but I definitely did not take him or anyone else as a "straw man"! My first readings date from 2006-07, which has allowed a little time for "second readings"... As for the ominous music, you're right, I do feel something ominous about the way our civilization has developed and I do think that few people want to face the truth, or even take the time required to uncover some hints of it. For a long time a majority of Americans found it impossible to say that the US was acting as an empire, probably because it is very difficult to face the idea that one is born of an empire and not a democracy. So in recent years I have focused my work on this theme, with a particular emphasis on the relation between computer networks and liberal empire. Of course that emphasis affects the results, but there are simply no results without some kind of initial focus. And sure, the US is arguably both a democracy and an empire, but to content oneself with the platitudes of two-sided arguments and ambiguity during the Bush regime appeared intellectually dubious to me.... To call it a liberal empire based on so-called open systems was a way to bring the contradictions a little closer to home!

Maybe you're genuinely talking about several threads, but for me the one that jumps out is this:

  http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0810/threads.html#00036

Well, yes, I am *genuinely* talking about several threads and they usually begin with the word "Cybernetics." They go back to 2006:

--http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.culture.internet.nettime/1571

--http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.culture.internet.nettime/2535
(followed by: http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.culture.internet.nettime/2648)

and the Zittrain thread you mention, as well as this post that I inserted into it:
--http://thread.gmane.org/gmane.culture.internet.nettime/3485

I was quite motivated by all these discussions, I could never have written this stuff without manifold insights gleaned from nettime. By the way, thanks also for your encouragements, I appreciate it.

I thought then and, in light of the vague wording noted above, still wonder -- about the 'dramatic' aspect of the historical narrative you offer. It relied too
heavily on WW2 as a decisive historical rupture and on a moralizing sort
of genealogy to make the more or less Kantian point that freedom ain't so
simple or all it's cracked up to be.

Yes, I remember what you said in the Zittrain thread and I have reread it now. But we simply disagree. The idea that cybernetics did not emerge from WWII is shared by very few authors, maybe you're the only one! Most do agree on some antecedents: Turing's prewar work, Wiener's prewar work, the physiologist Cannon who invented the idea of homeostasis, the long lineage of governor devices studied by Otto Mayr, and then whatever else you can dig up! I refer to those things in my texts, to the extent of my limited knowledge. But the idea that coded information flows could serve as negative feedback for self-correcting behaviors in man, animal and machine (Wiener and his gang) and the binary model of neurons allowing neural networks to be conceived as calculators of propositional logic (McCulloch-Pitts), both these emerged during the war, and their appearance at around the same time is what made it look as though a general theory of control information in man and machine was going to be possible. Moreover, the people directly involved in these discoveries are among the ones who pushed for the creation of a theoretical metalanguage to associate widely different fields: control engineering, neuroanatomy, logic, animal physiology, the nascent field of automated computing, linguistics, sociology, etc. Two other people who were instrumental in pushing for this metalanguage were the anthropologists Bateson and Mead, who had heard Wiener and Rosenblueth speak about their notion of teleological principles in 1942. Of course Bateson and Mead had done lots of their own work before the war. But if you compare Bateson's 1936 book, Naven, to an immediate postwar book like his Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychology, then you can see that the objects, the operative terms and the style of reasoning have all changed tremendously, due to the influence of cybernetics as Bateson himself says. Indeed, he gave Naven a 1958 postface to correct its argument through the application of cybernetics!

At the same time, the US had gone through a fundamental change: it took over the role of hegemonic power from the UK, and had to manage a vast army/navy/air force scattered across the earth, with vastly expanded markets and whole governments to run militarily for varying periods of time, as in Japan, Korea, Germany, Austria, etc. The demands for information, calculation, communication, remote control of machines and also social control or at least "steering" of populations were all tremendous. This is why the idea of a "science of government"(cybernetics) had such appeal, and why so much funding was given in support of it. Some kind of similar technological acceleration had happened during WWI, as Bucky Fuller's biography and life work testifies with particular intensity; but it was shorter, there was no empire at the end, and then the economy crashed in just one decade. The five years of WWII not only saw the emergence of coordinated "Operations Research" departments turning science into technology on a huge scale, with strict timelines and cost-benefit analyses that were perfect for adoption by the corporations later on; but even more, those five years were followed by the institution of global governance structures like the UN and NATO and by the institution of a permanent war economy, with tremendous research budgets and vast production campaigns like the one that gave rise to the SAGE early warning system, the founding contract for IBM's computer department. All of that in the context of a twenty-year long manufacturing and export boom...

