Cybernetics and Cyberculture
Reading: Katherine Hayles 1999 – ‘Chapter: One: Toward Embodied Virtuality’, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics.
Further recommend sources
Watch: Westworld (Film 1972) and Westworld (2016)
Read: The Mirrorshades Anthology, edited by Bruce Stirling (1988)
Note: Square brackets in the text indicate slide transitions in the weekly Prezi presentation. Use the arrow keys to navigate between points in the Prezi and the mouse can be used to manually navigate the space, zoom in and out and click on the embedded links and videos. Click on the image to be directed to the weekly seminar presentation.
Over the course of the semester we are going to be spending a good deal of time looking at [science fiction] books, movies, comics, games, TV and cinema, among other media formats that represent cyberculture in some way.
You don’t have to be a fan of the genre or limit yourself to it, and you certainly don’t have to be reverential towards these texts, but rather pull them apart and use them to consider the conceptual and representational approaches for thinking about the impact of technologies in the past, present and potential future. You are encouraged to examine theses text in your research project, as sources alongside academic publications and other scholarly material and works of popular culture.
Use these texts and modes of representation to identify key patterns that you can interrogate with critical questions, such as who has the authority in the relationship between the user and the computer?
Who has control in the given situation?
Who or what acts as a gatekeeper?
Many of the questions of cyberculture are questions aimed at authority and the legitimacy of structures of command and control, like governments, and bureaucracies. Representations of cyberculture have a way of asking what happens to authority when new technologies radically enable end users and distribute the control across networks, for example when new media technologies, like Virtual Reality, or the ride sharing app Uber, destabilize the status quo.
[What are the questions that we can ask of the logic and thinking in the representations of cyberculture?]
What are the key concepts at work in these ideas that actively shaped what was produced?
Do we have table PCs and iPads because Star Trek Next Generation imagined the data pad?
Do we have computers because Vannevar Bush imagined the Memex?
[Vannevar Bush (1945) ‘As We May Think’]
What technologies can you imagine that might create new experience and dimensions to life in the future?
Vannevar Bush was an American military scientist, engineer and inventor. During World War II, he was the science administrator of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which oversaw wartime military research and development, including the early phases of the Manhattan Project.
In 1945 Bush imagined a way of using technology to manage information effectively, to augment and expand the way we think and learn and communicate knowledge. He postulated a new machine, the Memex, as a means for overcoming the physical limitations of arrangements of shelves, pages, editions and other physical constraints in the curation of information and the production of knowledge.
He predicted “wholly new forms of encyclopaedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the Memex and there amplified”. He was trying to imagine a machine that might mimic the typical operations of the human brain in the assembly of knowledge and was interested in the ways we manipulate information through collections like libraries and encyclopaedias.
Bush’s article was published in The Atlantic monthly, which was a literary and commentary magazine, like that of Time or Newsweek. It was the kind of publication that was interested in politics, technology, and international relations, just like other editorials of the time and Bush’s article was published just after Germany had surrendered at the close of World War II and while the war was still ongoing with the Japanese and therefore prior to the first use of atomic weapons, which Bush had association with. So this was a time that people were sick of war and the technologies of destruction and were looking forward to a time of peace and the improvements that the military technology might bring to everyday life.
The Memex is a cybernetic machine for associative indexing and arranging information by categories and subjects. Human brains don’t work in an extremely hierarchical way, they work by association and pattern recognition. They are able to remember via smell, or sound, or pressure change, or music and song or event, but can struggle to recall complex numbers and computation quickly. The human brain doesn’t work by alphabetical order or subject codes and Bush was trying to invent something that would mimic the capacity of the human brain with the technologies available at the time, while at the same time creating new ontologies (systems of categorisation and organisation) of links and connections between discrete elements of information.
Bush imagines what it would be like if you could have at your finger tips, images from film, text that you type using a keyboard, or scan using the current technology of the time: microfilm. You control the navigation of your information via a controller and you can export and share your work, others can even purchase your aggregated collections stored on microfilm. Bush thought of the memex as a device for individuals to store their books, records, and communication: “mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.”
The memex would provide an “enlarged intimate supplement to one’s memory”.
