The Cybernetics Question



What is Cybernetics?



History of Cybernetics Theory

Cybernetics as a discipline was firmly established by Norbert Wiener, McCulloch, Arturo Rosenblueth and others, such as W. Ross Ashby, mathematician Alan Turing, and W. Grey Walter (one of the first to build autonomous robots as an aid to the study of animal behaviour). In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy (France was an important geographical locus of early cybernetics together with the US and UK); the event was organized by the Bourbaki, a French scientific society, and mathematician Szolem Mandelbrojt (1899–1983), uncle of the world-famous mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot. During this stay in France, Wiener received the offer to write a manuscript on the unifying character of this part of applied mathematics, which is found in the study of Brownian motion and in telecommunication engineering. The following summer, back in the United States, Wiener decided to introduce the neologism cybernetics, coined to denote the study of “teleological mechanisms”, into his scientific theory: it was popularized through his book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (MIT Press/John Wiley and Sons, NY, 1948)[2]. In the UK this became the focus for the Ratio Club.
John von Neumann

In the early 1940s John von Neumann, although better known for his work in mathematics and computer science, did contribute a unique and unusual addition to the world of cybernetics: von Neumann cellular automata, and their logical follow up, the von Neumann Universal Constructor. The result of these deceptively simple thought-experiments was the concept of self replication, which cybernetics adopted as a core concept. The concept that the same properties of genetic reproduction applied to social memes, living cells, and even computer viruses is further proof of the somewhat surprising universality of cybernetic study.

In 1950, Wiener popularized the social implications of cybernetics, drawing analogies between automatic systems (such as a regulated steam engine) and human institutions in his best-selling The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Houghton-Mifflin).


Cybernetics and the Social Sciences

Applied Cybernetics

In the 1970s, new cyberneticians emerged in multiple fields, but especially in biology. The ideas of Maturana, Varela and Atlan, according to Jean-Pierre Dupuy (1986) “realized that the cybernetic metaphors of the program upon which molecular biology had been based rendered a conception of the autonomy of the living being impossible. Consequently, these thinkers were led to invent a new cybernetics, one more suited to the organizations which mankind discovers in nature – organizations he has not himself invented”.[18] However, during the 1980s the question of whether the features of this new cybernetics could be applied to social forms of organization remained open to debate.[18]

In political science, Project Cybersyn attempted to introduce a cybernetically controlled economy during the early 1970s[19]. In the 1980s, according to Harries-Jones (1988) “unlike its predecessor, the new cybernetics concerns itself with the interaction of autonomous political actors and subgroups, and the practical and reflexive consciousness of the subjects who produce and reproduce the structure of a political community. A dominant consideration is that of recursiveness, or self-reference of political action both with regards to the expression of political consciousness and with the ways in which systems build upon themselves”.[20]

One characteristic of the emerging new cybernetics considered in that time by Felix Geyer and Hans van der Zouwen, according to Bailey (1994),[21] was “that it views information as constructed and reconstructed by an individual interacting with the environment. This provides an epistemological foundation of science, by viewing it as observer-dependent. Another characteristic of the new cybernetics is its contribution towards bridging the micro-macro gap. That is, it links the individual with the society”.[21] Another characteristic noted was the “transition from classical cybernetics to the new cybernetics [that] involves a transition from classical problems to new problems. These shifts in thinking involve, among others, (a) a change from emphasis on the system being steered to the system doing the steering, and the factor which guides the steering decisions; and (b) new emphasis on communication between several systems which are trying to steer each other”.[21]

Recent endeavors into the true focus of cybernetics, systems of control and emergent behavior, by such related fields as game theory (the analysis of group interaction), systems of feedback in evolution, and metamaterials (the study of materials with properties beyond the Newtonian properties of their constituent atoms), have led to a revived interest in this increasingly relevant field.[3]

Cybernetics and economic systems

The design of self-regulating control systems for a real-time planned economy was explored by Viktor Glushkov in the former Soviet Union during the 1960s. By the time information technology was developed enough to enable feasible economic planning based on computers, the Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries began moving away from planning[22] and eventually collapsed.

More recent proposals for socialism involve “New Socialism”, outlined by the computer scientists Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, where computers determine and manage the flows and allocation of resources among socially-owned enterprises.[23]

On the other hand, liberals such as Friedrich Hayek also mention cybernetics as a discipline that could help economists understand the “self-organizing or self-generating systems” called markets[24]. Being a “complex phenomena”[25], the best way to examine the market functioning is by using the feedback mechanism, explained by cybernetic theorists. That way, economists could make “pattern predictions”[26].

