Summary

Keywords

  • background noise: “extraneous disturbances” contaminating messages; entropy (following Shannon)
  • feedback

Notes

  • Cybernetics as a model for interdisciplinary thinking and against “specialization” (seemingly one of the great fears of the time!) (2). Of course, this is then the promise of information science: by framing all fields as fundamentally problems of information, you create a class of ppl uniquely able to solve all the problems everywhere, which leads us directly to our thought leader bullshit today.
  • Beyond analogy and metaphor and into transferential definition: “At any rate, as we shall see in the body of the book, they are all ideas which are of interest in connection with the study of the nervous system” (4).
  • Cybernetics first concerned w/ a “theory of prediction and of the construction of apparatus [sic] to embody these theories” (6). “It will be seen that for the second time I had become engaged in the study of a mechanico-electrical system which was designed to usurp a specifically human function-in the first case, the execution of a complicated pattern of computation, and in the second, the forecasting of the future.”
  • Quantum mechanics looming over this text as well: “This interacting pair of types of error seemed to have something in common with the contrasting problems of the measure of position and of momentum to be found in the Heisenberg quantum mechanics, as described according to his Principle of Uncertainty” (9).
  • Wiener is omnivorous: “In doing this, we have made of communication engineering design a statistical science, a branch of statistical mechanics” (10).
  • Leibniz as the “patron saint of cybernetics” b/c of his “universal symbolism” and “calculus of reasoning” (12).
  • Diff. b/t astronomy and meteorology: astronomy conforms to a regular time following Newtonian mechanics (time is the same backwards and forwards); meteorology is unpredictable, uncertain, quantum. Meteorology happens over larger scales of data; astronomy, though over larger space, has fewer forces to contend with (31–33). “The terms ‘cloud,’ ‘temperature,’ ‘turbulence,’ etc., are all terms referring not to one single physical situation but to a distribution of possible situations of which only one actual case is realized” (33).
  • This is such a media archaeological or Mumfordian claim: “The thought of every age is reflected in its technique” (38).
  • In the automata we find a speculative idea that has never been the object of modern science but that nevertheless has exerted a powerful philosophic influence on its development (40).
  • We can boil down the thermodynamic arguments to: “No operation on a message can gain information on the average” (65).
  • “The ideal computing machine must then have all its data inserted at the beginning, and must be as free as possible from human interference to the very end” (118).
  • “The mechanical brain does not secrete thought ‘as the liver does bile,’ as the earlier materialists claimed, nor does it put it out in the form of energy, as the muscle puts out its activity. Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day” (132). Media archaeology’s materialism does seem to contradict this though by insisting on material substrates.
  • Ends w/ the impossibility of applying purely cybernetic theory to the social sciences.

Archive and Impact

  • I’ve read so much about Wiener over the past two weeks, and much of his biography gets usefully covered in Gleick. Suffice it to say that cybernetics infects all of the subsequent readings in this section. I am interested in it as a sociology of technology: how in cybernetics we find the beginnings of assumptions about the common ground between biology and technology, the omnivorous drive to assimilate all fields into the language of information science, and so on. But I am also interested in setting cybernetics alongside other models of understanding—e.g., the ways that Barad will use quantum mechanics later down the road. Cybernetics also emerging from problems of prediction also bears on the role computing comes to play in constituting possible futures, which in turn has much to bear on the art / cultural work we produce by/through computers down the road.
  • There’s a great paper to be written (by an anthropologist, not me) about the WIPP development meetings echoing back to the model of the Macy Conferences (including the exclusion of artists and humanists).