Mirca Madianou, Social Media + Society
The colonial order casts a looming shadow over our modern times. If capitalist powers were in , there were many other actors for whom the economic gains represented only secondary importance. To appeal to a techno-scientific class driven by world-building narratives rather than profit motives or strict martial discipline, the engineering of this global order was framed by the social politic of the day, from the rallying cry of World War II, the purge of communist anti-colonial partisans or the promise of a post-industrial middle class utopia.
Walter D. Mignolo & Catherine E. Walsh, Princeton University Press
This difference in motivation, carried by the rhetoric of civilisation and enlightenment, enabled colonialism to rely on a cadre of scientists, researchers and engineers projected by the State military, in order to weave systems of domination through industrialisation and, later, informatisation. Complex sets of representation, designed to map the acquisition of resources and the exploitation of labour, were enshrined. They remain operational to this day.
Yet the contradictions between the colonialist forays of the scientific community and the economic incentives of Capital direct much of our methods of sensing and informing. These contradictions confuse our attempts at reckoning with this inheritance. How have the digital and technological realisations of colonialist desires seized our senses? How can we parse the technological developments of the nuclear-imperial order and its influence on the concepts of information and knowledge? To come to grips with how requires a study of what shaped the desires of the technocracy, for it very well might shape ours. Such an inquiry implies disentangling the convergence of aesthetics and cybernetics. Seeking to discern the sensible essence of things, . Cybernetics geared itself towards making the chaotic world intelligible and organisable into observable systems. How has their interfacing altered, widened and narrowed our ability to comprehend, govern and act?
Throughout this essay, ‘move’ will be employed in its dual meaning: physically and ‘emotionally.’
‘Form’ here does not possess its vernacular meaning of ‘shape.’ A form is the perceivable ‘essence’ of a thing. Form and matter constitute substance in hylomorphism. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari see form as part of a complex assemblage together with substance, content and expression. Evidently, the numerous philosophical inquiries surrounding and determining the essence of things have profound political implications.
As we face a global collection of crises, almost all symptoms of imperialist brinkmanship, we must understand the influence of the cyberneticisation of thought that underpins not just our economic models, but our abilities to understand how contemporary power structures thrive in enforcing powerlessness by mortifying the living. Grasping at straws, aghast at the enormity of the dangers already unfolding before us, we turn in desperation towards the same solutions – and the same classes of people – that caused these problems to begin with.
The Eternal Sunshine of the Atomic Mind
Partha Chatterjee, Princeton University Press
In 1945, the Manhattan Project successfully split the atom, testing first in the New Mexico desert and twice more on densely populated Japanese cities. In little more that three horrifying weeks, the nuclear explosion had materialised from a mathematical theory into an unfathomably deadly practice.
The atomic bomb was an engineering-driven that propelled nation States into the irreversible imbalance of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) diplomacy. The Western psyche withered in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, accelerating a psychological and ethical hostility towards the living world and its inhabitants. This was by no means a new development. Centuries of thoughts and colonial practices had already enshrined a deep animosity, laced with fantasies of control, against the natural world. The conceptual hodgepodge that came to define ‘Nature’ within the Western mind appears in retrospect less like a well-reasoned concept, and more like the embodiment of every facet of the Other – and a discursive mechanism fashioned to exploit them.
Nuclear research was one of the most heavily funded facet of the war machine, both due to the organisational effort necessary for the management arising from the new configuration of State-led research and development during WWII, and in terms of investment. The Manhattan Project spent more that $800 million in 1945, $100 million more than the Army and Navy combined. Paul Edwards, The Closed World
Institutionalised through the political and technological reconfigurations that arose from World War II, the Cold War and decolonisation, this obsessive lens to read the world became suffused with nuclear technoaesthetics. Defined by Joseph Masco and further developed by John Shiga, nuclear technoaesthetics describes the the systematic approach directing the sensing and the making sense of the new topology of the world. Its colonialist goals remained unchanged, now complemented by The Pacific Islands for the United States, the Sahara for France, Australia for the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan for the USSR, Xinjiang for China: regions where imperial formations had scarred the Indigenous body and psyche were all earmarked for the testing of nuclear weapons.