Therefore, the market for Hayek is a “communication system”, an “efficient mechanism for digesting dispersed information”[27]. The economist and a cyberneticist are like garderners who are “providing the appropriate environment”[27].

Finally, Hayek also considers that Adam Smith‘s idea of the invisible hand is as anticipation of the operation of the feedback mechanism in cybernetics[28]. In the same book, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek mentions, along with cybernetics, that economists should rely on the scientific findings of Ludwig von Bertalanffy general systems theory, along with information and communication theory and semiotics.[28]

Cybernetics and the State

A Review of Surveillance Valley

A Review of The Exploit


Networks, of course, are not new. Anyone studying the trade routes of ancient Rome or those European colonizers will readily admit the importance and salience of networks in world affairs and in the constitution of subjectivity. Thacker and Galloway arguably risk undermining this historical component and the racial, territorial, and exploitive baggage that have created the conditions for Western networks and their spawn to emerge (which include “terror” networks). Indeed, the authors evacuate the term “network” of any geographic specificity. The term can be applied to U.S. imperialism as well as to the various terrorist networks like Al-Qaeda, which are at least perceived to have originated in the East and Middle East.

For Thacker and Galloway, this risk is buttressed by their distinction between “disciplinary societies,” which rely on subjective agency and material semiotics to “manipulate” their “subjects,” and “societies of control” (a phrase borrowed from Deleuze): “non-human” networks that rely on abstract “codes” or “protocol” to “modulate” their “nodes” (p. 35). European colonialism from the sixteenth through twentieth centuries obviously belongs to the first category (disciplinary socieites). Or does it? To separate slave-owning United States, for example, from the economically and militarily prosperous United States of today (whose Department of Defense helped to create the Internet) potentially undermines the authors’ project to establish “an ontology of networks—and not simply an ideology or a technology of networks” (p. 12). Do the ideological issues surrounding internet access for “underpriviledged” students not affect the political ontology that Thacker and Galloway seek to map out? That is, are networks not as ideological as they are ontological?

But as the authors assert, their work is not meant to replace ideological analysis or traditional modes of resistence. Rather, it is intended as a supplement and an update to our current understanding of networks (p. 82). And in this respect, The Exploit is a thoroughly innovative and important work for rhetoricians and computer theorists to contextualize such key terms as “multimodal,” “virus,” “digital code,” and “cyborg.” Thacker and Galloway make apparant that these terms do not simply result from the morphology of language; these are terms now understood paridigmatically. It is the network paradigm that comes across most clearly in The Exploit: A Theory of Networks.

Living in a Cybernetic World

Populations and the Metropolis

America has grown even more urban. According to new numbers just released from the U.S. Census Bureau, 80.7 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas as of the 2010 Census, a boost from the 79 percent counted in 2000. That brings the country’s total urban population to 249,253,271, a number attained via a growth rate of 12.1 percent between 2000 and 2010, outpacing the nation as a whole, which grew at 9.7 percent.

68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN

Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Projections show that urbanization, the gradual shift in residence of the human population from rural to urban areas, combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050, with close to 90% of this increase taking place in Asia and Africa, according to a new United Nations data set launched today.The 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects produced by the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) notes that future increases in the size of the world’s urban population are expected to be highly concentrated in just a few countries. Together, India, China and Nigeria will account for 35% of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between 2018 and 2050. By 2050, it is projected that India will have added 416 million urban dwellers, China 255 million and Nigeria 189 million.

The urban population of the world has grown rapidly from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018. Asia, despite its relatively lower level of urbanization, is home to 54% of the world’s urban population, followed by Europe and Africa with 13% each.

Today, the most urbanized regions include Northern America (with 82% of its population living in urban areas in 2018), Latin America and the Caribbean (81%), Europe (74%) and Oceania (68%). The level of urbanization in Asia is now approximating 50%. In contrast, Africa remains mostly rural, with 43% of its population living in urban areas.


