II

"Synthetic life is certainly one of the possible products of the evolution of techno-bureaucratic control, in the same way as the return of the whole planet to the inorganic level, is -rather ironically - another of the results of that same revolution, which has to do with the technology of control."

James R Beniger, The Control Revolution, 1986.

 

Even if the origins of the Internet device are today well known, it is not uncalled for to highlight once again their political meaning.  The Internet is a war machine invented to be like the highway system, which was also designed by the American Army as a decentralized internal mobilization tool.  The American military wanted a device which would preserve the command structure in case of a nuclear attack.  The response would consist in an electronic network capable of automatically retaking control over information itself if nearly the whole of the communications links were destroyed, thus permitting the surviving authorities to remain in communication with one another and make decisions.  With such a device, military authority could be maintained in the face of the worst catastrophes.  The Internet is thus the result of a nomadic transformation of military strategy.  With that kind of a plan at its roots, one might doubt the supposedly anti-authoritarian characteristics of this device.  As is the Internet, which derives from it, cybernetics is an art of war, the objective of which is to save the head of the social body in case of catastrophe.  What stands out historically and politically during the period between the great wars, and which the cybernetic hypothesis was a response to, was the metaphysical problem of creating order out of disorder.  The whole of the great scientific edifice, in terms of what it had to do with the determinist concepts of Newton's mechanical physics, fell apart in the first half of the century.  The sciences, at that time, were like plots of territory torn between the neo-positivist restoration and the probabilist revolution, and slowly inching its way towards a historical compromise so that the law could be re-established after the chaos, the certain re-established after the probable.  Cybernetics passed through this whole movement - which began in Vienna at the turn of the century, and was transported to England and the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, and constructed a Second Empire of Reason where the idea of the Subject, up to that time considered indispensable, was absent.  As a kind of knowledge, it brought together an ensemble of heterogeneous discourses all dealing with the practical problems of mastering uncertainty.  Discourses fundamentally expressing, in the various domains of their application, the desire for a restoration of one order, and furthermore the maintenance thereof.

 

Underlying the founding of Cybernetics was a context of total war.  It would be in vain to look for some malicious purpose or the traces of a plot: one simply finds a handful of ordinary men mobilized by America during the Second world war.  Norbert Wiener, an American savant of Russian origin, was charged with developing, with the aid of a few colleagues, a machine for predicting and monitoring the positions of enemy planes so as to more effectively destroy them.  It was at the time only possible at the time to predict with certitude certain correlations between certain airplane positions and certain airplane behaviors/movements.  The elaboration of the "Predictor," the prediction machine ordered from Wiener, thus required a specific method of airplane position handling and a comprehension of how the weapon interacts with its target.  The whole history of cybernetics has aimed to do away with the impossibility of determining at the same time the position and behavior of bodies.  Wiener's innovation was to express the problem of uncertainty as an information problem, within a temporal series where certain data is already known, and others not, and to consider the object and the subject of knowledge as a whole, as a "system."  The solution consisted in constantly introducing into the play of the initial data the gap seen between the desired behavior and the effective behavior, so that they coincide when the gap closes, like the mechanism of a thermostat.  The discovery goes considerably beyond the frontiers of the experimental sciences: controlling a system would in the end require a circulation of information to be instituted, called feed-back, or retro-action.  The wide implications of these results for the natural and social sciences was exposed in 1948 in Paris in a work presented under the foreboding name of Cybernetics, which for Wiener meant the doctrine of "control and communication between animal and machine."

 

 Cybernetics thus emerged as a simple, inoffensive theory of information, a theory for handling information with no precise origin, always potentially present in the environment around any situation.  It claims that the control of a system is obtained by establishing an optimum degree of communication between the parties to it.  This objective calls above all for the continuous extortion of information -- a process of the separation of beings from their qualities, of the production of differences.  In other words, as it were, mastery of a uncertainty would arise from the proper representation and memorization of the past.  The spectacular image, binary mathematical encoding - invented by Claude Shannon in Mathematical Theory of Communication in the very same year that the cybernetic hypothesis was first expressed - on the one hand they've invented memory machines that do not alter information, and put incredible effort into miniaturizing them (this is the determinant strategy behind today's nanotechnology) and on the other they conspire to create such conditions on the collective level.  Thus put into form, information would then be directed towards the world of beings, connecting them to one another in the same way as commodity circulation guarantees they will be put into equivalence.  Retro-action, key to the system's regulation, now calls for communication in the strict sense.  Cybernetics is the project of recreating the world within an infinite feedback loop involving these two moments: representation separating, communication connecting, the first bringing death, the second mimicking life.

 

The cybernetic discourse begins by dismissing as a false problem the controversies of the 19th century that counterposed mechanist visions to vitalist or organicist visions of the world.  It postulates a functional analogy between living organisms and machines, assimilated into the idea of "systems."  Thus the cybernetic hypothesis justifies two kinds of scientific and social experiments.  The first essentially aimed to turn living beings into machines, to master, program, and determine mankind and life, society and its "future."  This gave fuel for a return of eugenics as bionic fantasy.  It seeks, scientifically, the end of History; initially here we are dealing with the terrain of control.  The second aims to imitate the living with machines, first of all as individuals, which has now led to the development of robots and artificial intelligence; then as collectives -- and this has given rise to the new intense circulation of information and the setting up of "networks."  Here we're dealing rather with the terrain of communication.  However much they may be socially comprised of highly diversified populations - biologists, doctors, computer scientists, neurologists, engineers, consultants, police, ad-men, etc. - the two currents among the cyberneticians are perfectly in harmony concerning their common fantasy of a Universal Automaton, analogous to Hobbes' vision of the State in Leviathan, "the artificial man (or animal)."