Note: It’s worth thinking about the animation in detail and considering what is assumed or left unsaid as well as what is said and the tropes involved, which continually reoccur in the following 50 years (the machine being plugged directly into the brain, for instance).
The memex hugely influenced computer science and engineers who drew inspiration from the ideas and the imagined device as a vision of the future. The idea that we might use our brains and our minds in the future differently when they are augmented by technology – is a theme that was explored by Marshall McLuhan later in The Future of Man in the Electronic Age.
Both McLuhan and Vannevar Bush, are great figures for the topic of your research project and your digital artifacts, in which you can explore, remediate and experiment with the ideas presented in their work.
Bush employs the notion of the ‘trail’ to illustrate the process of moving your way through a massive amount of information regardless of topic. The memex could be used to research about films, historical events, books or equations. Using the trail, the researcher can connect these things together and become a [“trail blazer”].
The idea of a path, or a road, or a trail through different elements of information to generate knowledge is a common metaphor and one that directly translates to the contemporary information era where we leave data trails everywhere about our activity, from the web history in your browser to the metadata of your Internet activity being recorded by your ISP.
The notion of the trail, that you can map and render permanent, was important to the way Bush thought the processes of knowledge formation might develop. In the article, Bush considers the devices of the time – particularly the keyboard – to be cumbersome and suggests that we require new technologies of interaction and communication. He anticipates one of the [primary interfaces] of cyberculture, which we see in movies like the Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, and from Cyberpunk writers like William Gibson and Bruce Stirling (all texts we will consider in future weeks), that is the ability to plug the machine directly into the human brain.
The trope of the cerebral cybernetic interface runs directly through cyberculture fiction. It is the idea that you can connect directly to machines and use the brain to control technologies through concentration and electrical impulses. This is a technology currently in its infancy and we still see new innovations emerge over time that will essentially enable us to control things with our minds.
This idea of the cyborg assembling and uploading information is featured in the Cyberpunk novel, Snowcrash (1992) by Neal Stephenson (a recommended reading in Week 4), in which a major character becomes a ‘Gargoyle’, a subculture of information aggregators using digital recording equipment to upload contributions to the Metaverse database, data morsels, that if used or accessed by algorithmic data-miner provides a payout. The Gargoyle is a ‘cyborg’ a machine enhanced human (or a human enhanced machine) continuously connected online and uploading data, living off a constant stream of micro-payments and intellectual property rights.
[Ted Nelson and Hypertext]
The English prefix “hyper-” comes from the Greek prefix meaning “over” or “beyond” and shares an origin with the Latin prefix for “super-” which suggest overcoming the constraints or linear textual experiences:
“By now the word “hypertext” has become generally accepted for branching and responding text, but the corresponding word “hypermedia”, meaning complexes of branching and responding graphics, movies and sound – as well as text – is much less used. Instead they use the strange term “interactive multimedia”: this is four syllables longer, and does not express the idea of extending hypertext.” — Ted Nelson, Literary Machines, 1992
Nelson created the term hypertext and hypermedia in an 1965 article “ A file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate” and he contributed to the development of the Internet, the web and cyberculture. Nelson was a pioneer of what we call electronic literature and hypertextual systems for accessing information in a non-linear fashion. No more A to B to C and on to Z, the user of Hypertext is able to go directly between A and Z, with a single jump back and forth. It wasn’t until the 1980s that he really got to experiment with these forms and going beyond the linear formatting of information to access textual information in a non-linear order.
Nelson and Vannevar Bush’s ideas are connected and very similar to the way we access and use the web today: getting lost in Wikipedia, Facebook or Reddit, by endlessly clicking links and putting together knowledge and experience in a random but user-connected fashion.
Nelson’s Hypertext predates the World Wide Web, first proposed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and the first web browsers were only one implementation of his Hypertextual systems. Nelson tried to implement a system that would take advantage of the concept of linking together information in non-linear and non-standard ways and one of the results was Project Xanadu.
Nelson’s approach was more like Bush’s than Berners-Lee’s and proposed the ability of users to draw on different texts and elements, bringing them together to create personal connections and unique documents from multiple user connected sources. The link between source and new document retains the connection to the original, nothing is obscured, which further enables the user to assemble new ideas, observations and analyse patterns, even be reimbursed for these new assemblages of knowledge and information.