The Digital Divide

What is the Digital Divide

A digital divide is an economic and social inequality to the access to, use of, or impact of information and communication technologies (ICT).[1] The divide within countries (such as the digital divide in the United States) may refer to inequalities between individuals, households, businesses, or geographic areas, usually at different socioeconomic levels or other demographic categories. The divide between differing countries or regions of the world is referred to as the global digital divide,[1][2] examining this technological gap between developing and developed countries on an international scale.[3]

Speculations on the Coming Geo-Political Order

BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China)

In economics, BRIC is a grouping acronym that refers to the countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, which are all deemed to be at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development. It is typically rendered as “the BRICs” or “the BRIC countries” or “the BRIC economies” or alternatively as the “Big Four”. A related acronym, BRICS, adds South Africa. There are arguments that Indonesia should be included into grouping, effectively turning it into BRIIC or BRIICS.[2]

Previously BRIC was coined by Jim O’Neill in 2001 as an acronym of four countries that were all deemed to be at a similar stage of newly advanced economic development,[3][4][5][6] but in 2009 the leaders of BRIC countries made the first summit and in 2010 BRIC became a formal institution.[7] South Africa began efforts to join the BRIC grouping and on December 24, 2010, was invited to join BRICS.[8] The original aim of BRIC was the establishment of an equitable, democratic and multi-polar world order,[7] but later BRIC became a political organization, especially after South Africa joined.[9] Jim O’Neill, told the summit that South Africa, at a population of under 50 million people, was just too small as an economy to join the BRIC ranks.[10]

But the future of BRIC as an economy group is questionable. In 2012, a book with the title Breakout Nations mentioned that it is hard to sustain rapid growth for more than a decade.[11]

Smart Phones and the Individuation of Digital Technology


Digital Identity, Big Data, and Social Control


The Anthroposcene


Anarchism in the Age of Cybernetics

The problem of grounding anarchism in a world without subjects…

Cybernetics and the Divided Subject

Deleuze’s Dividual

The Dividual

Deleuze coined the term ‘dividual’ to explain the mechanisms of a ‘control society’, which he opposes to Foucaults ‘disciplinary society’ (a stage he says we have left). The basic premise is that the term individual means indivisible, the smallest unit which society can be reduced to. Perhaps people are not whole self contained ‘units’, but may be broken down (divided), thus not self-contained units.

“The factory constituted individuals as a single body to the double advantage of the boss who surveyed each element within the mass and the unions who mobilized a mass resistance; but the corporation constantly presents the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, dividing each within… We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks.” Deleuze, 1992, (article on

This concept of the ‘dividual’ as opposed to the ‘individual’ has been taken up by various anthropologists and used to explain contradictions within the formation and conceptualisation of identity. Some good examples of this can be found in the collection of essays The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia, edited by Joanna Overing and Alan Passes. In this collection it is suggested that a society based on aesthetics of community cannot be analysed using the dualisms of Western philosophy, and that persons cannot be understood apart from the social relations they are a part of.

Yesterday’s Anarchism and the Freedom of the Individual


Anarchism without the Individual: An Infinity of Deterministic Systems


Returning to Existential (Eco)Phenomenology to Ground Anarchism in the Age of Cybernetics


The Ongoing Challenge to Systems

Search for a Method and Marxist Determinism

Marxism and Existentialism

Sartre’s opening chapter discusses the relationship between Marxism and existentialism. Sartre sees Marxism as the dominant philosophy for the current era of history and existentialism as a reinforcing complement. Most of the chapter discusses how existentialism fails to stand on its own as a school of thought while Marxism has become corrupted by the Soviets and other orthodox Communists who abuse the system of thought. Sartre sees existentialism as a reaction to this abuse.[2]

Sartre opens his first chapter by defining philosophy. He argues that there are many philosophies[3] and that a current, active philosophy unifies all current knowledge and represents the “rising” class becoming conscious of itself.[4] Sartre breaks modern philosophy down into three eras: mercantile John Locke and René Descartes, industrial Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and contemporary Karl Marx.[5][6] Sartre classifies existentialism as an ideology instead of a philosophy[7] since it failed to establish itself as an independent system of thought and did not establish itself as the conscious of a new class. Early existentialism, represented by Søren Kierkegaard, did not stand on its own as a unified system of thought. Instead, Kierkegaard’s work stood only as the opposition to Hegel’s. The existence of Kierkegaard’s thought depended on the existence of Hegel’s since it is solely a reaction to it.[8] Karl Jaspers also failed to establish existentialism in a place of historical importance since his theories are directed inward, toward the self instead of outward, to society.[9]

