CCRURU reading group

Art & Culture <-> Cybernetics: Escape the Overcode & Das Netz

2020-12-18 Friday 20:00-22:00 @ LAG

We looked at a book chapter and an art/documentary film today:

  • Holmes (2009): Escape the Overcode -- Activist Art in the Control Society
  • Dammbeck (2003): Das Netz

The book chapter is about the film, so they are closely related.



The idea of the film is that the filmmaker -- who appears in the first person in the film, mainly through narration -- exchanges letters with the Unabomber (in German) and meanwhile interviews some of his targets. In fact, we had a hard time figuring out which interviewees were actually targets, such a list would be very useful. We know about the publisher John Brockman and the computer scientist David Gelernter. It is said in the film that the Unabomber was reading The New York Times, where hacker journalist John Markoff profiled people, and he chose his targets based on what he read in that newspaper.

Wikipedia has a Category for "Unabomber targets":

The mix of these people are interesting, especially for the Arts & Culture \<-> Cybernetics theme, since they were a mix of artists, entrepeneurs, and computer scientists. This is consistent with the idea of legitimacy exchange in the book "From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism" (Turner 2006). Mixing activists and industrialists made computers cool. The left-wing activists legitimised the computer entrepeneurs, who appeared to "take on the establishment" with their new business plans and digital products, and bring freedom to the consumers through the market. Meanwhile, the nascent computer industry legitimised the activist movement, who appeared to be "modern", the "future", and "on the right side of history". It was a mutual benefit coalition largely orchestrated by Stuart Brand, a mercurial character at once activist, artist, and entrepeneur, known from his Whole Earth Catalogue yearbook and The Well online community.

There is a more or less consistent cast of characters from Turner's book, through Holmes' elucidation, to Dammbeck's filmmaking. The same theme is explored by one of the journalists who is mentioned in the film, in a book called "What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counter Culture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry" (Markoff 2005). However, it is quite astounding that the Unabomber, who was their contemporary, and not within their close ranks, could spot them as the harbringers of the next stage of Industrial Society and its discontents.

Can we escape cybernetics?

According to Holmes, the main idea of the film is that the Unabomber is part of the cybernetic feedback loop.

What does that mean?

On the one hand: Maybe he is.

  • He participated in FIXME's1 experiments in Hardvard for 200 hours, including LSD and aggressive behaviour. Ironically, his code name in the experiment logs was LAWFUL.

  • He built his shed following a design from the Whole Earth Catalogue (ed. by Stewart Brand).

  • He was technically captured by the US authorities and imprisoned.

  • Original research by jrw during the session found that he was put in the same prison maximum security prison as Al Kaida operatives,2 and the larger argument of the filmmaker is that Al Kaida is also a product of the cybernetic feedback loop.

On the other hand: Maybe he point beyond the cybernetic feedback loop.

  • Maybe the Unabomber points beyond the cybernetic diagram, not only generate noise that can be used to optimise the system.

  • Victims in the film get upset when Dammbeck mentions the Unabomber -- it is a trauma that has apparently failed to be integrated into the cybernetic system of self-stabilising feedback loops.

  • The prison (where the Unabomber is right now) is an interesting edge case of the cybernetic system, since it is a space of containment, disconnection, bereft of electronic (manipulation) devices, etc.

  • This idea of disconnection resonates with the idea of the "zones of offensive opacity" that Tiqqun advocates in their political programme (2020).[^Which we read in the first session of this reading group.]

  • Galison in the article called "The Ontology of the Enemy" claims that cybernetics diagnoses threat as a disconnection, and disconnection as a threat.

  • The Unabomber was a kind of neo-Luddite in the sophisticated sense of the word (Wikipedia Contributors 2020): he did use technology (bombs) and even communication technology (the US mail service) to reach his victims.

Why cybernetics rulez?

There was an ongoing thread in the last reading group sessions about the reasons for cybernetics to become so popular at the time. Why did this model capture the imagination of people? What was its magic effect? We understand the diagram of feedback and all the related cybernetic ideas, but there are many similar or comparable ideas that could have taken their place.

Before this session we discussed some possible reasons:

  • On a more abstract level, cybernetics was an answer to the crisis of modernity that set in within physics, philosophy and mathematics (logic) in the early 20th century. In mathematical logic the crisis is epitomised by the announcement of Gödel's incompleteness theorem, which puts an end to the ambitions of the Vienna Circle connected to the Logical Positivists. The latter thought the foundations of mathematics in logic, and the foundation of all other sciences in mathematics, and the foundation of society in the sciences that can explain everything within a unified system, and even explain why they can explain everything. This ambition came to an end when Gödel proved that no formal system can account for all true propositions, so that the truth of the world cannot be fully expressed in any one logical system. The answer of cybernetics was the application of statistics to stochastic processes (Wiener's definition of cybernetics). Statistics makes it possible to calculate with uncertainties. Therefore, it was not necessary any more to have a system that can incorporate all the truth of the world -- as long as the system could at least explicitly account within itself for its own imperfection. The error correction in the feedback loop, based on monitoring the difference between the desired outcome and the actual performance of the system, stands for this function. In this scenario, cybernetics was successful because it could rescue the project of modernity (Englightenment, rationalism, etc.) from its self-imposed crisis. In short: the fix was to replace or complement logic with statistics as a metaphysical foundation.

