I don’t think this continued fascination is just a function of its technical legacy living on, in spirit at least, in contemporary systems like machine learning or smart cities. After all, these things are also grounded in other histories and technologies that have not been topics of ongoing discussion for decades after they became past tense. Rather, its fascinations lie primarily in its being a theoretical Rosetta Stone for deciphering the present and future. As such, it persists in an odd state of being dead yet alive, subjected to constant interrogation by scholars who want to uncover its secrets.
Few sciences can claim to be so truly universal in scope. Cybernetics never knew how to stay in its lane—or, rather, it saw every lane as falling under its purview. (In that regard, it really is the harbinger of today’s artificial intelligence industry.) As the science of control and communication, it focused on studying and building systems based on information feedback, circular causality, equilibrium states, and automatic governance. I always think of the thermostat as the clearest example of cybernetic principles in action. A thermostat works by first setting a temperature for a building (the equilibrium state), then using regular readings of the room temperature (information feedback) to adjust its mechanism for cooling or warming air (automatic governance) with the goal of maintaining that set temperature. The cyberneticians of the mid-20th century, however, were not content with such mundane applications of their grand ambitions. For them, cybernetics had the potential to be a science of everything that could provide a solution for anything. They sought to thread together a vast range of systems—the mechanical (thermostats), the digital (computer networks), the biological (nervous systems), the psychological (mental illness), the cultural (linguistic interactions), the social (family dynamics), the political (government planning), the organizational (corporate management), and much more. All of these arenas were, they said, cybernetic in nature, and thus subject to the overarching power of the cybernetician.
The standard story of cybernetics describes its birth in the aspirations of military engineering during World War II, whose projects then grew into a sprawling technocratic apparatus. However, in a new history of cybernetics—Code: From Information Theory to French Theory—media theorist and historian Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan aims to correct the record by invoking the human sciences as the real progenitors of cybernetics. Geoghegan lays out how luminous figures in anthropology, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and literary criticism, stretching back to the 1930s, were dedicated members of the cybernetic movement. These names—Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Claude Shannon, Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marcel Mauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan—are carved into disciplinary canons. For example, Bateson used cybernetics while working with colleagues in the Palo Alto Group to experiment with cognitive behavioral interventions for family psychotherapy. Meanwhile, Lévi-Strauss combined his extensive work on linguistics and ethnography with cybernetic theories of systems dynamics to champion methods of technocratic administration while at UNESCO. The link between information theory and French theory that Geoghegan traces through these figures can be found in the shift from the structuralist view of “culture as communication” to the cybernetic view of “culture as code.”
Geoghegan argues that too much of the existing work on the history of cybernetics and computing “has consistently privileged engineers and their machines as the subjects of historical narrative.” It is time, he argues, for the human sciences to receive the attention they are due. Through their efforts—supported by the deep pockets of “robber baron philanthropies”—cybernetics found broad application to cultural and social issues. Code shows how cybernetics can trace its lineage directly to the Progressive Era social reforms of the early 1900s, especially to its odious obsessions with theories of social hygiene and mechanisms for social control. The midwives of cybernetics were the philanthropic foundations created by industrial magnates like Josiah Macy Jr., John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford, who used their ungodly wealth to fund scientific research for the purpose of creating technical solutions to social problems rooted in moral conservatism. They wanted to pacify the unrest stoked by inequalities of race, gender, class, and nationality; fix the “cultures” of crime and laziness in inner cities; and promote American capitalism over communism. The ultimate goal, as Geoghegan writes, was “to cultivate a class of entrepreneurial, rational, industrious citizens who yielded to the ministrations of experts and not to the call of radical politics.”
