Brian Holmes on Thu, 5 Mar 2009 09:47:20 -0500 (EST)

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<nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet

Hello Nettime -

Since the summer of 2006 we've had quite a few debates (a 
recurrent fever?) under this cryptic heading: Cybernetics 
and the Internet. The implication that a distant, partially 
militarized and long-obsolete research program might have 
anything to do with the ways we use our computers to freely 
communicate no doubt smacked to many of a dark and useless 
conspiracy theory, and perhaps even of an attack on Our 
Beloved Internet (OBI). I understand the reticence, but I 
saw it all a bit differently.

Contemporaneous with the vast expansion of free-market 
capitalism after 1989, the commercial Internet became the 
symbol, the tool and the most common lived experience of 
American-led globalization. By 2006 we had been through the 
boom, the bust, the blast, and a radical shift from the 
sunny Californian neoliberal rhetoric of infinite openness 
and a world without borders (or maybe even without salaried 
labor) to the thick-crude Texas neocon rhetoric of "freedom" 
aka security panic and neo-imperialism. While I watched a 
hulking Cold War military-industrial apparatus lurch back 
onto the stage along with some of the very goons who had 
brought it to its peak in 1950-70, I could not help being 
struck by the coexistence of two seemingly opposite 
paradigms: a command-and-control logic that had everything 
to do with the centralized military state, and a 
freewheeling "open systems" approach that had everything to 
do with the liberal theory of the market. If they coexisted, 
could they have any common root in the historical processes 
that laid the groundwork for the US-centric world-system way 
back in the 1940s? Could such common origins explain why one 
paradigm could shift almost instantaneously into the other?

Honestly I knew nothing about cybernetics, but the question 
was far too interesting to ignore. After a couple years' 
reading, the answer seemed to be that an initial system of 
control engineering through the use of feedback information 
about a machine's environment, developed by McCulloch, 
Pitts, Wiener and Shannon in particular, had been rapidly 
extended to become a social science projecting its 
informatic models onto the human beings of the Cold War era. 
This command-and-control paradigm, in its turn, was 
destabilized by Maturana, Varela and Von Foerster's 
self-reflexive introduction of the observer's consciousness 
into the system, leading to "second-order cybernetics" and 
ultimately to the chaos and complexity theories that came to 
dominate our understanding of both networks and the economy 
during the 1980s and 90s. I therefore came to see the dark 
and sunny sides, first and second-order cybernetics, as 
remarkably different and yet inextricably intertwined 
approaches, forming the underpinning of a democratic social 
project based on a hard core of corporate-military power, 
and continually extended to meet the governance needs of 
what I call "liberal empire."

This research gave rise to essays about the cultural 
critique of Adam Curtis, the development of surveillance 
technology since WWII, the film by Lutz Dammbeck entitled 
Das Netz, the dynamic organizational form of the swarm, and 
finally, the culmination of these cybernetic reflections in 
a new essay about "Guattari's Schizoanalytic Cartographies," 
which situates his and Deleuze's work with the context of 
postwar social science and its developments into chaos and 
complexity theory. These could have formed a small 
publication on their own, but instead I've made them into 
the "Dark Crystals" section of my upcoming book, *Escape the 
Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society* (for which, 
by the way, I'm happy to have won the Villem Flusser award 
along with hacker extraordinaire Denis Rojo aka "Jaromil"). 
All these essays would never have happened without the 
collective intelligence of Nettime, and they can of course 
be consulted on OBI:

Today it is once again the market logic that clamors from 
the headlines and preoccupies our fevered brains, this time 
not with a boom or a bubble but instead with the 
biggest-ever bust of a semiotic economy driven by 
computer-crunched mathematics and distributed by networked 
systems. The interesting question is obviously, what's gonna 
happen next, now that capitalism's orgiastic infatuation 
with networks seems almost sure to go into decline? Will 
there be a social backlash against ODI (Our Detested 
Internet)? Will the new forms of "closure" that Kenneth 
Werbin was talking about in the post that originally sparked 
this thread be developed in useful or in reactionary ways? 
(cf. Kenneth's post, 
Will the regionalism that I have been predicting in the 
Continental Drift seminars become a reality, and if so, will 
it be a dangerous or a benevolent one? Stay tuned folks, and 
keep those channels, uhhh, open....


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