Joseph Masco, American Ethnologist
In a grotesque mirror-image of nature, the mushroom cloud birthed a world-spanning mycelium, its tendrils captivating the techno-scientific class. . The early nuclear period is full of images conjured by the scientists who took part in the overground tests, many sharing characteristics of religious awe rather than any understanding of the annihilation of people, animals and habitats. Rationalising these experiences required the development of ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’ representations to serve as epistemological foundations: sensor readings, documentary photographs, reporting – the systematised generation of technoaesthetic artefacts geared towards the cultivation of a clinical gaze. The increasing existential, physical and intellectual separation experienced by the scientific teams underpinned this epistemological process. In overriding sensory experiences through discourse and technique, entire fields of science saw their dual abilities to sense and react captured. In place of a revulsion for questionable or violent research, , which formed the aesthetic experience of the nuclear apocalypse into one that was pleasurable, even desirable. These discursive and technical mechanisms accomplished a threefold purpose: measuring the success of nuclear tests, re-producing configurations of power, and dulling the monstrosity of this ‘advancement of knowledge.’
Joseph Masco , American Ethnologist
In the Western-occupied Pacific Islands, biologists Eugene and Tom Odum eagerly harvested data from irradiated life and landscapes. In June 1954, the brothers departed for the Enewetak Atoll, excited to study what they called . They were determined to make the facts fit their theory: revealing the ecosystemic form at the heart of the environment. Their fieldwork was marred with frustrating hurdles, inconsistencies and mistakes. Stumbling with colonialist incompetence every step of the way, they exploited the deadly irradiation caused by ten nuclear weapons in order to show evidence of symbiosis, which they documented in an article for Ecological Monographs in 1955. Depicting Enewetak as “little affected by nuclear explosions,” this article would become a stepping stone for their careers, and Eugene Odum went on to publish his Fundamentals of Ecology in 1959, a tremendously influential book which dedicates a chapter to the new discipline of radiation ecology – the epistemological exploitation of nuclear fallout.
Laura J. Martin, Environmental History
To facilitate this exploitation, the Atoll was labelled The informational forays of the scientists accomplished a civilisational role, making the islands . The Pacific Islands, far from a fantasised primitive form to begin with, had in any case been thoroughly seized by the Invisible Nuclear Hand, and their beaches were littered with industrial debris and military equipment. This discursive strategy wasn’t just geared towards the estrangement of the colonised, but an important prerequisite for the epistemological harvest: studies and analyses could only be adequately performed on an idealised ‘virgin body,’ with conditions artificially re-contextualised as comparable to the sterile and controlled environment of the laboratory.
As cited by Laura J. Martin in Proving Grounds: Ecological Fieldwork in the Pacific and the Materialization of Ecosystems.
A new was unleashed by the progressive reliance on pure technological mediation. Even before the 1963 Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty, scientists privileged the data collection of their improvised technical sensing devices over the direct experience of irradiated communities. These were testimonies of . The Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty itself was born less from a concern for public health (the irradiation of the US population following the 1955 Apple II device test) than strategic interest (countering foreign intelligence). It cemented the focus away from the reality of the manufacture of the bomb to the technologically-mediated physics of its detonation. The quantifiable perspective soon took over, under the form of pure mathematical and virtual mastery – and fever-dream fantasy. In cinemas, the of 1956 projected an ever-present ideological invasion threatening US territory, just as the RAND Corporation assisted the Atomic Energy Commission during ‘Project Sunshine’ in the harvest of thousands of corpses, body parts and organs without consent. In the skies, .
To paraphrase Hannah Arendt.
John Shiga, Canadian Journal of Law & Society
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Don Siegel (dir.)
Allied Artists Pictures,1956.
Zaria Gorvett, BBC Future
Twin Peaks Season 3, Part 8.
