Cybernetics in Action

Article Information

  • Author(s): M. Beatrice Fazi
  • Affiliation(s): Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London
  • Publication Date: November 2011
  • Issue: 1
  • Citation: M. Beatrice Fazi. “Cybernetics in Action.” Computational Culture 1 (November 2011).


Review of Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future, The University of Chicago Press, 536pp, May 2010, ISBN 978-0-226-66789-8

“By rehearsing the history of cybernetics […]”, Andrew Pickering writes, “I have tried to convey my conviction that there is another way of understanding our being in the world, that it makes sense, and that grasping that other way can make a difference in how we go on” (p. 390).

This statement is taken from one of the concluding pages of Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain, and it perhaps demonstrates the degree to which the book departs from much of the contemporary historical revival of cybernetics. Pickering’s intention is to explore post-war British cybernetics; to consider this “set of scientific, technological, and social developments” at a time “when people did it, rather than just thought it” (p.4), and to offer, by way of this research, sketches of another future, as the subtitle of the work itself states. The aim of the book is thus to enrich the reader’s understanding of a specific time (mainly, the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s) and place (Britain, at least in origin) in the history of cybernetics. Pickering does this by looking at the life and labour of some of its major representatives (Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask) and associates (Gregory Bateson and R. D. Laing), and by reviewing their rich world of weird machines, chance meetings and unusual techniques. In The Cybernetic Brain, however, past tenses are only employed to historigraphically signpost the topic. The contours of Pickering’s sketches of a possible, other future are in fact drawn through two main lines of argument: the first concerns the theoretical appeal of the cybernetic field and focuses on its ontological relevance; the second (which is more implicit) builds on that field’s philosophical import, so as to put cybernetics’ modus operandi and cognoscendi in dialogue with current work in science studies. Both of Pickering’s argumentative threads are intended to point beyond the book itself, towards “an endless and quite unpredictable list of future projects imaginable” (p. 390). It is perhaps for this reason that the book’s 536 pages read less like an antiquarian’s catalogue of oddities and memorabilia than as an open-ended programme for future practice.

Currently Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Exeter, Andrew Pickering is a leading name in science and technology studies. The Cybernetic Brain can be seen to continue his investigation into the material referents of scientific practices, as well as his intellectual commitment towards alternatives to hegemonic forms of knowledge. Amongst his previous works, Constructing Quarks (1984) addressed the sociological history of particle physics and contended that science is a process of modelling; The Mangle of Practice (1995) pursued the openness of such real-time modelling procedures, and put forth a conception of scientific practice geared towards the interrelation of human and non-human agency, characterizing it as a dialectic of resistance and accommodation of heterogeneous and multiple elements. With The Cybernetic Brain Pickering now shifts his attention to the less studied field of cybernetics, and finds within it an exemplary application of his posthumanist and temporal understanding of the process of scientific knowledge’s production. With the spirit of the anthropologist (or that of the ethologist, as one could say in a Deleuzian/Spinozist sense) he looks at cybernetics’ “strange tribe and its interesting practices and objects” (p. 17) as “a form of life, a way of going on in the world, even an attitude” (p. 9): a practice whose modes of being are expressed through what he calls its “protean quality” (p. 399).

The specificity that Pickering sees in the post-war British strand of the field concerns the centrality of the brain. The “standard origin story” (p. 4) of cybernetics – one that is closely associated with the American champions (Wiener, von Neumann and Shannon, just to name the most famous) of the discipline – casts it as the product of the encounter of mathematics and engineering. Yet, contra such a tradition, the book proposes that the cybernetic enterprise is, at its very core, a science of the brain. This latter, however, is not understood as the site of thought and of representational information par excellence, as post-Descartes philosophies would take it to be. Rather, the cybernetic brain is the organ of doing: it acts, performs and, most importantly, helps us to get along in the world by making us adapt to the unknown. This notion of adaptation is key to Pickering’s review of cybernetics: the field is in fact articulated as an “antidisciplinary and interinstitutional” (p. 59) praxis, the goal of which is to model how systems learn to adjust to a world that can always interrupt, surprise and reconfigure them.

