Minding the Cybernetic Gap
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Minding the Cybernetic Gap
Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain

At the end of this volume Andrew Pickering admits that “this book is an attempt to rescue cybernetics from the margins and launder it into mainstream discourse” (p. 390).1 I run into this sort of rescue operation all the time in the history of economics, and have indulged in it a little bit myself, so it becomes all the more urgent for me to try and articulate why it is unlikely to work here as there. This feels imperative, because I share so many of Pickering’s enthusiasms: pragmatism and Continental philosophy, the physics of self-organization and cellular automata, the aversion to treating mathematics as mere representation, dissatisfaction with conventional histories of science, and a fascination with cybernetics.

The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. ii+526. $55) is not really a comprehensive history of cybernetics so much as a sequence of portraits of an admittedly counterfeit “science,” ones painted as Pickering would will us to remember it. These portraits certainly do paint a new picture: the standard portrayal is of an American enterprise dominated by military interests, arrayed around the computer and operations research, besotted with command and control, and suspended somewhere between RAND and MIT. Pickering instead gives us a six-pack of British “scientists of the adaptive brain” (p. 6) who purportedly wander everywhere but the killing fields, from Grey Walter’s “tortoises” to Ross Ashby’s “homeostats,” from Gordon Pask’s Musicolor to Stafford Beer’s Project CyberSyn (to run the Chilean economy [End Page 192] under Allende), and from R. D. Laing’s Kingsley Hall to Gregory Bateson’s sensory-deprivation tanks. It is all so disparate and fizzy and sparkling that it resembles a funhouse or a “happening” of a particular vintage, one redolent of “the sixties,” as the author himself admits (p. 379). At one point Pickering even suggests that British cybernetics diverged from the American version because (cue music) Brits Just Wanna Have Fun (p. 56). I could not suppress the feeling that it all might have made a better movie (perhaps by Errol Morris) than a staid linear text, although conversion into hypertext might be even more appropriate. I especially enjoyed the extensive footnotes, which frequently confess that the history actually happened somewhat differently from the narrative found above the fold in the text.2 Maybe books are not altogether obsolete just yet.

These incidents encompass neither the sorts of people nor the kinds of technologies that have attracted sustained attention from subsequent computer scientists and historians of cybernetics, so the question inevitably arises, why have they not been part of the story? An unsophisticated response might be that the resulting technological artifacts never really proved to be all that useful. Pickering’s answer, in contrast, indicts the malign effect of “modernity,” which sometimes sounds akin to Bruno Latour’s version of the term and at other times like Martin Heidegger’s. I got nervous when Pickering started quoting James Scott’s Seeing Like a State (1998)—for this hints that Cybernetic Brain is really about the pursuit of politics by other means, rather than cybernetics per se. As he writes:

The modern sciences background their own practice, organizing it around a telos of knowledge production, and then construing it retrospectively in terms of that knowledge (a tale of errors dispelled). We have seen cybernetics was not like that. Cybernetics was about systems—human, nonhuman, or both—that staged their own performative dances of agency, that foregrounded performance.

(p. 381)

It seems that Pickering seeks to evoke what it was like to pursue scientific research that is not only devoid of deleterious tendencies (as he would have it) toward ontological reification of the phenomenon as separate and distinct from the scientist and subject to imperious manipulation of technique, but also as detached from the dead hand of the state and the top-down regimentation of the academic disciplines. The irony is that he has unearthed his handful of counter-examples from the era of the cold war, precisely the period in which all the sciences were recruited to state or...