David Lynch (writer/director)
This shift towards computerisation thoroughly affected the scientific perception of the environment. The purpose of the living world and its inhabitants was to . Data, considered a strategic asset ripe for exchange and exploitation, were not only directly captured from the bodies of the colonised populations and territories, but very much injected, under the form of presupposed taxonomy made intelligible for the colonial gaze. This brutal in-forming, performed at gunpoint and realised technically, the epistemological bounties arising from . Conversely, entities that refused their dissolution inside this blinkered model were labelled “inhomogeneities,” a denomination that presupposed their eventual homogenisation within nuclear technoaesthetics, and their .
John Shiga, Canadian Journal of Law & Society
It remains uncanny how this realises technically and concretely György Lukács’s concept of reification.
As Laura J. Martin states: “violence made ecosystems manifest.”
The experiences of the 20th century scientific community was the symptom of a broader disorientation of Western societies following the atrocities and entrenchment of fascism, the devastation of WWII, and the slow entropy affecting the colonial order. The reality of the atomic bomb – a cornerstone of technical fetishism and colonial dominance – thus became the hinge point from which deteriorating systems of power attempted to rejuvenate and redeploy themselves. The discursive mechanisms they employed to support that end, derived from systematised modes of sensing, became a cardinal way of viewing and informing the world, one that complemented rising industrial enterprises and technologies of communication.
The bombing of Hiroshima as recalled through the eyes of a child survivor. Perspectives such as these confront the clinical gaze of nuclear technoaesthetics by retelling the experiences of all - including non-human victims.
Barefoot Gen, Mori Masaki (director), Keiji Nakazawa (writer)
Do Cyberneticians Dream of Electronic Revolutions?
Claude E. Shannon,
Cybernetics - The Macy Conferences 1946–1953. The Complete Transactions
Donna Haraway, Philosophical Forum
As the Odum brothers were busy proving themselves in the Pacific, scientists at the Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee were also struggling to interpret their fieldwork due to the overflowing intricacy of natural interactions triggered by their irradiation of the environment. By 1958, the researchers turned to computers as a solution: designing models that would simulate the complexities of radiation and its deployment through land and life. The burden of interpretation lifted quickly, and their . The complex demands inherent in documenting the deadly practice of irradiating life and landscape was perfectly complemented by the rise of cybernetics, engendering the field of system ecology.
Stephen Bocking, Journal of the History of Biology
Eugene Odum had by 1963 risen to chairman of the Ecological Society of America’s International Biological Program committee, and had become a major proponent of cybernetics. This was the natural continuation of nuclear technoaesthetics, the sensing and informing framework to artificially model the interaction of a natural milieu. The perspective of combining these fields split Western ecologists, but eventually . In a paper written in 1981 with Bernard Patten, Odum presupposed the existence of a “secondary informational network” regulating nature, asserting that:
Paolo Palladino , Journal of the History of Biology
Top: Simulation model of tide and hurricane effects on nutrients of a mangrove swamp. Bottom: Simulation model of the Vietnam war zone in 1970. Both from Howard T. Odum, Systems Ecology: An Introduction.
This claim to intelligibility made possible by the informational approach was the particularly seductive aspect of cybernetics, a new ‘meta-discipline’ fashioned after the technologies of communication of the unfolding post-war era. Cybernetics showed promise in bridging by seeking to and was eagerly adopted by leading figures of the post-war sciences such as Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, John von Neumann and Talcott Parsons. Cybernetics devised axioms for the treatment of information, encouraged its proponents to refine communication technologies, even .
Whereas the bomb was an offensive technology, cybernetics was initially defensive. Its first application was to provide anti-air batteries the ability to track German airships, by continuously reinjecting in the weapon system the gap between the airships’ predicted and actual position. In this where informational pressures would be exerted on the system itself, relentlessly closing the gap between the actual situation and a desired result. As Peter Taylor further notes in his review of the technocratic optimism of ecology and cybernetics: “the individual in a feedback system appeared to gain in autonomy because systems theory addressed communication and information flow between individuals,” yet “communication systems were also command-control systems; command-control engineers would be required to ensure that the systems operated according to new criteria – for example, minimising information loss or preserving circuit stability.” Moreover:
Norbert Wiener's title for his seminal book on cybernetics was, after all, “the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine".