The early British cybernetics grew out of the psychiatric milieu (Walter, for example, worked in neurophysiological research all his life, while Ashby was a clinical psychiatrist and pathologist) but went beyond the brain to explore and build adaptive systems across all sorts of areas of investigation: into the arts, education, architecture, music, robotics, management, even spirituality; “cybernetics spilled out all over the disciplinary and professional map” (p. 9) anticipating in doing so concepts as central to contemporary technoculture as ‘complexity’ and ‘emergence’. Pickering’s characterization of cybernetics as “the science of the adaptive brain” on page eight is thus one of importance, for it highlights the potential for change and invention that the field was, from its inception, charged with. Moreover, Pickering’s research provides good evidence of how the cybernetic study of adaptation had less to do with military ranks and the lecture room than with unconventional spaces such as the asylums of R. D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry, the West End stages of Joan Littlewood’s radical theatre, or the beatnik exhibitions of Brion Gysin’s psychedelia. To this end, the book narrates a history of cybernetics where his underdog protagonists only partially gained academic recognition or even a permanent job; they shared, however, hopes, methodologies and acquaintances with the turmoil of the 1960s counterculture. The adaptive brain, Pickering argues, teaches us to perform in the world: all sort of activities geared towards this performative experimentation are, in this sense, welcome: from holist strategies for mental therapy to symmetric models for the “reciprocal adaptations of people, animals, machines and nature” (p. 172), as well as to the evaluation of altered states and transcendental experiences. Common to these unorthodoxies is a tendency towards the exploration of the unfamiliar. Pickering describes this trait as “the ontology of unknowability” (p. 23), and sees it as characterizing Eastern philosophy as much as, for instance, Stafford Beer’s approaches to “the politics of interacting systems” (p. 274). The connection between cybernetics and Oriental spirituality, Pickering clarifies, is not necessary; nevertheless, it is worth exploring where and when it occurs, as “a site of interchange between cybernetics and the sixties counterculture” (p. 12).

This historiographical connection that Pickering unravels between British cybernetics and the counterculture of the 1960s also presents us with some useful responses to the widespread criticism that has been levelled towards the cybernetic enterprise in general. “Some people”, Pickering writes, “think of it as the most despicable of the sciences” (pp. 13-14). This criticism is varied, but two principal arguments can be presented here. The first regards the military derivation of cybernetics, which dates back to World War II, and is best exemplified by Norbert Wiener’s development of anti-craft guns. Cybernetics is, from this perspective, thought of as a militarist discipline; Pickering, however, objects to that appraisal, defining it as a “doctrine of original sin” (p. 14). The psychiatric matrices that he emphasises are then said to be sufficient to dismiss such accusations, along with the conviction that “sciences are not tainted forever by the moral circumstances of their birth” (ibid.). The second – broader – line of criticism to which The Cybernetic Brain responds concerns the common understanding of cybernetics as a discipline of control. Let us just recall, once again, Wiener (1948), who defined cybernetics as the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine; a definition that stuck, considering the large amount of literature on the topic. Much of the typical suspicion towards cybernetics would then seem to originate from this tainted interest in achieving and preserving mechanisms of control. Yet Pickering’s book reviews a varied body of works that would appear to allow for a metaphorical acceptance of the term control. Of course post-war British cyberneticians are interested in control machines; the controlling exerted by these latter, however, can be articulated as a means of adaptation, interaction or, in the vocabulary of Gordon Pask, ‘conversation’, i.e. a “form of reciprocally productive and open-ended exchange between two or more parties” (p. 322). From this point of view, Pickering claims, cybernetics would favour a sort of Heideggerian ‘revealing’. This is in contrast to the ‘enframing’ of traditional sciences, which want instead to command and control, via knowledge, whatever the world has to offer.

To summarise this point: although Pickering never dismisses the political importance of a critique of control, the dystopian association of cybernetics with Big-Brotheresque agendas or panoptical projects is also refused. Pickering’s argumentation becomes, in this respect, even more interesting in the light of the connection that he draws between certain aspects and personalities of the cybernetic enterprise and the countercultural and anti-establishment stances of the 1960s. One could, for example, consider the attacks that cybernetics received by some intellectual and artistic avant-gardes of the same period – for instance, from the Situationist International (see Debord, 1995:29-30) – and comment that perhaps such criticism was grounded on the same misplaced understanding of control mechanisms that Pickering wants to eradicate.

