t byfield on Thu, 5 Mar 2009 12:34:49 -0500 (EST)

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Re: <nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet

brian.holmes@wanadoo.fr (Thu 03/05/09 at 01:55 PM +0100):

> 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.

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?

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


The problem was, as you recount it here, the phrase (still notably vague) 
"might have anything to do with." Of course these things have something 
to do with each other. The question is *what* -- and, by extension, *how*. 
The lion's share of what you said is, as usual, tremendous; but 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.

Take a minute to reread what I wrote then:


Though I should have taken the time to thank you then for pushing me to
articulate a few ideas that had just been sloshing around. I'll do it
now: thank you. As much as I may disagree with this or that aspect of
what you've written, your work is tremendous.

One difficulty of writing a history of cybernetics is that the problems
it explicitly poses about 'autonomy' undermine the twin ideas of author 
and history. If you accept the major premises of cybernetics (even in the 
bracketed form that historical craft requires), the notion of a stable 
subject who acts deliberately falls apart; and the eternal problem of what 
we've come to call historical method -- how to divide time in general and 
in the specific -- becomes almost hopeless, because cybernetics offers its 
own model of periodicity, and a very radical one at that. "The question is 
which is to be master -- that's all," spake Humpty Dumpty"; and, as you 
would put it, *it's no accident* that the Sits quoted him approvingly in 
the same essay where they denounced cybernetics, "All the King's Men":


I'm deathly tired of the Sits, but it's noteworthy that people writing in
France in 1963 didn't see fit to mention WW2 in this context. 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.

> 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? 

It's funny to think about all the ~premature diagnoses of tawdry little 
crises that have been attributed to Our Beloved Internet, because the 
fun is only just beginning. 'Information asymmetry' is the sine qua non 
of markets; and regardless of whether or not one likes OBI it *seriously* 
screws with the patterns of asymmetry on which current power structures 
and (more important) dynamics are based. 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?


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