Cybernetics therefore embraced a principle of information fusion, capable of codifying every facet of life – money, needs, power, health, intelligence, or even fitness – into data. By myopically focusing on the relation between an emitter and a receiver, cybernetics attempted to represent the whole of existence inside the homogeneous, self-regulating form of a system. Information became the quantifiable substance of reality, under the guise of statistically predictable signal and noise. The transcripts of the Macy Conferences, the meetings of the cybernetician minds held between 1941 and 1960, highlight the tension within this conceptual dichotomy:
Edited by Claus Pias, Diaphanes
The proponents of cybernetics were painfully aware of these heterogeneities that wouldn’t quite fit their insular model. These noisy and entropic discrepancies could nonetheless be seen as a reservoir of untapped opportunities – recall the previously encountered category of “inhomogeneities.”
Patches of classified US Department of Defence projects. In Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman’s 1917 novel The Green Door, a young girl named Letitia is forbidden by her aunt to open a small green door in her house with this warning: “It is not best for you, my dear.” Green Door is also the name of a 1956 hit about a man who’s denied entrance to a party taking place behind a green door. From Trevor Paglen, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World.
The limitations of cybernetics were therefore significant, and shaped the broader process of cyberneticisation. Radiation ecology deployed its epistemological power through the release of isotopes in the environment and the tremors caused by the explosions of the nuclear tests: purposeful irradiation and destruction delineated the topological boundaries of the studied system, and assessed the environment’s resilience. The test and feedback cycle reified the interconnected totality of an ecosystem that could be formed around the desire of the nuclear-imperial order: . The tensions between cyberneticisation and the world to be techno-scientifically administered, revised and expanded. This provided equally defensive and offensive strategies to make the real con-form relentlessly with desired projections.
John Shiga, Canadian Journal of Law & Society
To paraphrase Vannevar Bush’s eponymous book, Science: The Endless Frontier, written at the request of Roosevelt in order to plan the continuation of the wartime scientific apparatus into peacetime.
Driven by academic and economic incentives, the cybernetic framework helped the perceived ‘soft’ science of ecology to gain a foothold in the political, scientific and public consciousness. The influence of this work was as far reaching as it was seductive. Cybernetics tinged ecological studies, seizing Western politics and policy. In the US, this new discipline made it all the way to the top. In summer 1967, the congressional hearings of the Subcommittee on Science, Research and Development of the US House of Representatives had politicians swooned by the prospect of .
Through cybernetics, the techno-scientific class construed radiation ecology as a peaceful use of atomic energies for managerial purposes. A broad vision pictured nature as a system in a state of rapid decay due to industrial pollution, carefully side-stepping the blatant issue of economic exploitation. . By the mid-1960s, cybernetics and the system-men had . It remains somewhat ironic that their focus on informational systems blinded them so utterly from recognising systems of power, especially the one arising directly from their analyses. Yet in hindsight it strikes as painfully clear that this was desired, two complementing aspects of the same discursive process that accompanies deployments of power, as the latter faced increasing dissent from both inside and outside.
The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant
David Mizell, during the 1985 Conference on the Strategic Computer Initiative.
Kodak Ektralite 10 advertisement, Ebony magazine, May 1980.
The coupling of cybernetics with atomic science birthed entire industries of consumer goods. The building blocks of the nuclear technoaesthetics, which had served to capture the tests and its victims at ever increasing resolutions, started to flourish commercially. This took the shape of entire markets of consumer and professional goods: cameras, film, radar, medical equipment, radiology, media technologies, electronics, and of course computers.