 

The unity of cybernetic progress arises from a particular method; it has imposed itself as the world-wide method of universal enrollment, simultaneously a rage to experiment, and a proliferating oversimplification.  It corresponds to the explosion of applied mathematics that arose subsequent to the despair caused by the Austrian Kurt Godel when he demonstrated that all attempts to give a logical foundation to mathematics and unify the sciences was doomed to "incompleteness." With the help of Heisenberg, more than a century of positivist justifications had just collapsed.  It was Von Neumann that expressed to the greatest extreme this abrupt feeling that the foundations had been annihilated.  He interpreted the logical crisis of mathematics as the mark of the unavoidable imperfection of all human creations. And consequently he laid out a logic that could only come from a robot!  From being a pure mathematician, he made himself an agent of scientific crossbreeding, of a general mathematization that would allow a reconstruction from below, in practice, of the lost unity of the sciences of which cybernetics was to be the most stable theoretical expression.  Not a demonstration, not a speech, not a book, and no place has not since then been animated by the universal language of explanatory diagrams, the visual form of reasoning.  Cybernetics transports the rationalization process common to bureaucracy and to capitalism up onto the plane of total templating (modeling).  Herbert Simon, the prophet of Artificial Intelligence, took up the Von Neumann program again in the 1960s, to build a thinking automaton.  It was to be a machine equipped with a program, called expert system, which was to be capable of handling information so as to resolve the problems that every particular domain of technique had to deal with, and by association, to be able to solve all the practical problems encountered by humanity!  The General Problem Solver (GPS), created in 1972, was the model that this universal technique that gathered together all the others, the model of all models, the most applied intellectualism, the practical realization of the preferred adage of the little masters without mastery, according to which "there are no problems, there are only solutions."

 

The cybernetic hypothesis progresses indistinctly as theory and technology, the one always certifying the other.  In 1943, Wiener met John Von Neumann, who was in charge of building machines fast and powerful enough to carry out the Manhattan Project that 15,000 scholars and engineers, and 300,000 technicians and workers were working on, under the direction of the physicist Robert Oppenheimer: the modern computer and the atomic bomb, were thus born together.  From the perspective of contemporary imagining, the "communications utopia" is thus the complementary myth to the myth of the invention of nuclear power and weaponry: it is always a question of doing away with being-together (the ensemble of beings) either by an excess of life or an excess of death, either by terrestrial fusion or by cosmic suicide.  Cybernetics presents itself as the response most suited to deal with the Great Fear of the destruction of the world and of the human species.  And Von Neumann was its double agent, the "inside outsider" par excellence.  The analogy between his descriptive categories for his machines, living organisms, and Wiener's categories sealed the alliance between cybernetics and computer science.  A few years would pass before molecular biology, when decoding DNA, would in turn use that theory of information to explain man as an individual and as a species, giving an unequalled technical power to the experimental genetic manipulation of human beings.

 

 The way that the systems metaphor evolved towards the network metaphor in social discourse between the 1950s and 1980s points towards the other fundamental analogy constituting the cybernetic hypothesis.  It also indicates a profound transformation of the latter.  Because if PEOPLE talked about "systems," among cyberneticians it would be by comparison with the nervous system, and if PEOPLE talk today about the cognitive "network" sciences, THEY are thinking about the neuronal network.  Cybernetics is the assimilation of the totality of the phenomena that exist into brain phenomena.  By posing the mind as the alpha and omega of the world, cybernetics has guaranteed itself a place as the avant-garde of all avant-gardes, the one that they will now all forever be running after.  It effectively implements, at the start, the identity between life, thought, and language.  This radical Monism is based on an analogy between the notions of information and energy.  Wiener introduced it by grafting onto his discourse the discourse of 19th century thermodynamics; the operation consisted in comparing the effect of time on an energy system with the effect of time on an information system.  A system, to the extent that it is a system, is never pure and perfect: there is a degradation of its energy to the extent that it undergoes exchanges, in the same way as information degrades as it  is circulated around.  This is what Clausius called entropy.  Entropy, considered as a natural law, is the cybernetician's Hell.  It explains the decomposition of life, disequilibrium in economy, the dissolution of social bonds, decadence... Initially, speculatively, cybernetics claimed that it had thus opened up a common ground on which it would be possible to carry out the unification of the natural and human sciences.

 

What would end up being called the "second cybernetics" was the superior project of a vast experimentation on human societies: anthropotechnology.  The cybernetician's mission is to fight the general entropy threatening living beings, machines, and societies; that is, to create the experimental conditions for a permanent revitalization, endlessly restoring the integrity of the whole.  "The important thing isn't that mankind is present, but that it exists as a living support for technical ideas," says Raymond Ruyer, the humanist commentator.  With the elaboration and development of cybernetics, the ideal of the experimental sciences, already at the origins of political economy via Newtonian physics, would once again lend a strong arm to capitalism.  Since then, the laboratory the cybernetic hypothesis carries out its experiments in has been called "contemporary society."  After the end of the 1960s, thanks to the techniques that it taught, this 'second cybernetics' is no longer a mere laboratory hypothesis, but a social experiment.  It aims to construct what Giorgio Cesarano calls a stabilized animal society, in which "[concerning termites, ants, and bees] the natural presupposition is that they operate automatically, and that the individual is negated, so the animal society as a whole (termite colony, anthill, or beehive) is conceived of as a kind of plural individual, the unity of which determines and is determined by the distribution of roles and functions - all within the framework of an 'organic composite' where one would be hard pressed to not see a biological model for the teleology of Capital."

 

 


changed April 27, 2010