Sartre then turns to his own experience with Marx. He describes an early attraction to Marx’s thought[10] since it did a better job of describing the condition of the proletariat than the “optimistic humanism” that was being taught at university.[11] Despite this affinity toward Marx’s works, Sartre claims that his generation’s interpretation of Marxism remained tainted by idealism and individualism[11] until World War II broke down the dominant societal structures.[12] Despite this apparent victory of Marxism, existentialism persisted because Marxism stagnated.[13] Marxism became a tool for the security and policies of the Soviet Union. The Soviets halted the organic conflict and debate that develops a philosophy, and turned Marxist materialism into an idealism in which reality was made to conform to the a priori, ideological beliefs of Soviet bureaucrats. Sartre points to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 where Soviet leaders assumed that any revolt must be counter-revolutionary and anti-Marxist when, in fact, the Hungarian revolt came directly from the working class.[14] In contrast to this inflexible mode of thinking, Sartre points to Marx’s writings on the Revolutions of 1848 and the French coup d’état of 1851 in which Marx examined class relations instead of taking them as given.[15][16] Sartre notes that his contemporary Marxists maintained a focus on “analysis” but criticizes this analysis as a superficial study focused on verifying Marxist absolutes (“eternal knowledge”) instead of gaining an understanding of historical perspective, as Marx himself did.[17]

Sartre turns his criticism on to other methods of investigation. He says that “American Sociology” has too much “theoretic uncertainty” while the once promising psychoanalysis has stagnated. Unlike these methods and the generally dominant idealism, existentialism and Marxism offer a possible means of understanding mankind and the world as a totality.[18] Sartre claims that the class war predicted by Marxism has failed to occur because orthodox Marxism has become too rigid and “Scholastic”.[19] Despite its stagnation, Marxism remains the philosophy of this time.[19] Both existentialism and Marxism see the world in dialectical terms where individual facts are meaningless; truth is found not in facts themselves but in their interaction: they only gain significance as part of a totality.[20] György Lukács argued that existentialism and Marxist materialism could not be compatible, Sartre responds with a passage from Engels showing that it is the dialectic resulting from economic conditions that drives history just as in Sartre’s dialectically driven existentialism. Sartre concludes the chapter by citing Marx from Das Kapital: “The reign of freedom does not begin in fact until the time when the work imposed by necessity and external finality shall cease…”[21] Sartre, following Marx, sees human freedom limited by economic scarcity. For Sartre, Marxism will remain the only possible philosophy until scarcity is overcome;[22] moreover, he sees even conceiving of a successor theory—or what one might look like—as impossible until the scarcity problem is overcome.[23]

The Problem of Mediations and Auxiliary Disciplines

Sartre opens the chapter by asking “Why, then, are we not simply Marxists?”. Marxism provides guiding principles and problems, but not knowledge. Contemporary Marxists regard Marxist theory as a source of actual knowledge, but Sartre sees it only as a set of problems in search of a method.[24] As in the first chapter, Sartre sees Marxism’s flaw in rigidity: an “a priori” theory that forces events into “prefabricated molds.”[25] Sartre again turns to Lukács, his foil. He ascribes to Lukács the opinion that the realization of German existentialism was Nazism while French existentialism can be dismissed as a petits bourgeois reaction to the German occupation. Sartre rejects Lukács’ view by pointing out that, while Heidegger embraced the Nazis, Jaspers did not. Sartre also began work on his philosophy in 1930 and was wrapping up his work by the time of the occupation.[26] He argues that, as a Marxist, Lukács is incapable of understanding Heidegger and existentialism.[27] Marxism takes events and constructs universals, then imposes those universals on subsequent events. Existentialism does not assume a single, real totality, but sees history as an interactive relationship between events and humans.[28]

Sartre turns to the example of the French Revolution. While Marxists have argued that the complicated events of the Revolution can be broken down into class conflict, Sartre says the Revolution cannot be understood only on the terms of Marxist class analysis.[29] He proposes a process of “mediations” to analyze how ideological and social factors guide the course of history, which is only indirectly influenced by economics and class.[29]

Progressive-Regressive method

Sartre proposes a method of thought that combines historical materialism with existentialist psychoanalysis.[30]

Intersections with Indigenous Anarchism


What is Ecophenomenology?

I. The need for a rapprochement with Naturalism.

Phenomenology concerns itself with the ways in which human beings find and construct meaning in the world. But from its first beginnings in the work of Edmund Husserl [1859-1938], it saw itself as saving humanity from the threat of a purely naturalistic view of things, which ultimately treats everything – included humans – as reducible to the operation of causal laws. We might think that phenomenology deserves to survive only if it is willing to restrict itself to the ‘intentional’ realm, the human space of meaning. How then could there be a phenomenology of nature? If phenomenology is to be able to think about Nature, it must either rescue Nature itself from naturalism, or work out a new relationship to what it had perceived as the danger of naturalism.

Or both.

