Ronald R Kline The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press 2015) $24.95 Pb, $54.95 EPUB, MOBI, PDF, $54.95 Hb. ISBN: 9781421416717
With The Cybernetics Moment Ronald R Kline presents a comprehensive and compelling intervention into the history of science that highlights the period from the late 1940s until the 1970s to reconstruct the 'rise, fall, and reinvention of cybernetics' as it 'occurred alongside the rise of information theory in the United States' (6). Following his analysis, the eponymous cybernetic moment ended 'when information was becoming the keyword of our time' (7) and cybernetics had become flattened to 'the all-purpose adjective of cyber' by the 1980s (244). Accordingly, readers will find in The Cybernetics Moment an invaluable resource that uncovers the historical foundation of the scientific discourse that informed the wholesale subscription to the prefix cyber in literary circles during the closing decades of the twentieth century (cyberpunk, cyberculture, cybertexts, cyborgs, etc). In this sense, the merits of Kline's analysis lie less in a documentation of the mobilization of cybernetic registers for artistic practice (references to William S Burroughs, John Cage, Timothy Leary, Bernard Wolfe, Isaac Asimov, and William Gibson remain cursory), than in its cartography of the rhizomatic research culture that gave rise to an unprecedented migration of metaphors and methodologies among the exact and the social sciences.
The Cybernetics Moment traces a roughly chronological arc from the first of ten Macy Conferences held under the heading 'Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems' in 1946, to the founding of the American Society for Cybernetics under the covert patronage of the CIA in 1964, and Margaret Thatcher's proclamation of the 'Information Technology Year' in 1982. Situating the work of Norbert Wiener at the centre of the field's unfolding narrative, Kline features a plethora of voices who have adopted, refined, and interacted with the analogy of control and communication in organisms and machines from a great variety of disciplinary angles such as psychology, neurophysiology, computer science, anthropology, linguistics, business management, and biology. Foregrounded are the roles of Wiener, Claude Shannon, Warren McCulloch, Heinz von Förster, and Gregory Bateson; yet readers are also invited to follow one of the numerous passages opened up by a diverse cast of supporting actors that include Walter Pitts, W Ross Ashby, Margaret Mead, Peter Elias, Karl Deutsch, Warren Weaver, Donald MacKay, and Stewart Brand, to name but a few. Anchored in Wiener's and Shannon's virtually congruent mathematical mappings of information and entropy in 1948, Kline's chapters provide alternating accounts of the competing developments that have led to the divergent incorporation of 'information' and 'cybernetics' as unifying principles in the repertoire of diverse disciplines.
The book's key asset is Kline's detailed survey of a profuse number of articles, transactions, conversations, correspondences, publication keywords, biographical trajectories, scholarly disputes, and institutional affiliations, which mirrors the hybridity of the discourse it authoritatively reconstructs. As Kline explains, cybernetics and information theory proved immensely versatile in their abstraction of communication processes in terms of the feedback loops between systems and environments regardless of their specific materializations. Cybernetics was inherently conceived as an 'interdisciplinary hybrid field of knowledge existing between and within disciplines, similar to such new postwar fields as operations research and materials science' (62). Somewhat reluctantly, Kline attributes to Wiener the vision of cybernetics as a 'universal science', which by virtue of its wide-spread resonance in the social sciences throughout the 1950s (from behaviourist learning models, to social management, and military strategy) experienced a surge in popularization but also faced dilution and distortion (94). Its interdisciplinary adaptation, as Kline convincingly illustrates, was both boon and bane and frequently elicited suspicion and a commitment to 'boundary work' by many of the classically minded physical scientists and mathematicians of its first generation (104). Presented as central is cyberneticists' struggle to resist the co-option by military and capitalist interests in the context of the cold war and increasing industrial automation and to counteract the reduction of cybernetics to the science of robots and cyborgs, which gave rise to the dystopian connotations that eventually ended up dominating its public image. By contrast, the concept of information, as Kline elaborates, expanded beyond the confines of Wiener's and Shannon's mathematical formulation and became the epithet of choice to characterize the techno-utopianism that carried the century into the new millennium.
Against this backdrop, it is enlightening to follow Kline's recapitulation of the transition from first- to second-order cybernetics constituted by the move from closed to open systems and the self-referential inclusion of the observer, which resonated strongly with the ecological counterculture movement of the 1970s by providing a holistic perspective on the embeddedness of humans within a planetary natural environment. Highlighting the links between the work of Bateson, von Förster, Humberto Maturana, Francesco Varela, Ludwig von Bertalanffy's general systems theory, and Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, Kline points to a reinvention of cybernetics as a 'radical epistemology' that suggested the potential for sustained dialogues with not only the social sciences, but also philosophy and the arts (242). Compared to the wide-spread excitement over cybernetics during the postwar years and in light of Kline's focus on the natural sciences, his relegation of second-order cybernetics to 'a marginal life […] in the social sciences and humanities' by the early decades of the twenty-first century seems understandable but might leave some scholars working at the nexus of the sciences and the humanities puzzled (244).
It seems justifiable to suggest that especially over the past three decades and in the academic context of continental Europe, second-order cybernetics and systems theory has become a fertile ground for exciting new convergences between the sciences and the humanities under the umbrella of hybrid fields such as media philosophy, science studies, and posthumanism. Exemplary in this regard, and recommended as complementary to Kline's historical account, are the works by French philosopher Michel Serres (occasionally labelled neocybernetics), literary critic N Katherine Hayles, and media scientist Friedrich Kittler. It is not without significance that cybernetics is being increasingly revisited in the contemporary wake of what has been called German Media Theory (note for instance, Claus Pias's edited transactions of the Macy Conferences (2003, 2004) or Benhard Pörksen's published book-length interviews with von Förster and Maturana (1998-2004)). While Kline's book will persist as a commendable contribution to the history of twentieth-century science, it will undoubtedly be well received by scholars carrying forward the momentum of such fields as media archaeology and Latourian science studies. Rather than portraying the history of cybernetics as bounded and linear, The Cybernetics Moment derives its strengths from its documentation of scientific discourse formation as a contingent and hybrid cultural practice, riddled with continuities and ruptures, and determined by precisely the type of feedback loops between human and nonhuman actors that cyberneticists were so adamant about revealing. Not least with respect to the current reinvigoration of ecocriticism and interdisciplinary attention to the anthropocene, Kline's book presents an invaluable resource that sheds light on the conceptual foundations of some of the most convincing investigations of interactions between human civilization and planetary ecologies.
Moritz Ingwersen, Trent University, Ontario