Cybernetics and Surveillance

5 Aug

In an article published last month in the journal Anarchist Studies, John Duda traced a part of the history of the relationship between anarchist ideas of self-organisation and those of the cybernetic tradition. It’s a very interesting article and sits well with a lot of the work I’ve been doing over the past year and a half. It’s also quite an important piece in that it goes some of the way to counter the claims that are often made about cybernetics as a science of authoritarian control.

Since Norbert Wiener’s work in the 1940s and 50s, cybernetics has indeed always been about control, but self-control or self-organisation by systems (organic, machine and social) rather than top-down, hierarchical command.

Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics

Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics

John was kind enough to send me a copy of his PhD dissertation from last year, submitted to John Hopkins University. Titled The Idea of Self-Organization Between Science and Politics, the dissertation charts the reciprocal and intertwined relationship between self-organisation in cybernetics and computer sciences, on the one hand, and radical political thought (anarchist and autonomist), on the other.

Cybernetics often gets a bad rap as having paved the way, with its focus on networked communications and involvement in early theories of the internet, for the kinds of surveillance that penetrate almost every aspect of modern society. The French group Tiqqun, for example, argued just that in their text ‘The Cybernetic Hypothesis.’ It’s interesting to note then that early cybernetic theorists were well aware that networked communication systems were in no way necessarily liberatory and could just as easily be used for domination and hierarchical control. The following two passages, quoted in John’s dissertation, highlight this nicely:

There is an evident risk in installing a model of the public in the computer, since the return loop might be misused by a despotic government or an unscrupulous management. In considering this however we need to bear in mind the cybernetic fact that no regulator can actually work unless it contains a model of whatever is to be regulated. Much of our institutional failure is due to the inadequacy of the contained models. It is perhaps more alarming that private concerns are able to build systems of this type, without anyone’s even knowing about their existence, than that democratically elected governments should build them in open view and with legal safeguards.

Anthony Stafford Beer (Designing Freedom, 1994, p. 34)

Beer; a handsome son of a bitch if ever there was one.

Beer, a handsome son of a bitch if ever there was one

If the American Civil War hastened the supremacy of the telegraph, World War I did it for the radio. World War II did likewise for the radar and made the radio portable while advancing the basis for television. The prospectus for World War III is seemingly enclosed in the altogether non-domestic and non-human computer. Two whole modes: a population attempting to re-create for itself the scope and depth of its most intense and extensive experiences and projections for the future. And a class of near authoritarians, or fully developed ones, who are enmeshed in endless coils of wire without beginning or end, which in and of themselves are to hold society together through wiretapping and filming by secret order, television screens in company bathrooms, microphones hidden even in the offices of the self-same dignitaries seeking some means of coercion against each other. Now these two whole modes are undoubtedly inter-penetrated and give the impression of being a mixed bag of tricks but sooner or later a choice will be made.

William Gorman (‘A View From the World,’ 1966, p. 17)

It seems that far from being complicit in the surveillance culture we are now all subject to, cybernetic theorists were keen to warn of this misuse of their work. Indeed, they saw cybernetics as having the potential to resist and undermine the very forms of domination that could result from it. Cybernetics seems to be dialectical in this sense, containing within it the potential for both domination and liberation. John’s article and dissertation do very well to highlight this feature of cybernetics and present the possibilities for genuine, anti-capitalist self-organisation that lie within it.


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