Amped by the nuclear arms race, the soon followed. The novel model of research and development used in war, counter-insurgency and spycraft was embraced by the Free Market: demand was artificially created, and offer buoyed by massive public funding – a financial projection of imperial power that continues well into the 21st century. Throughout the 1950s, more than half of the funding of major US tech corporations – IBM, Bell, General Electric, Raytheon, etc. – came from various federal and state governments, DARPA, and an entire network of parasitic and publicly funded military wings. The 1960s saw the now cash-fat private sector invest heavily in research and development. , reinvested 50% of its profits in internal R&D. Thus came to existence the industrial titans of the newborn computer industry, founded through capital and knowledge derived from genocides and ecological annihilation.
Joseph Masco, American Ethnologist
Edwin Black, Time Warner
The Cold War decades would in particular see the market for virtual representations blossom, synthesised in partnership with information technology titans. In every case, their existence was to fortify the immediate needs and desires of the nuclear-imperial order’s “closed world.” The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), the first general-purpose digital computer, was built during World War II, but, late to the party, entered service only after the end of the conflict. Having missed its chance to compute actual destruction, the project’s first computations were directed towards calculating simulations for the hydrogen bomb.
Through projects like ENIAC, cybernetics ascended from its analogue limitations, reaching its full potential through digital computing. The new opportunities afforded by the partnership weren’t limited to fantasising world-ending weapon strikes, but also their sensuousness. One of these examples was Whirlwind, conceived originally as a general piloting simulator. Plagued with a chaotic development, Whirlwind nevertheless raised
It was the jingoistic mindset of the US Air Force (USAF) that found within this technology an ideal outlet. As military brass hallucinated Red invasions across the globe, Whirlwind was rescued, re-purposed and given a context a posteriori. Spliced with other technologies under the aegis of the Eisenhower-backed USAF, Whirlwind was given a new life as the , a centralised system of threat detection and defensive response led by digital computers. Much like the nuclear scientists separated from their underground tests, here the technologically-mediated representation of the world glowed on the screens of the command centre. SAGE was the harbinger of new evolutions in computer technology, such as networking, video displays, synchronous parallel logic, multiprocessing, modems and software diagnostic programs, which rapidly disseminated through the commercial sector and formed the foundation of modern computing. The US private sector developed its ability to manufacture large networked systems of real-time data-processing through SAGE. For all that, it also barely worked.
Charles Babbage Institute
In October 28, 1962, a satellite was interpreted by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) as a Soviet nuclear first strike launched over Georgia. The US bombers were readied to take off for an immediate counter-strike, only to be called off at the last minute. This was but one amongst the many similar events of brinkmanship caused by technical faults or the misidentification of weather and wildlife. Moments of planetary communication, computing and sense-making giving way to annihilation, . Like the Odum brothers and their professional class, nuclear technoaesthetics and cybernetics had been mobilised to generate simulations of senses and information that conformed to the desires of its creators. The seeds of future virtual representation mismatches were planted. The errors plaguing the fully-automated Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) produced false-alerts from the start, The Worldwide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS) . And the forlorn techno-fetishist pursuit of the , “an ideological fiction whose computer-controlled nuclear defences would not have worked and could not have been built,” .
Future of Life Institute
U.S.House of Representatives, Failures of the NORAD Attack Warning System
Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, United States House of Representatives, 97th Congress, First Session
David E. Pearson, Air University Press
Historical Division Joint Secretariat Joint Chiefs of Staff
Hubert Dreyfus, The MIT Press
Mark Stefik, Communications of the ACM
The Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative was commissioned in 1983 by US President Ronald Regan, seeking to find technological solutions to “obsolete” nuclear warfare. It was dissolved in 1993 and replaced by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. The latter was dissolved in 2002 and replaced by the Missile Defense Agency.
