The flipside of the happy accident is the situation without an apparent
history or origin. As the Talking Heads song asks, "Well, how did I get
I've been very interested in Brian Holmes' read of cybernetics as present
and influential in the contemporary surveillance state, and in the
proliferation of "liberal empire."
A quote from his thesis on this:
"The automated inspection of personal data can no longer simply be conceived
as an all-seeing eye, a hidden ear, a baleful presence behind the scenes.
The myriad forms of contemporary electronic surveillance now constitute the
irremediably multiple feedback loops of a cybernetic society, devoted to
controlling the future. Conflict lodges within these cybernetic circles.
They knit together the actors of transnational state capitalism, in all its
cultural and commercial complexity; but their distant model is Wiener's
antiaircraft predictor, which programs the antagonistic eye into a docile
and efficient machine. Under the auspices of a lowly servomechanism coupled
into an informational loop, we glimpse the earliest stirrings of the Golem
that matters to us today, in the age of data-mining and neuromarketing. And
this Golem is ourselves, the cyborg populations of the computerized
from here: http://brianholmes.wordpress.com/2007/09/09/future-map/
more here: http://www.16beavergroup.org/drift/details2008ny.htm#brian
and here: http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0709/msg00013.html
Brian's take, to me convincing, is that the cybernetic society has been
realized at the level of neurology, perception. Sure, we're not surrounded
by "machines that think" in any techno-utopian sense. Those who see A.I. as
having won the funding battle over cybernetics, now moving on to realize the
cybernetic vision, miss the point. Instead, humans have become "biological
computers." Programmed to operate as self-organizing systems, but only
within a larger system, a branded-gaia of governed desires and programmed
perceptual stimuli. (Not so far from Haraway's cyborg, here either.)
By this read, one can find plenty of examples of contemporary work in New
Media that ride this wave, that depend on systems of cybernetic control for
their existence. One could look at some of the debates over Locative Media's
dependence on cartesian space and state-sponsored technology in this light.
It's also worth pointing out about Holmes' work that he's not blaming
cybernetics itself for the undesirable state of contemporary human
subjectivity. He still, I think, sees some hope, some worthwhile utopias, in
the threads of "second-order" or even "third-order" cybernetics, possibly
lost in the current cybernetic state. I'm not sure what to think of this.
Either he's right about this - and the sort of recursive self-consciousness
produced by ironic television comedy and facebook status updates misses the
point of second-order cybernetics entirely - or he's wrong about this, and
von Foerster's dream of a "cybernetics of cybernetics" has also found it's
way, directly or indirectly, into the modern reflexive impulse.
I find such a broad frame useful for entry into specific historical
analyses, digging around for understanding about the origins and effects of
particular cybernetic experiments. Here at University of Illinois, one time
home to Heinz von Foerster's Biological Computing Lab, plenty of artists
found their way onto defense contracts in the 60's, as Heinz scrambled to
fund projects any way he could. The resulting constellations of personnel,
funding, produced objects and dispersed destinations, are rich for revealing
how theory meets practice, and to what multiple, even contradictory ends.
I've begun exploring these as a way of understanding some of our current
inescapable complicities and hoped-for alternatives. Re-building old
cybernetic devices, placing conferences and papers in the context of
concurrent events on campus and in the world, connecting research to
teaching through comparing syllabi to technical reports, mapping the
migratory paths of researchers in search of opportunity or escaping bad
scenarios - that's how I'm trying to unpack the cybernetics of my home
By all accounts, the war in Vietnam brough enough campus unrest that the
U.S. Senate eventually restricted defense spending to university projects
directly related to military operations. That's an amazing thing for this
child of the 70's to think about. That's also when the complex networks of
early cybernetic art research seemed to end. But what happened next? Did all
those multi-year "blue sky" defense projects really just end up on an unused
shelf? Where and how did private industry pick up the torch?
When I bring up all this cybernetic stuff to friends in Computer Science, I
meet with yawns. When I talk about it with people in Physics, they can't
believe how prescient it is. That's interesting to me as well, and worth
pushing harder to get more of today's New Media cheerleaders to look at some
of the old experiments, utopias, and objects. I wish I could have seen the
exhibition at Laboral.
- Kevin Hamilton, University of Illinois