- Boundary Disputes: Homeostasis, Reflexivity, and the Foundations of Cybernetics
Virtual reality did not spring, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus, full-blown from the mind of William Gibson. It has encoded within it a complex history of technological innovations, conceptual developments, and metaphorical linkages that are crucially important in determining how it will develop and what it is taken to signify. This essay explores that history by focusing on certain developments within cybernetics from the immediate post-World War II period to the present. These developments can be understood as progressing in three waves. The first period, 1945–1960, marks the foundational stage during which cybernetics was forged as an interdisciplinary framework that would allow humans, animals, and machines to be constituted through the common denominators of feedback loops, signal transmission, and goal-seeking behavior. The forum for these developments was a series of conferences sponsored by the Josiah Macy Foundation between 1946 and 1953. 1 Through the Macy discussions and the research presented there, the discipline solidified around key concepts and was disseminated into American intellectual communities by Macy [End Page 441] conferees, guests, and fellow travelers. Humans and machines had been equated for a long time, but it was largely through the Macy conferences that both were understood as information-processing systems.
Although space will not permit me to develop the second and third waves in detail, a synopsis will be useful in understanding the connections between them and later developments in virtual reality. The second wave was initiated by Heinz von Foerster, an Austrian émigré who became the coeditor of the Macy transcripts. This phase can be dated from 1960, when a collection of von Foerster’s essays appeared under the title Observing Systems. 2 “Second-order cybernetics,” von Foerster called the models he presented in these essays, because they extended cybernetic principles to the cyberneticians who had devised the principles. As his punning title recognizes, the observer of systems can himself be constituted as a system to be observed. The second wave reached its mature phase with Humberto Maturana’s Autopoiesis and Cognition, coauthored with Francisco Varela. 3 Maturana and Varela developed von Foerster’s self-reflexive emphasis into a radical epistemology that saw the world as a set of formally closed systems. Organisms respond to their environment in ways determined by their internal self-organization. Hence they are not only self-organizing, they are also autopoietic, or self-making. Through the work of Maturana, Varela, and such theorists as the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, 4 by 1980 cybernetics had moved from an umbrella term covering a collection of related concepts to a coherent theory undergirding the claims of a sophisticated and controversial epistemology.
The third wave emerged when virtual reality, combining the idea of a feedback loop with the greatly increased power of microcomputers, began to enter professional and consumer marketplaces with immersive devices that spliced the user’s sensorium into three-dimensional simulated worlds. Instantiating the formal closure that Maturana saw as the basis for all perception in the closed loop that runs from the user’s body through the simulation, VR technologies [End Page 442] provided a phenomenology to go along with the epistemology of autopoiesis. In the third wave, the idea of a virtual world of information that coexists with and interpenetrates the material world of objects is no longer an abstraction. It has come home to roost, so to speak, in the human sensorium itself.
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Half a century beyond the watershed of the Macy conferences, feedback loops have become household words and cybernouns are breeding like flies, spawning cybernauts, cyberfutures, and cybersluts. People no longer find it strange to think of material objects as informational patterns. Hans Moravec, head of the Carnegie-Mellon Mobile Robot Laboratory, has even proposed a visionary scenario in which human consciousness is transformed into an informational pattern, extracted from the brain, and downloaded into a computer. 5 If there was ever a case to be made for a paradigm shift, this would seem to be it. Yet a close examination of threads in this tangled skein does not bear out either Kuhn...