Definition of Cybernetics

Ever wonder what cybernetics was? Or maybe is? It's a baffling question and even the leading theorists of cybernetics in the 1940s and 1950s could hardly agree on the definition. In the last few years historians Eden Medina and Andrew Pickering, for example, have shown that the understanding, definition, and use of cybernetics varied tremendously from one context to another. Even Norbert Wiener, who is widely credited with founding cybernetics, offered varying and contradictory accounts of the field.


Recently communications theorist Ben Peters and I wrote up our own definition and introduction to the field for the forthcoming Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media and Textuality, edited by Lori Emerson, Benjamin Robertson, and Marie-Laure Ryan. The editors have put together a stellar volume with entries by Simon Penny, Jay David Bolter, Matthew Fuller, Matthew Gold, Johanna Drucker, Jussi Parikka, Eduardo Kac and other notable theorists of digital media. Below is the rough draft of the entry Ben and I prepared. For the final, more polished draft, pick up a copy of the guide when it comes out.


Bernard Geoghegan & Benjamin Peters

Cybernetics, like many meta-disciplines, evades easy definition: there may now be as many definitions of cybernetics as―or perhaps more than―there are self-identified cyberneticians. Since the mid-1940s, its amalgamation of themes of communication and control in computational biological, social, and symbolic systems have inspired and bedeviled researchers across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Accounts have variously identified cybernetics as a science of communication and control (Wiener 1948), a universal science (Bowker 1993), an umbrella discipline (Kline forthcoming), partner to the wartime triumvirate with operations research and game theory (Galison 1994), and a scientific farce founded on sloppy analogies between computers and human organisms (Pierce 1961: 208-227).
    MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener is often credited with launching the field with his 1948 book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Wiener 1948). Wiener based Cybernetics on his World War II research aimed at better integrating the agency of human gunners and analog computers within antiaircraft artillery fire-control systems. Wiener, an inveterate polymath, vaulted this early image for human-machine systems that conflate communication and feedback processes into a more general science of communication and control, and coined the term cybernetics from the Greek word for steersman, a predecessor to the English term governor as well as the source of the modern-day prefix cyber (Rosenblueth et al 1943). Wiener’s masterworks commingled complex mathematical analysis, exposition on the promise and threat associated with automated machinery, and speculations of a social, political, and religious nature (Wiener 1948; Wiener 1950; Wiener 1964).
    The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics (1946-1953), as they were informally known, staked out a still broader interdisciplinary purview for cybernetic research (Pias 2004). In addition to Wiener, participants included neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch who directed the conferences, the mathematician and game theorist John von Neumann, leading anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, engineer Claude Shannon, sociologist-statistician Paul Lazarsfeld, as well as psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and philosophers. Relying on mathematical and formal definitions of communication, participants rendered permeable the boundaries that distinguished humans, machines, and animals. The language of cybernetic and informatic analysis―encoding, decoding, signal, feedback, entropy, equilibrium, information, communication, control―sustained the analogies between these ontologically distinct classes (Heims 1991; Peters 2010). The “invisible college” constituted by the Macy Conferences proved immensely influential: Von Neumann pioneered much of the digital architecture for the computer as well as cold war game theory (Aspray 1990); Bateson facilitated the adaptation of cybernetics in anthropology and the American counterculture (Turner 2006); Shannon founded American information theory; Lazarsfeld fashioned much of the conceptual architecture of postwar communication studies. Although American cybernetics found its roots in military and industrial research (Pickering 1995), England, France, Chile, and the Soviet Union served as home to vibrant and distinct schools of cybernetic research, often with a countercultural or socialist orientation (Pickering 2010; Segal 2003; Medina 2011; Gerovitch, 2002).
    The methodological hallmarks of cybernetics, especially human-machine interaction and feedback, overlapped with the fields of information theory and game theory (Aspray 1985). Mainstream American information theory, following Bell Labs engineer Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication, concentrates on the efficient and reliable measurement and transmission of data (Shannon 1948). Von Neumann’s game theory, influential in economics, developed formal models for human behavior based on strategic decision-making processes (Mirowski 2002). All three methods, which Galison calls the Manichean sciences, sought formal systems for describing communicative activities. A mixed intellectual inheritance, even though Wiener insisted on a catholic definition of cybernetics that included the others, and even though von Neumann referred to game theory as information theory until his death, and, less frequently, information theory, have been used at times to characterize all three fields (Wiener 1956; Kline 2004), although many subsequent information theorists and game theorists have objected to this conflation (Shannon 1956; Pierce 1973).  
