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Cybernetic Serendipity: The Politics of Thinking Machines

This timely exhibition claims the rise of cybernetics has evolved from a self-governing technological system to a political model encompassing significant limitations

Today, reading CP Snow’s description of the Two Cultures − delivered at a Rede Lecture in 1959 − you are struck by his strange view of scientists, for whom he professed to speak. He certainly believes in their work, indeed his stated belief that advances in science will improve the material lot of the world’s citizens will strike many as quaint, in these more spiritual times. Indeed there’s no surer sign that you are reading a historical document than a moment of technological optimism. What is odd about CP Snow’s tract is his frankly patronising attitude to scientists. The essay which appeared in the New Statesman, rather than the Rede Lecture which so incensed FR Leavis, describes scientists as idiot-savants who view literature as politically suspect, prone to turning its adherents into fascists like critic and poet Ezra Pound.

The year that Snow extrapolated his view of a Cambridge common room across a whole of intellectual endeavour, cybernetician Gordon Pask and colleagues applied for a patent for a self-adaptive keyboard instructor. Theorist Stafford Beer described it as ‘possibly the first truly cybernetic device (in the full sense) to rise above the status of a “toy” and reach the market as a useful machine’. Cybernetics was an applied science, which according to the anthropologist Gregory Bateson was ‘a branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness, and information’. Vitally, the term cybernetics, borrowed by Norbert Wiener for his book of the same name published in 1948, originally came from the same stem in ancient Greek as the word for ‘government’. Indeed the term is first used by the physicist André-Marie Ampère, who also gave his name to a measurement of current, to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of all human knowledge.

Indeed cybernetics emerges in the ’40s partly because of a desire in the scientific world to seek new social applications for the principles of self-governing systems that emerged in the new field of computing. It is almost impossible to determine whether the computer was the cause or the result of the rise of cybernetics. Yet one thing is certain, the computer provided a tool for collaboration between scientists and artists. Both sides were alive to the potential. Take Lillian Schwartz, an American artist not represented in this archived version of the seminal show first held at the ICA in ‘68. Although she was using mechanical pumps to make kinetic sculpture, it wasn’t until Leon Harmon − then working at Bell Laboratories on human perception − saw her work at The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age exhibition at MOMA in 1968, and invited her to join his work, that perhaps the greatest of all digital artists was able to operate.

You could argue that Bowie’s three Berlin albums were cybernetics’ greatest cultural product, if it wasn’t for the small matter of the internet

In the same year Cybernetic Serendipity opened at the ICA in London and it is remembered here in an archive display at the same institution. Reviewing the show, it is clear that one of the key concerns of the work gathered together is the disappearance of the artist. John Ravilious’s Drawing Machine recasts mathematician Christopher Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine as a pendulum drawing machine that can democratise art, allowing even the artistically illiterate to create ‘pretty pictures’, in the words of Jasia Reichardt the curator of the original show and its memorial. (This is in sharp contrast to Karl Chu’s recasting of the machine as part of the CCA’s Archaeology of the Digital exhibitions as the mechanical precursor to the blobby biomorphs of early computer-aided design.)

If the Arduino microprocessor has made responsive kinetic sculpture common today, it has not made it more thoughtful. Edward Ihnatowicz’s Sound Activated Mobile and Gordon Pask’s Colloquy of Mobiles present a sculpture that doesn’t move to entertain but moves in order that it might not present a fixed idea to its audience. If a sculpture moves and defers to its viewer, the theory went, it is more democratic. You can almost hear the conceptual artists standing in the wings saying, ‘come on let’s get rid of the object altogether’. In purely artistic terms, it is in music perhaps that cybernetic theories have persisted longest. Brian Eno has spoken of how Stafford Beer’s ideas otherwise applied to corporate governance helped him create specified systems within which he could generate music. (Beer, the man who would teach cybernetics to Salvador Allende, contributes, remarkably, a poem to the exhibition’s catalogue.)

Indeed Eno is just one of the more obvious progeny of the cybernetically fixated generation that CS brought together. (His collaborator on his Oblique Strategies project Peter Schmidt was musical advisor for Cybernetic Serendipity.) Indeed the way in which artists deliberately misappropriated the idea of creating self-governing systems and built those which didn’t quite work as they should gives cybernetics a lasting place in our creative landscape. You could argue that Bowie’s three Berlin albums were cybernetics’ greatest cultural product, if it wasn’t for the small matter of the internet.

Which is why this exhibition’s revival, albeit in truncated form, is so timely. The dilemma that cybernetics poses, as Adam Curtis pointed out in his film All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, is that the self-governing technological system becomes a political rather than organisational model. In this model, autonomy becomes Randian self-interest which is balanced out across the state like the raising or lowering of Uber taxi rates. Political subjectivity is lost. So while cybernetics is useful as a technique for operating planning systems, it has its limitations. Who owns the information required to make the system work? Who is in charge of the system? To what end is the system working? These are questions that Pask, Beer and others who exhibited at Cybernetics had begun to address and which we again must face in the era of Big Data.

Cybernetic Serendipity

Where: Institute of Contemporary Art, London

When: Ended 30th November 2014

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