The offensive complement to the defensive strategy of SAGE, generated in 1968 an idealised representation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, one that manifested through sensors and aerials deployed in the jungle and the interfaces of the command and control room. The Vietnam War was the first war to employ a highly centralised, management-led military machine of pure quantification and computerisation. In the pursuit of this endeavour, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara enlisted the help of the system-men, economists and social scientists of the RAND Corporation to economically manage the war effort in Vietnam. Developed from McNamara’s earlier experience at Ford Motors, the techniques of class warfare engineered in business schools found their natural progression in the prosecution of an imperialist war, seen from the start as Like the Odum Brothers’ Pacific experiments, Vietnam was seen by both McNamara and Walter Rostow (an influential advisor to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) as a . The country, its populations and landscapes were colonised as a laboratory for scientific and military purposes, the two industries complimenting each other and sharing the same discourse.
Ballistics digitisation diagram for Operation Igloo White, detailing various sensory apparatus to theoretically aid targeted strikes against the Vietnamese.
James William Gibson, Atlantic Monthly Press
Memo, McNamara to Johnson, “South Vietnam,” March 13, 1964, cited in Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon.
Despite the claims of its creators, Igloo White’s legacy was a world of fantasy rather than a supreme precognitive machine. Its automated missile strikes launched from patrolling F-14 – a configuration that foreshadowed drone warfare – often targeted empty patches of jungles, killing wildlife and scarring landscapes. Its sensors were easily fooled by fake noises and bags of urine from the guerrilla resistance. The operation killed scores of civilians and wildlife, created 13.000 refugees, and the loss of 300 to 400 US aircraft. Ultimately, Igloo White failed to stop the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It remained, officially, a success.
The user of Operation Igloo White's technologies bear an eerie resemblance to the modern drone pilot.
Network infrastructure for Operation Igloo White, detailing various sensory apparatus for targeted strikes.
While informatised warfare foundered in the field, its proponents ultimately succeeded in the discourse. Yet new states of things weren’t created ex nihilo. Rather, the techniques they articulated became the relay points of tendencies decades in the making, catalysts for certain configurations of power to crystallise and sustain themselves. And while the military-men oversaw and funded their financing and deployment, it was the scientific cadre who defended their ‘less aggressive’ potentials – despite all evidence to the contrary. These simulations remained firmly plugged in to very real tests on populations, animals and landscapes, as well as the purposeful destruction of the environment, alimented by the dense network of capitalist exploitation.
This complemented a movement towards a , where the rabid development of new potentials unleashed by new technologies gave the US private sector an important edge. Counter-insurgency and government-toppling kept cheap commodities flowing from the peripheries to the imperial centre. The technological and virtual arms race would only gain momentum during the Carter and Reagan administrations, between the increase of nuclear warheads per missiles, the restrictions imposed on academic research, and the . It was the Reagan administration that however thoroughly seized the techno-nuclear war-machine, and in their vision of an apocalyptic struggle suffused with Christian fundamentalism, only accomplished what engineer Vannevar Bush had already noted in 1945: war as “increasingly total war, in which the armed services must be supplemented by active participation of every element of the civilian population."
Initiated by US President Eisenhower, despite his teary-eyed 1961 Farewell Address targeting the “military-industrial complex” he himself contributed to create.
Robert F. Delaney, Naval War College Review
Bush’s vision was perfectly understood by the RAND Corporation who, in 1997, advocated publicly for “comprehensive approaches to conflict based on the centrality of information.” The technical innovations of “low-intensity” counter-insurgency warfare and other “operations-other-than-war” – enshrined by the likes of Frank Kitson with the massacre of the Mau-Mau and other colonial ‘peacekeeping’ – would be helpfully completed by an understanding of the . In this “increasingly total war” that refuses its name, the private control over information and the State nuclear war-machine, born from the same primordial soup, accomplished the totalising vision of the system-men: a true where the could be guided to more amenable course of action by technoaesthetic prods.
Where cyberwar describes a command and control approach to information warfare, netwar is the guerilla equivalent.
Tiziana Terranova, Theory, Culture & Society
To paraphrase Francis Fukuyama and his vulgar reinterpretation of Alexandre Kojève.
