The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future
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Cybernetics is often thought of as a grim military or industrial science of control. But as Andrew Pickering reveals in this beguiling book, a much more lively and experimental strain of cybernetics can be traced from the 1940s to the present.
The Cybernetic Brain explores a largely forgotten group of British thinkers, including Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, R. D. Laing, Stafford Beer, and Gordon Pask, and their singular work in a dazzling array of fields. Psychiatry, engineering, management, politics, music, architecture, education, tantric yoga, the Beats, and the sixties counterculture all come into play as Pickering follows the history of cybernetics’ impact on the world, from contemporary robotics and complexity theory to the Chilean economy under Salvador Allende. What underpins this fascinating history, Pickering contends, is a shared but unconventional vision of the world as ultimately unknowable, a place where genuine novelty is always emerging. And thus, Pickering avers, the history of cybernetics provides us with an imaginative model of open-ended experimentation in stark opposition to the modern urge to achieve domination over nature and each other.
as mentioned above, Michael Murphy shared the cybernetic and spiritual fascination with strange performances and wrote a striking book, The Future of the Body (Murphy 1992), very much in the tradition of William James (1902) and Aldous Huxley but thematizing more strongly the supernormal powers that accompany spiritual practice. 70.Whittaker (2003, 47) includes a select discography of Eno’s music. One can access short extracts from Eno’s recordings via a link at
Aesthetics: The Challenge of Bateson,” Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 12, 61–74. Hawkridge, D. (2001) “Gordon Pask at the Open University,” Kybernetes, 30, 688–90. Hayles, N. K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Hayward, R. (2001a) “The Tortoise and the Love-Machine: Grey Walter and the Politics of Electroencephalography,” in C. Borck and M. Hagner (eds.), Mindful Practices: On the Neurosciences in
(and mathematical models) can themselves become mini–Black Boxes, which we can take as ontological icons, themselves models of the stuff from which the world is built. It was in this context that Ashby articulated a distinctively cybernetic philosophy of evolutionary design—design in medias res—very different from the blueprint attitude of modern engineering design, the stance of a detached observer who commands matter via a detour through knowledge. Finally, the chapter thus far also explored
looking briefly at other work up to the present that resonates with Ashby’s. My examples are taken from the work of Christopher Alexander, Stuart Kauffman, and Stephen Wolfram. One concern is again with the protean quality of cybernetics: here we can follow the development of distinctively Ashby-ite approaches into the fields of architecture, theoretical biology, mathematics, and beyond. The other concern is to explore further developments in the Ashby-ite problematic of complexity. The three
Bateson did not think that the mother in the example caused her son’s schizophrenia in any linear fashion. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, on the model of the homeostat, he thought of all the parties as adapting to one another in a trial-and-error search through the space of performance, and of schizophrenia as an instance of the whole system reaching a state of equilibrium having bizarre properties.6 SCHIZOPHRENIA AND ENLIGHTENMENT IN THE EASTERN RELIGION, ZEN BUDDHISM, THE GOAL IS TO