When the first available commercial internet browser became available in 1993 I was in high school and I remember very vividly going to the University of Tasmania on to look at the first installation of ‘Mosaic’, and use the internet for the first time. The software was so new at the time that we actually had to use an older system called fetch to do research with because there were very few sites on the web and very few of the academics had tried it out.
Before the Web, the term cyberspace was used by writers like William Gibson, to imagine a new kind of future driven by a new frontier of digital information economies and online identities.
Cyberspace takes its name from the notion of the space created in the interaction between the human and the machine; a different kind place with new types of interactions, locations and forms of communication.
As the web made it into the home, we developed the language of surfing, or browsing and exploring the web. We use metaphors of space, time place, and objects to order the complexities of the systems beneath them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqU5s8hYqvs
In the research on your cyberculture related topics, you are encouraged to go to sources like these and look not only at the specific of the historical moments in which they are generated, but to look at the patterns and metaphors being employed to make sense of them.
The ‘cyber’ in cyberspace directly refers to the principles of command and control involved in the processes of [Kybernetics]. Command and control functions are embedded in the technologies that make the Internet and the Web possible. The [TCP/IP] protocols, for example, make the Internet into a gigantic series of input, output and feedback systems.
The science and techniques of Cybernetics were developed following World War 1 and 2. It was the work of [Norbert Wiener] who took inspiration from the [radar] operator and the relationship between the user, the screen, the technology and the region of space in which these actors were operating in a network.
Wiener helped to create the first designs for self-guiding rockets, which were able to respond and be programmed to independently negotiate the environmental conditions through a series of feedback systems.
We typically associated the Internet as the product of the military industrial complex and the think tank [DARPA] with the creation of the internet or its earliest form the [ARPAnet] but almost all our media and communications technologies today are dependent on cybernetics and the ‘science of self-steering’ and the systems of control and communication between animals and machines.
So Norbert Wiener was working on ballistic research when he made the conceptual leap of thinking about all the different elements involved in the system, the gunner, the missile and the target, the environmental conditions, gravity and so on – in terms of a unitary system with a central objective.
His innovation was to configure a system that enables self-correcting actions – where the machine of the rocket automatically adjusts its velocity, direction, speed etc, to match that of the target. Think of a toilet cistern – the water is always filling the top tank, until the float inside reaches a level with the top of the tank, where it switches off the flow, until the tank is flushed and the processes starts again. The idea of this kind of feedback look is central to the science of cybernetics.
Wiener worked with the MIT electrical engineer Vannevar Bush who was building analog devices to solve the differential equations, and to perform the calculations his model needed so the machine could solve equations that would take human users ten times as long to calculate.
[Gregory Bateson]’s work in the 1940s helped to extend cybernetics to the social realm and the behavioural sciences.
Bateson was interested in human systems and the ecosystem and the concept of ecological balance and the role of negative and positive feedback systems. Batesome framed the role of information in the network as a form of constraint, a crucial element in any ecology, but particular for the command over and control of the system. Every deviation generates information for the system, which then acts to counter the deviation and bring the system back into balance. This is what we mean by Cybernetics as the science of coordination and control. Using these descriptions of cybernetics we can understand complex technologies and network structures – like internet – like Virtual Reality Headsets, Drones, wearable devices and 3D printers- as a series of machines that are built from layering of basic cybernetic principles of sequence and feedback loops in a network arrangement.
So more recently we have seen the emergence of advanced cybernetic machines or – Smart technologies – like the [ Google self driving car] – that are totally automated and self-correcting and autonomous – which is achieved by cybernetic control systems like an autopilot.
One of the criticisms of the prevalence of cybernetic models operating at the macro and micro-level of our everyday lives – from traffic lights to Siri – is that cybernetics are purely homeostatic – not only are they governed by the hard logics of command and control they are made of systems that aspire to equilibrium and balance. And this means that cybernetic systems are dominated by means-as-an-end rationality and pure instrumental reason: they are in essence [terminators].