For sure, you could analyze the changes in corporate organization during the 1920s and 30s, and you would find the roots of Operations Research (also known as "Management Science") in those earlier periods, in both Britain and the US. Some even argue that Charles Babbage - the designer of the unbuilt "Victorian computer" - is the father of OR! But the point that we should all remember with some anguish today is that although the multidivisional, vertically integrated corporation emerged around 1890-1900, with Standard Oil and the like, its development into a structure with enough logisitical and disciplinary power to operate global extraction, production, distribution and advertising was halted by the Great Depression. The corporation only gained its capacity to to plan technological innovation and implement it on a massive scale during WWII and in the Cold War that followed. The war economy is the social context that made the development of computers and computer modeling necessary; and we had better hope that a new cycle of wars will not be needed to make the networked corporation with its self-reflexive, second-order models viable... Fuller understood all this perfectly, because he had been through WWI. Check out his 1963 "World Design Initiative" lecture in the book Your Private Sky, for a quite amazing perspective on what war does to science and technology.

Where I myself disagree with the majority of authors is that I don't think cybernetics just stops in the 70s, when the initial paradigm falls apart. I think that ideas related both to the initial paradigm and to its second-order challenger continued to develop in a number of research programs during the 80s and 90s, exerting important influences on the development of neoliberalism. I also think one can detect the continuing influence of imperial imperatives on the aspects of those programs that have become part of the economy and part of daily life. Unfortunately, not many media theorists seem to have pursued the question of cybernetics beyond the Cold War period, and maybe if I have any originality in this vast domain, it is here. The coevolution of cybernetic machines and liberal empire is what I have tried to sketch out in all five of the texts which I introduced in this thread.

I'd argue that your analysis would be much stronger if it looked for continuities spanning the pre- and postwar 'periods' rather than relying on WW2 as a
sort of analog of the Middle Ages as that which separates Antiquity from
the Renaissance. There's no question that some tenets of cybernetics were
'forged in the crucible of war'; but nor is there any question that the participants themselves -- to say nothing of their predecessors -- were explicitly researching many of constituent problems decades earlier.

Yeah, agreed, it's always more interesting to know more! But it is also very interesting to put a particular, polemical point on a subject, without necessarily closing off avenues of further research.

The firms that have seemed to
own the world aren't just illiquid, they're insolvent -- maybe infinitely so, that is, able to destroy as much 'wealth' as we throw at them through high-velocity arbitrage in flowing in reverse. If that's so, the cultural problem isn't just semiotics, it's epistemology, because that stratum of history -- the 'creation' of value and wealth -- may flow in reverse as well. So it really may be a question of who is to be master. So will it be history or cybernetics?

The question of who creates value, who assigns it to specific objects, who stabilizes that assignation and thereby makes a world cohere, is the fundamental question that interests me. It is all too often a question of who will be master. One can pull back and look dispassionately at a "historical process" or try to explain everything with some overarching structural grid. I prefer to look at people, geographic locales, classes, nations, regions, and see how they are playing out these inextricably intertwined questions of the creation, assignation and stabilization of value. Because only when you get to know people, locales and operating methods can you possibly intervene. It is likely that many of the rules for the formation of value will now change, and maybe the outgrowths of cybernetic research will no longer matter so much. My belief is that they will matter in different ways - which we won't even be able to recognize if we have not understood the old ones, the rupture that makes them ancient history, and the ruse that brings them back in new guises.

best, Brian