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John D. McEwan’s article on anarchism and cybernetics

9 Jan

In the 1960s and 70s there was some small excitement among certain anarchists around the connections between anarchism and cybernetic theories of organisation. Cybernetics, originating in the work of Norbert Wiener but most interestingly developed by a series of British cyberneticians including Ross Ashby, Grey Walter, Gordon Pask and, perhaps most interestingly from an organisational perspective, Stafford Beer. John Duda has recently written on this history and his article, published in Anarchist Studies, is well worth a read.

Most of the key writings on anarchism and cybernetics, Duda’s article but also older sources such as Colin Ward’s ‘Anarchism as a Theory of Organisation’, Grey Walter’s ‘The Development and Significance of Cybernetics’ and Dolgoff’s ‘The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society’, are all available online. One of the most important and most interesting contributions, that of John D. McEwan, however, is not. McEwan write his ‘Anarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-Organising Systems’ as a response to Walter’s article and it was published in the same journal, Anarchy, edited by Ward, a few months later, in September 1963 to be precise, the 31st issue of Anarchy.

Colin Ward's A Decade of Anarchy

Colin Ward’s A Decade of Anarchy

I’ve been tearing my hair out the last few weeks because I had a photocopy of McEwan’s article that I’d requested from the British Library but I couldn’t for the life of me find it anywhere. I spent quite a while searching for it online to no avail, despite it being republished in the books A Decade of Anarchy (1961-1970), also edited by Ward, and Participatory Democracy. Prospects for Democratizing Democracy, edited by Dimitrios Roussopoulos and C. George Benello. I tried the Anarchist Academics email list too, but no one had an electronic copy of the article. Well, I managed to get a copy of the A Decade of Anarchy book this afternoon from the British Library and I’ve scanned the McEwan article so that it now has a place online (I’d like to transcribe it so that it’s searchable but that would take ages and I don’t have that kind of time at the moment).

So here it is, John D. McEwan’s 1963 article ‘Anarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-Organising Systems’ originally published in Anarchy number 31 (pages 270-83) but here scanned from A Decade of Anarchy (1961-1970), edited by Colin Ward and published by Freedom Press in London in 1987 (pages 42-58).

McEwan – Anarchism and Cybernetics – in Colin Ward ed. A Decade of Anarchy (1961-1970) London Freedom Press 1987


Cybernetic Science Fiction: Frank Herbert’s Destination: Void

5 Aug

On a recent trip to Bristol I came across a 1967 Penguin first edition of Frank Herbert’s early science-fiction novel Destination: Void. Herbert is of course better-known for his Dune series, which I know only through the David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation.

Destination: Void follows a group of scientists on a space ship launched from Earth to colonise planets in the Tau Ceti star system. The ship the scientists are traveling on, which also includes a large number of colonists preserved in hibernation tanks during the journey, is controlled by a specially-grown human brain linked up to the ship’s computers and mechanical systems.

The cover of the 1967 Penguin first edition of Destination: Void

The cover of the 1967 Penguin first edition of Destination: Void

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The Cybernetics of Occupy

21 May

I was re-reading a few chapters of Stafford Beer’s The Brain of the Firm the other day and I had what I think amounts to a breakthrough in my research on organisational cybernetics, social media and social movements. I say breakthrough; it wasn’t a brilliant insight by any stretch of the imagination but it did give me a solution to a problem I’d been concerned with for a while.

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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.

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