Cybernetics was more than just another case of the war coming home. Geoghegan insists that the “lavish attention given to anecdotes of Wiener’s never-built antiaircraft feedback mechanisms” actually played right into the hands of “philanthropy’s efforts to frame its work as neutral and apolitical.” Cybernetics was also invoked to rationalize returning colonial “administration,” as developed and deployed by the human sciences, to the imperial core. Cultural anthropologists like Mead and Bateson used theories of cybernetics in their study of Bali (a Dutch colony). Philanthropic foundations then sought to create a scientific framework that “might clarify the pathologies of third-world colonies as well as those of the urban slums of Western industrial nations.”
The sordid history of disciplines like anthropology operating as eager tools of colonial power is already well known to academics in those disciplines. Their strong links to cybernetics are an interesting detail in that story. Oddly, however, Geoghegan accuses scholars today of willful ignorance, a productive forgetfulness, and “a certain amnesia when it comes to the relation of digital technology to their own disciplines.” I could forgive an overeager use of the wedge technique academics sometimes deploy to make room for their own intervention (by, for instance, identifying others who patronize the same conferences as myopic fools or useful idiots) if it were not indicative of larger problems with this book.
Code presumes its readers are largely unaware of the specific history of the human sciences it is describing, while it also assumes that readers are broadly familiar with both the work of key figures and the wider literature on cybernetics to which it is responding. Reading Code feels like walking into a conversation that has already been happening for quite some time. The best the reader can do is try to follow along, get the gist of things, and make a long list of stuff to look up later. I had to rely heavily on my own background knowledge to help put pieces together and fill in gaps.
After finishing the book, I realized that if I were asked to describe cybernetics based solely on what I had just read in Code, I would likely struggle to do so. There is an interesting point to be made here about how cybernetics has become something of an empty vessel—an empty signifier, even—for people to use and abuse. Yet Code doesn’t dwell on such points of meta-analysis.
Instead, Geoghegan primarily focuses on giving us detailed intellectual biographies of what I kept thinking of as Great Cybernetic Men (History of Human Sciences Edition), along with Margaret Mead (who is almost always paired with Gregory Bateson). Whole chapters are dedicated to relating how the earlier-listed luminaries engaged with cybernetics alongside descriptions of their efforts to acquire funding. Yet again, if you were asked to explain, based solely on reading this book, the substance of work by Mead, Bateson, Lévi-Strauss, Jakobson, Lacan, or Barthes, it would be a struggle. They are superficially drawn. Even though the chapters are packed with descriptive accounts of their lives, activities, and connections to cybernetics research (which Geoghegan draws out of nearly a dozen archives), it was in fact difficult for me—when I tried, say, to diagram the arguments of the various chapters—to find much more than offhand analysis or oblique criticisms to grab on to. Geoghegan focuses too much on minutiae and not enough on the broader meaning of the details he accrues.
I was constantly wondering: who is this book written for?
Due to so much sustained interest in cybernetics, there is now a small library of work directly about it, or indirectly engaging with it. I would not be surprised to learn that more pages have been written about cybernetics than were produced by actual cyberneticians. Code is framed as not just a contribution but a correction to that work. And it does indeed make some great points—like crystallizing the connection between the human sciences, cybernetic theories, and colonial administration. It also digs up interesting tidbits about the lives of very influential scholars. And yet, I question if its critical intervention can sustain a whole book. More importantly, Code expects its readers, as mentioned earlier, to have already worked their way through the cybernetic library and to be familiar with the human sciences and French theory. I’m no slouch in any of these fields, but too often I was left feeling disoriented and dissatisfied.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a book that is designed to be read by a small subset of specialists. That’s the bread and butter of academic work. However, Code might actually be the victim of an intriguing title and a hot topic leading to mismatched expectations. While Code adds a new twist to the tale of cybernetics, I recommend, for those scholars who continually rediscover this weird science and its even weirder applications, coming to this book only after being well versed in the cybernetic stacks.
In the final pages, Geoghegan remarks that—despite the lavish funding and feverish attention it received—“perhaps no project soared and crashed with the magnificence of the cybernetic apparatus.” It would seem that what goes down must keep coming up.
Jathan Sadowski is the author of Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World (2020).