Alphaville Dēlenda Est
Jan Verwoert, Sternberg Press
Stafford Beer, Futures
Radiation ecology had been one step towards the whitewashing of nuclear technoaesthetics. But the cooperation between the former and cybernetics could only achieve so much beyond the realm of clinical quantitative observation and digital machines. As Norbert Wiener emphatically hammered, it was . This project implied seducing more people than simply a political-managerial class — and seducing them profoundly.
Norbert Wiener, Da Capo Press
Apart from its macro-level efforts with social sciences, cybernetics had involved psychologists from the start, such as in key positions in the engineering of SAGE. The meta-discipline had convinced itself that its closed-loop, command-and-control vision of society would accomplish, as cybernetician Lawrence Frank put it, This implied . Cognitive psychology arose, influenced significantly by cybernetics, superseding behavioural psychology and its mechanistic framework whose mechanical reductionism saw individuals as trainable automatons. The new psychological vision was enthralled by this veneer of liberatory emancipation. Norbert Wiener himself pictured cybernetics as allowing the freeing of energies and communication within heterogeneous entities, an ecology of constant and dynamic analysis, exchange and interactions. This represented a powerful ethic geared towards the realisation of a qualitative jump beyond the quantitative perspective. It was to however calcify into an authoritarian ordering of a quantified world, making full use of the insidious discourse and configuration of power tied to the informing of the living: .
Over the years, theorists J. C. R. Licklider, Silvan Tomkins and others attempted to psychologically encode the informatisation of the world. Licklider was a psychologist and an early cybernetician – and someone who, as seen earlier, was not especially troubled by the danger of informational reductionism. Fascinated by the connection between psychology and computer technology, he shaped the early developments of network communication alongside AI and personal computing. Licklider was a veteran of SAGE who He envisioned a world where humans would be assisted by computers – that would help the hapless organic beings reckon with the complexities of the new information age. An alluring sentiment that would find wide purchase, such as in Steve Jobs’ 1990 description of . This man-computer symbiosis would, in the last analysis, be efficiently directed under the .
Lawrence K. Frank, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Alèssi Dell'Umbria, éditions la tempête
Steve Jobs, Computers are like a bicycle for our minds. Michael Lawrence Films
Whose shape can also be decentralised and distributed. It doesn’t affect the centralised nature of the control exerted. Peter W. Singer cites for instance the case of a four-star general micromanaging in real-time a drone operator in Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.
Tomkins was a psychologist and personality theorist, who sought to develop an understanding on how exactly . Combining the cybernetic framework’s utilitarianism with a vulgar understanding of 17th century philosopher Spinoza’s ethics, Tomkins’ approach encoded the spinozist affects as organic feedback mechanisms, nine or so affect programs Tomkins’ work would be embraced and extended by his student Paul Ekman. The latter ended up deeply fascinated by the . These observations, synthesised within Tomkins and Ekman’s theories, would inform the pseudo-science of micro-expression analysis, and lead Ekman to become a
Silvan S. Tomkins & Samuel Messick, Psychology
Ruth Leys, Critical Inquiry
Which were provided by Gregory Bateson. See ibid.
This new , a configuration of cybernetics and clinical gaze tinged by nuclear technoaesthetics, attempted the qualitative jump by weaponising a totalising comprehension of both mechanical and organic understandings of systems. Such approach, wherein, as seen earlier, the , birthed a machinic conception of both quantification and desire. In this , the . Within this new paradigm, the enmeshing of cybernetics and nuclear technoaesthetics reaches an apex, and The observed target is modulated through their environment in a way that sidesteps the traditional categories of subjectification and subjection. Instead, this approach embraces the technical projection of a constellation of profiles, identities, and the interactions connecting them – be they social media accounts, public service records, travelcard logs, AI algorithms and, already, blockchain transactions.
Grégoire Chamayou, The New Press
Peter J. Taylor, Journal of the History of Biology
As Nigel Thrift put it, with an aspirational tone entranced by nuclear technoaesthetics, in From Born to Made.