    Literary and cultural studies have derived a variety of inspirations from cybernetics. In the late 1940s and 1950s American mathematician Warren Weaver, who oversaw the work of Wiener and Shannon during the war, argued for applying their research to machine translation and the analysis of visual arts (Weaver 1949; Weaver 1955). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s structural linguist Roman Jakobson advocated the selective adaptation of cybernetics to promote a more rigorous and scientific definition of language (Jakobson 1990). His friend and colleague, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, contended that structuralism was an “indirect outcome” of cybernetics, information theory and game theory and he saw semiology as part of the communication sciences (Lévi-Strauss 1953:528; Geoghegan 2011). French critics, including Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard, later adapted elements of cybernetic modeling within their semiotic studies while arguing that the fields' preoccupation with eliminating noise from communications had a technocratic or politically conservative predisposition  (Barthes 1977; Barthes 1974; Baudrillard 1981). Jean-François Lyotard's essay The Postmodern Condition, ostensibly a critique of the imbrication of informatic and economic terms in global capitalism, also deployed and adapted a number of cybernetic tropes (Lyotard 1984; Galison 1994; Geoghegan 2011).
    In the 1980s Donna Haraway and German literary critic Friedrich Kittler developed two contemporaneous but distinct schools of neo-cybernetic criticism. Haraway adapted the themes of cybernetic analysis to develop a new and ironic style of feminist critique concerned with the artifactual, technical, and hybrid conditions of identity in an age of technoscience (Haraway 2004). Subsequent interest in cyborg studies wove the intertwined history of cybernetics and science fiction, from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove to The Terminator, into refreshing a critique of contemporary politics, science, gender, and textuality (Gray 1995; Edwards 1996). Even so, recent historians have noted that only a minor wing of medical cybernetics actually took up the literal fusion of the human and machine in cyborg research (Kline 2009). In this wayIn this sense, the legacy of cybernetic human-machine interaction appears to splinter into rich literary speculation and pragmatic scientific practice mark another splintering within the.
    Roughly contemporaneous with Haraway's 1980s research, German literary critic Friedrich Kittler, through a sometimes blindingly brilliant anti-humanist interpretation of cybernetics and information theory, mobilized the analysis of warfare and communications technology as cultural determinants that spearheaded a new school or approach to German media theory (Kittler 1993; Kittler 1999: 1-20; Siegert 1999; Hörl 2005). Like Haraway, Kittler sought to undermine the role of the “human” or “spirit” as an epistemic figure orienting humanistic critique or analysis, an approach that coincided with near disdain towards Anglo-American reflections on gender, politics, and identity (Peters 2010).
    The two subsequent subfields―variously called cyborg theory and media archaeology―laid the foundation for new literary and cultural interrogations of literature, film, media, biology, gender, and other fields displaced and conjoined by shifting technological regimes. Since the 1990s, the proliferation of digital media in personal, professional, literary, and artistic contexts has prompted major efforts to re-evaluate and reclaim aspects of cybernetic analysis. N. Katherine Hayles’ literary analysis of cybernetics relies on writers such as Bernard Wolfe and Philip K. Dick advancing a cybernetic complicity in the postmodern disembodiment of human subjects (Hayles 1999). Mark Hansen's New Philosophy for New Media, by contrast, finds in the work of British information theorist Donald MacKay (a participant in the Macy Conferences) resources for affirming the role of human embodiment in digital communications (Hansen 2004). Writers and technologists alike from Stanislaw Lem to Cory Doctorow, to Rodney Brooks have cited cybernetics as an inspiration (Pickering 2010: 60-69)
    Any attempt to reconcile these legion cybernetic understandings would likely be as fruitless as it would be misguided: like many other ambitious projects, contradictions, inconsistencies, paradoxes, and programmatic failures have long been hallmarks of cybernetics. Wiener's failed attempts to improve fire-control in the 1940s, the Macy Conferences failed effort to develop a universal science of control and communication in the 1940s and 1950s, and the ambivalent appropriation of cybernetics by theorists ever since speak to the difficulty―and likely impossibility―of reconciling humans, animals, machines, and societies into a consistent, coherent, or unified intellectual program. It is exactly this disunity of definitions, actors, and exegesis that speaks to cybernetics’ continuing promise for future critical inquiry.


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