All the above (propositions for future practice, different understanding of the significance of the discipline, response to common criticism) leads to what can be considered the principal theoretical proposition of The Cybernetic Brain and its “major cross-cutting theme” (p. 380); a proposal that, as anticipated, concerns the philosophical relevance of the cybernetic field. Pickering believes that the cybernetics’ interest in the unfamiliar and the unknown and its desire to account for what is heterogeneous and only partially predictable are fundamentally dependent on the ontological vision that cyberneticians had of the world. He affirms that cybernetics (or, at least, the kind of cybernetics that he is studying) is characterised by a specific ontology, i.e. an exclusive way of engaging with being and existence. Cybernetic reality, Pickering contends, is always new and perpetually in a state of becoming; it is populated by entities that are entangled with the “endless performativity of matter” (p. 289) and cannot possibly be captured by the representational capabilities of traditional epistemology. Significantly, in this respect, it might be noted that Pickering is not interested in the traditional taxonomy of cybernetics, which chronologically and thematically divides the area in a first and second wave, depending on the inside-or-outside role of its observers. In his account, in fact, there are not in/out observing points, but only actors. Drawing on Latour’s actor-network theory, he describes cybernetics as an “ontology of performative becoming in action” (p. 112), according to which there is no split between humans and non-humans, people and things. This ontological stand challenges modernity: again following Latour (1993) and the insight that “modernity might not be enough” (p. 394), Pickering attributes to cybernetics a ‘nonmodern’ character, capable of undoing those Western dualisms (above all, the notorious mind/matter divide) that hold institutional knowledge hostage.

One can now comment how the ontology of Pickering’s cybernetics differentiates itself from the weltanschauung of modern sciences. Physics might have its Einsteins and Schrödingers, biology might reveal the laws of life and mathematics might bring us to the verge of the absolute: the ‘classical’ (as Prigogine and Stengers call them (1984)), or ‘royal’  (in Deleuze and Guattari’s vocabulary (2004)) sciences might as well have all the prime-time slots on educational television channels, but if we follow Pickering’s argument, it is in cybernetics that the real drama is played out. Pickering defines the main stage that he builds for this action as an “ontological theater” (pp. 17-33). The notion of performativity is, in this regard, central. The forms of actions of cybernetics, along with its practical, empirical and pragmatic character, reinforce an argument whose depth and extent can possibly be best appreciated if one is familiar with Pickering’s earlier The Mangle of Practice. In that book, he contrasted two different idioms for thinking and talking about science: the representational and the performative. The first understands science as an activity of representation; scientific knowledge is thus supposed to create a mirror image or a map of how the world is, while people and objects are just spectators in the process. The performative idiom, by contrast, is all about doing: points of view are decentred, action is set in an environment and material and human agencies are entwined together. In The Cybernetics Brain, Pickering returns to this distinction and contends that the cybernetic field can be considered an instantiation of the performative idiom. He sees cybernetics as a science that privileges action, and praises it for its “performative engagement with the world” (p. 19). Walter’s robot-tortoises, Ashby’s homeostat, Beer’s Viable System Model and Pask’s Musicolor machine are thus worldly projects that offer an embodied and enacted appreciation of the brain and, in general, the self, while accounting for an interest in adaptive performances that would be “unrepresentable in the idiom of the modern sciences” (p. 21). It can therefore be noted how, according to Pickering’s description, a disparity between the (representational) scientific and the (performative) cybernetic methods would then seem to arise: the ‘dance of agency’ (a figure of speech that Pickering coined in The Mangle of Practice and which he returns to in The Cybernetic Brain) that is dramatized in cybernetic performances involves a material exchange amongst a multiplicity of forces that would elude Newtonian techniques for acquiring new knowledge. So, while the representational idiom of the sciences of modernity is an epistemological enterprise geared towards the production of theory, the performative paradigm of cybernetics is instead a practice, including theory and other kinds of account, which looks at the diversity of its components/actors and constructs a view of the world capable of accounting for such motley assemblages.