Phenomenology’s resistance to naturalism is a principled resistance, in various senses. If naturalism means that the phenomena in question are fundamentally  governed by causal laws, with the possible addition of functional explanations, and relations of succession, conjunction and concatenation, resistance takes the form of limiting the scope of such phenomena, or showing that even in those domains in which naturalism might seem wholly appropriate – the realm of what is obviously Nature – naturalism is fatally flawed as a standpoint. For example, to the extent that perception brings us into intimate sensuous relation with the complex things of this world, and definitively dispels any sense of phenomenology as an otherworldly idealism, it also becomes clear that phenomenology and naturalism could not simply agree to a territorial division, a kind of methodological power-sharing agreement. A phenomenology of perception quickly discovers that it is only as spatially and temporally embodied beings that seeing takes place at all. Seeing (and hearing and touching) is made possible by there being discrete bodies, including ourselves, that occupy distinct places at particular times, bodies endowed with a mobility that reflects their needs and desires. These are not just natural facts about the world, but fundamental dimensions of the world, dimensions that structure the very possibility of there being facts at all. And they certainly structure perception, insofar as perception is essentially perspectival, bound to surfaces of visibility, limited by things that stand in our way, and tied powerfully to our embodiment – in our having two eyes, two ears, two hands, and muscles that give us mobility in various dimensions. And that  embodiment appears in more complex ways, in our having various somatic and social desires that shape and direct perception, and in the temporal syntheses in which it is engaged. Many of these structures of bodily finitude are found in any living creature, and could be said to constitute perception, rather than qualify it. If something like this is true, some sort of phenomenology at least, is both inseparable from our involvement in the world as natural beings, and points to aspects of that involvement that do not seem to be captured by naturalism. Does this mean that we have managed to carve out a space for phenomenology within nature, reinforcing the divorce of meaning and intentionality from causality?

Let us be clear what is meant by ‘intentionality’ here. ‘Intentionality’ is the key concept in phenomenology. It has to do not just with those acts we might describe as intentional rather than accidental or unintended (the key issue in deciding whether an incident on the sports field was a foul). In phenomenology, intentionality refers to the space of human meaning opened up by the fundamental ‘aboutness’ of our conscious experience. Consciousness always exhibits the structure of being ‘about’, or ‘of’ something. These intentional relations of ‘aboutness’ seem quite different from causal connectedness. The key to our claim here is that certain dimensions essential to perception reflect non-accidental aspects of our natural existence. This means that intentionality is structured, in a way that fills out what is specific about perceptual consciousness, rather than interrupting or contesting the intentional stance. But does this structuration reinforce  the distinctness of intentionality (from naturalism) or does it offer a bridge across which a certain conversation could begin? One might suppose that what phenomenology points to is another level of causality, one that is presupposed by the operative causality of everyday phenomena. That other level might be describable through an evolutionary naturalism, one which would explain, for example, how living creatures have acquired the functionally integrated, and environmentally responsive bodies that they do indeed possess, and perhaps explain how it is that multiple complex individual living beings developed in the first place, for example, through the incorporation into a single ‘body’ of what began as a group of simpler symbiotically related organisms.

Would such an account of a deep causality make phenomenology redundant, or would it actually facilitate an engagement between phenomenology and naturalism? If an ecophenomenology could give us better access to nature than that represented by the naturalism which phenomenology was created to resist, by supplementing intentionality structurally with non- or pre-intentional characteristics of nature, would not ecophenomenology be the future of a phenomenology, one which has purged itself of its opposition to nature? Phenomenology could be said to concern itself with what appears in its appearing. But  what is at stake here? What is stake is a recovery of our fundamental experience of the world, one which is covered over by all manner of objectifying illusions – of habit, reflection, naturalism, commodification, whose shared way of proceeding is to cover up the activity of time in an apparently always-already-achieved presence.

Phenomenology opposes itself, then, to a certain kind of naïve naturalism, and to a broader sense of the natural through which the products of human  engagement lose any trace of that production. But to recover an engagement with things themselves is not at all to return to some pure presence, it is rather to return to a world in which the relation between present experience and the complexity of what is being experienced has always been deeply complex and stratified. Ecophenomenology is the pursuit of the relationalities of worldly engagement, both human and those of other creatures.


By focusing now on two rich dimensions of such engagement, I would like to develop a sense of a middle ground of relationality, a space governed exclusively neither by causality, nor by intentionality, and suggest that in this space phenomenology can overcome its inaugural opposition to naturalism. These two  dimensions we could call the plexity of time and the boundaries of thinghood

Maurice Merleu-Ponty and David Abram