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Blog of the Centre for Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths

Memories of Another Future: Andrew Pickering on Cybernetics


Utopian thinking has long been out of fashion in academia but there was a palpable sense of nostalgia in Andrew Pickerings talk last week for a time when scientific practice still seemed to hold the key to another world. Drawing on his book The Cybernetic Brain, Pickering offered cybernetics as an unrealised alternative future: a non-modern ontology of unknowability and becoming. In his account, cyberneticists undertook daring experiments with adaptive systems and ecologies, and in doing so they offered an alternative to the modern understanding of science as mastery over nature and the imposition of categories and hierarchies on the world. However, as his rousing talk also made clear, there are many shades of cybernetics to chose from. Pickering favoured the playful and performative experiments of the early cyberneticists over what he called “second order” cybernetics: the preoccupation with command and control and the epistemological analysis of situated observers.

Early experiments like William Ross Ashby’s homeostats, simple arrays of machines which could achieve balance through feedback loops, performed what he called a kind of “ontological theatre”. They staged “unknowability” by exploring their environment – in this case each other. In the realm of actual staged theatre, Gordon Pask’s ‘musicolour’ machine produced light shows by reacting to on-stage musician’s sounds. If their activities were not varied enough, the machine would “get bored” and prompt the performers to change tack. This complex distribution of action illustrates perfectly, Pickering’s concept of a “dance of agency” (see on this point also Cussins (1996) on ontological choreography). Indeed many of these cybernetic experiments could be seen as partially illustrating concepts later articulated in Science and Technologies Studies, such as the symmetry of human non-human and the entanglements between observer and observed.

Gordon Pask’s Musicolour Machine.

These ideas of ecosystems without central control came to influence everything from art to architecture (London’s Fun Palace) to management techniques. Stafford Beer used cybernetics to make organisations more adaptive and responsive. Beer’s early experiments involved training mice and later daphnia (outfitted with iron filings and electromagnets) to become problem solving machines. He also offered innovative ways of distributing decision making between departments by visualising a office in non-hierarchical geometries which would determine how information would flow. There is of course nothing special about distributed information flows, in fact this can just as easily become technologies of domination and control. The key, as Pickering was keen to point out, was the emphasis on symmetry, so that the traffic of signals went both ways, not just back to a central control mechanism. R.D. Laing and his compatriots used similar ideas to explore madness through subverting the patient / psychiatrist dynamic. In the Kingsley Hall Centre, the sane and the mad occupied the same space and were encouraged to play with and learn from each other. Lang’s techniques may seem reckless but they were positively enlightened compared to the drug and shock-based treatments of the day.

One of Beer’s Organisational Charts.

It was perhaps appropriate that Pickering made reference to experimental architects Archigram and their famous “walking city” diagrams because there was a sense that many of these experiments were merely programmatic “sketches” – experiments and models which could not work in practice. More accurately, these projects seemed to have certain limitations of scale: homeostats could only achieve homeostasis in small arrays of 4 or so, larger collections would take years to stabilise; organisations could only deal with with the “complex system” of the outside world by reducing it to simple inputs and outputs; radical psychology could be practiced in a small commune but perhaps not in society as a whole.

Both presenter and audience oscillated between marvelling at the ambition of these ideas and giggling at the sometimes naive failures. Wanting to rethink organisational hierarchies is admirable but running an office on the model of a swamp ecosystem seems to be taking things far too literally. There were also a few chuckles reserved for the undercurrent of eastern mysticism and counterculture (long hair, meditation, beards) which seemed to be shared by many cybernetic thinkers. The link between systems theory and non-western philosophy or fractals and LSD were famously explored in America by Fritjof Capra in The¬†Web of Life (1996), but it would be interesting to hear more about the “culture” of British cybernetics and to what extent it was bound up with the youth movements of the 60s and 70s, and possibly shared their fate.

The audience was curious if cybernetics was really dead or if there were seeds and sprouts of something new. At least a couple of the participants seemed to have cybernetic ties and were keen to reflect on the past and future of the movement. Some questions were raised about the ambivalence of political implications of a cybernetic vision. Google’s somewhat surreptitious goal to create a world brain seems at once very cybernetic and perniciously Orwellian. For Pickering the key to avoiding a technocratic version of cybernetics was symmetry, while for one audience member it was, following Ashby’s famous dictum “variety”. There is of course a whole complicated history of designing politics based on fetishised ideas of nature or idealised notions of science (Ezrahi 1990) and it seems quite important which nature or which science, indeed which cybernetics, becomes the model.

Cellular Automata

But Pickering was not arguing for a utopian society based on cybernetic principles but a multiple ontological space in which the modern and the cybernetic can operate in parallel – something like Laing’s “mezzo-revolution”, the growth of a parallel society within the hegemonic one. Perhaps what makes cybernetics unique is precisely it’s partial, contingent and non-universalising scope. The question is wether this original spark of open-ended experimentation can be reignited, or if it has already been co-opted like so many other counter-culture ideas.

A recording of the talk is available here and the Q&A can be found here.

This lecture took place on February 19 and was hosted by the Digital Culture Unit and the Centre for the Study for Invention and Social Process, Goldsmiths.


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