It does not seem to be the book’s intention to reiterate the theorization of this paradigmatic distinction between representation and performance, but rather to apply it empirically to concrete instances that can in turn become source of inspiration for future, active speculation. The Cybernetic Brain can thus be read at many levels: for its narrative and documentary value, it could be approached as the result of years of thoughtful historical investigation and reconstruction; as regards its theoretical relevance, the book might be welcomed as the latest contribution from a significant voice in science studies and as furthering Pickering’s extant conceptual apparatus. In this sense, one of the book’s greatest achievements is perhaps the fact that it is as open-ended as the practices that it investigates.

From a more conceptual point of view, the stress that Pickering places on the philosophical relevance of cybernetics is an original and valuable contribution. He never tires of affirming the following points: that there is something important about cybernetics; that this importance lies in the latter’s philosophical allure; that this appeal can be used to investigate and pursue alternative ways of being and doing that might be relevant to our present. Pickering proves this contemporary significance by highlighting the degree to which cybernetic insights can be found in some of today’s best examples of cutting-edge research and experimentation. These latter include, amongst others, Rodney Brooks’ robotics, which employs a subsumption architecture that contrasts starkly with the ‘good old-fashioned’ AI’s representational mimicry of the brain (pp. 60-64), and Stephen Wolfram’s ‘new kind of science’ (pp. 156-170), which is geared towards accounting for complexity within simplicity (a matter of investigation, Pickering comments, that was set out by Ross Ashby in the 1950s).

In this respect, the book contends that, while it is possible to delineate some heritage lines in topics and conceptions, the “strange ontology” (p. 15) of cybernetics has however not been taken up in contemporary mainstream techno-scientific practice. This fact is lamented as a missed opportunity, largely due to the always uncertain and improvised social basis that cybernetics – which is itself, Pickering argues, an occurrence of what Deleuze and Guattari (2004) called ‘nomad science’ – moved in. Still, in response to this, it could be noted that themes such as embodiment and situated knowledge have, relatively recently, become the staple diet of cognitive science, especially in its joint venture with computing towards a ‘naturalization’ of fundamentally ontological issues. In a post-Dreyfus spirit, these attempts try to put forth a scientific theory of distributed and environmentally situated cognition by confronting the analytic tradition with the phenomenological and the hermeneutical; an effort which can be said to be implicitly backed up by those debates in computer science that contemplate the possibility to go beyond sequential, formal and strictly symbolic accounts of computational procedures. At stake is a comprehensive reconsideration of what might be accounted as intelligent, rational, mental, and, similarly, of which sorts of agencies are acknowledged to exhibit these proprieties. This programme, it could be added, is also mirrored in broader fields such as cultural theory and media studies; the relevance of theories of performativity is, in this regard, pivotal and expressed through a variety of positions that may be grouped under a general interest in the non-representational. Materialism is not a taboo, but rather a refreshed concern. To this end, the coupling between human beings and the material world is the conceptual starting point of a variety of explorations on the capacities for thought and action in media, art and culture. Finally, from a more socioeconomic perspective, it can be also noted that web-2.0-type enthusiasms about interactivity and sociability take on some of these themes commercially. To clarify: these remarks are not intended to detract from the originality and sophistication of Pickering’s proposition. Rather, they are meant to prove the social and cultural impact that cybernetic problems directly or indirectly exert. The advocacy of “practice in its own right” (p. 380) can thus transversally assume different guises, probably in virtue of the very same protean quality that Pickering finds in cybernetics itself. At the same time, however, these comments are also intended to expand upon the manner in which what Pickering characterises as the ‘performative idiom’ is acquiring its own cultural momentum and, in some cases, even gaining the prominence of a new orthodoxy (although far from being as established and institutionalized as the representationalist tradition).