  • The US was adamant to capitalise on the WWII interdisciplinary research culture, as exemplified by the Radiation Laboratory (RadLab) at the MIT, and they were keen to consolidate these advances into a unified science, apply it for technological progress, and socialise them through the market.3

  • At some point the US saw the popularity of cybernetics in the USSR. At this point, the GDP of the USSR rose significantly faster than the US, and threatened to take over. The moon landing came as a shock. The US president Robert Kennedy received a memo from the NSA that US was not fighting communism any more: it was fighting cybernetics! 4

In contrast, Dammbeck's film is heavy reliant on the idea that cybernetics is a product of US world hegemony, so that it became successful simply because it emanated from the power centre of that historical moment, and carried its colonial logic towards the peripheries in order to incorporate them into the US sphere of influence.

Holmes offers an additional clue:

Today it is difficult to even imagine the prestige that came to surround this model, which promised both a unifying paradigm for the sciences and a formula for their application to the man-machine systems of industrialised society. The age of the world laboratory begins with the ambition to extend the universal model of coded informational loops into every substrate, whether physical or biological.

We already discussed the appeal of unifying the sciences but it was not so clear so far that the appeal of cybernetics was also that this very abstract notion looked immediately applicable in practical terms. What this connects with is the hypothesis that cybernetic marked the rise of hegemony of engineering practice over scientific inquiry. We discussed that all Western science is about taking things apart and understanding it as a dead, lifeless broken object. However, in this case the usual colonial process of shoot first, ask later, is proposed as an abstract principle and an engineering solution, all in the same gesture.5

The paradigmatic example is the machine learning algorithm based on neural networks -- a technique pioneered by arch-cyberneticians and Macy Conference participants Pitts and McCulloch (see Conway and Siegelman 2004 for the details). In a machine learner based on neural networks, it is possible to export the algorithm, but it is just a big spreadsheet with numbers that stand for "weights" of the various pathways in the neural network. Therefore, it is by definition non-sensical. Again, cybernetics is an operation that replaces the questions of interpretation and explanation ("What is it? / Why is it?) with performance measures ("How well does it work?"). Of course, this poses a very particular problem for people like us, who are interested in developing a critique of cybernetics as an ideology, since it is exactly the former kind of questions that we seek to ask!

A corollary to these discussions was about etymology, inspired by Holmes and Dammbeck. Heinz von Forster, pretty much the only living participant of the Macy Conferences alive at the time of making the film (2003), mentions that sci- in science comes from an Indo-European root meaning "cutting". In contrast, sys- in systems comes from another root meaning "unifying". Therefore, he argues that cybernetics surpasses or complements science by putting together what has been cut into pieces. Someone mentioned that "anal-" also stands for separating. This can be seen from a decolonial angle where the European practices of knowledge production are based on a colonial logic of domination.

ps: Maxigas had some old notes on the Holmes book on his computer, which is now replicated here.


Barbrook, Richard. 2007. Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village. London: Pluto Press.

Conway, Flo, and Jim Siegelman. 2004. Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics. Basic Books.

Dammbeck, Lutz. 2003. "Das Netz." Documentary by B Film Verleih.

Holmes, Brian. 2009. Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society. Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, WHW.

Kline, Ronald R. 2015. The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age. First edition. New Studies in American Intellectual and Cultural History. New York: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Markoff, John. 2005. What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counter Culture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. London: Penguin.

Tiqqun. 2020. The Cybernetic Hypothesis. Translated by Robert Hurley. Revised edition with a new introduction by the authors. Semiotext(e) Intervention Series. South Pasadena, CA: MIT Press; Semiotext(e).

Turner, Fred. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. First edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wikipedia Contributors. 2020. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

  1. Probably Henry Murray, or maybe Kurt Lewin? Both are mentioned by Holmes. Need to check the film.
  3. Barbrook (2007) describes the US strategy for winning the Cold War in similar terms in his Imaginary Futures book.
  4. This is an anecdote from a book that we already read in a previous session: Kline (2015): The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age.
  5. Compare, for instance, with the early 20th century crisis of modernity, for which cybernetics is arguably the answer, described above. Gödel's incompleteness theorem drove several matemathicians and logicians crazy, including its author. However, the crisis played out on a very abstract level that had little immediate bearing on technology and engineering per se. Cybernetics was different, since it offered scientific and engineering principles at once.