A further consideration that follows from what has been discussed so far concerns the notion of ontology that is proposed in the book. The Cybernetic Brain never mentions metaphysics: the ontology Pickering is interested in seems then to be less a ‘first philosophy’ concerned with the ultimate and fundamental nature of being than a form of conceptualization of how to deal with the entities of the cybernetic world. This understanding of ontology is not explicitly stated in the book; equally, the demonstration of the ways in which it differentiates itself from epistemology is largely left to the empirical evidence presented in the text. Perhaps this is partly the reason behind what appears to be a vague characterization of the ontological – and now, in this sense, metaphysical – standing of the entities that cybernetics is composed of. Similarly, while the book argues that cybernetic reality prefers doing to knowing, relatively less is said as to how performativity itself affects or changes the nature of being in the first place. One could then also comment that while the objects described in The Cybernetic Brain have their own narrative autonomy (which means, that they are projects whose relevance and existence is redeemed by any representational account of their functions), their performances seem instead to be dependant or conditioned by the ‘intentional’ character of cybernetic agencies. The term ‘intentionality’ has to be taken here in a phenomenological sense. It is in fact used to refer to Pickering’s depiction of cybernetic action, which appears to be understood as always oriented towards a something else to which it has to relate. Hence, what can be seen as an ‘intentional orientation’ of cybernetic agency would seem to put forth a conversational, dialogic, inter-subjective characterisation of performativity: this intentional aspect bounds the diversity of systems together, yet also possibly runs the risk of phenomenologically characterising material agency and, in consequence, of partially missing its non-human specificities.

On a different note, a further consideration that is worth proposing regards the notable absence in The Cybernetic Brain of computer science. Perhaps this is deliberate, and forms part of an attempt to contend that the history of cybernetics is not a history of computing machines, but of other wonderfully weirder devices that – if only the circumstances would have been right – could have given us a different present from the one in which we live today. The marginality of cybernetics and its consequent lack of funding meant that its research on computation was disadvantaged in comparison to the colossal investments devoted towards the development of digital computing machines. One cannot help but wonder, in this sense, what would we all be typing into – and even if we would be typing at all – if the same amount of time and money would have been put into, for instance, Stafford Beer’s biological computing (pp. 231-234). Pickering sees the cybernetic understanding of computation – which is, inevitably at this point, involved with matter and agency to the extent of exhibiting ‘hylozoist’ qualities (p. 289) – as the direct derivation of its performative approach to mentality. The Cybernetic Brain would therefore object to digital computation, insofar its deductive, symbolic workings epitomise much of the representational type of knowledge that Pickering criticises. The book does not linger much on this antagonistic position towards digital computing, but the relevance of this topic for contemporary technoscience is evident. It can also be stressed that at present computer science is looking for alternative understandings of computation; this perhaps evidences just how untimely cybernetic research on these issues was. In this regard, it would have been interesting to read suggestions as to how Pickering’s cybernetics could be brought into a more open confrontation with both concepts of digitality and computation, vis-à-vis the distinction between representation and performance. One can possibly suspect that this – to some extent dichotomous – differentiation would perhaps prove to be problematic, especially when faced with the layering of both notational and executable factors that, one can contend, is involved in computational structures.

In conclusion, we can now return to what might be said to be the main intent of the book: to take its readers on a voyage through the only partially explored continent of cybernetics, and to use the experience gained along the way to demonstrate that it is possible – in fact, necessary – to question assumptions and conventions. This exploration is, as in the best tradition of travelling, not much about the destination but about the journey: one might discover, during the travel, that there are other ways of doing and knowing and decide that these are well worth the adventure. The challenge took up by The Cybernetic Brain thus expands on any endeavour into the unknown of thought and action; a dare that can arguably be seen as the motivating enquiry of a variety of contemporary propositions about the nature of thinking and experiencing. One might remain partially unconvinced about Pickering’s staging of a strict opposition between representation and performance. It could be objected that there is rationality in doing, and that this does not necessarily expect to be acted out; equally, it could be proposed that the investigation of the potential of thought and, consequently, of the significance of theory does not imply a reductionist approach to knowledge, but rather an ontological accounting for both the abstract and the concrete. Yet, these considerations are dependant more on the reader’s personal point of view, and on which metaphysics one is prone to endorse; as such, their further discussion goes beyond the limits of a book review. The broader rationale behind The Cybernetic Brain asks us to put into question any status quo, however representational or performative the latter might be. In this sense, the reader may ultimately decide to address their own understanding of thought and action, and the possibilities and capabilities that he or she is willing to allow to both.



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