Antoinette Rouvroy & Thomas Berns, Réseaux
Norms arise (seemingly organically) from the dense mesh of synthetic relations and the continuous informing of harvested mass of behaviours separated from their context of origin. With little to no real consent, this purposeful black box accomplishes the separation of subject from observation and materialises the value of the epistemological bounty. It is a natural progression of the , from which neoliberalism derives: an insidious affecting of the body and mind to produce and consume, to sense and move, obtained by . No surprise that Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist and co-founder of the neoliberal project, observed how cybernetics echoed Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. In helping economists understand the “self-organising systems” of the markets and their “steering mechanism”:
Tiziana Terranova, Theory, Culture & Society
Michel Foucault, Palgrave Macmillan
Friedrich Hayek, quoted in Paul Lewis, Purposeful behaviour, Expectations, and the Mirage of Social Justice: The Influence of Cybernetics on the Thought of F. A. Hayek. As Paul Lewis recalls, one of Hayek’s earliest work, The Sensory Order, published in 1952, was a psychological treaty borrowing many concepts from cybernetics.
can be intensely felt at the borders of States and the enforcements without and within. Powered by Palantir and its competitors, State programs like the US I.C.E. dragnet, Australia’s Border Force and the European Frontex utterly defang ‘sanctuary cities’ or other refugee policies that still remain within the confines of this . In these situations especially, the term ‘biopolitics’ hides the necessary flip side of regulating life: objectifying and dehumanising its subjects in the pursuit of management. The governmentality of the centres was forged with the sowing of misery and death in the peripheries, be it under the shape of assassinations, genocides or irradiation of landscapes. Biopolitics necessarily implies thanatopolitics – both the literal extinction of life, but also the extinction of the power of life: the power to move and be moved.
Which still relies on liberal concepts for many of its assumptions. Antoinette Rouvroy and Thomas Berns note this conceptual tension in Algorithmic Governmentality and Prospects of Emancipation, whereby “algorithmic governance further entrenches the liberal ideal of an apparent disappearance of the very project of governance” while eschewing or ‘avoiding confrontation’ with many liberal concepts.
Ed Pilkington, The Guardian
Patches of classified US Department of Defence projects. “Oderint Dum Metuant” of the centre patch means “Let them hate, so long as they fear.” From Trevor Paglen, I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World.
At the heart of the management models of governance and counter-insurgency doctrine lies again the principle of data fusion, where cyberneticised information is the uni-form substance that subsumes every facet of life. Petrify and kill, terrorise and murder: a program nowadays applied through the aptly named Gorgon Stare (the wide-area surveillance sensor system equipped on Reaper drones) or the techno-bureaucratic apparatus geared towards . All made possible via “a form or pattern of life that conforms with the paradigm of ‘information based on activity’” established “to spot the emergence of suspect elements based on their unusual behaviour.” But, as we can see from the absurdities of nuclear research and the error-prone cyberneticised systems of sensing, these are frequently .
Adam Hunerven, Chuǎng
Grégoire Chamayou, The New Press
Yet therein lies precisely the cyberneticised act of governing: the deaths of individual targets are less important than the corrective action the assassination triggers on the system. This is an intervention, as anthropologist Talal Asad makes clear, whose The proponents of this revolting logic rightly perceive the lives they extinguish less as individual foci of liberal governmentality, and more as another cybernetic flux to be managed. Terrified by the brittleness of their vulnerable world, some among these advocates now fancy themselves fantasising a “high-tech panopticon” where everybody is fitted with a ‘freedom tag,’ monitored by a “freedom officer who can dispatch an inspector, a police rapid response unit, or a drone to investigate further.” Anything that could prolong the existence of their murderous civilisation, where .
said the Count of Monte Cristo. would have been the retort of Howard Scott, founder of the 1930s Technocracy movement. As the post-World War II nuclear technoaesthetics solidified into an ecology through their cybernetisation, the protagonists attempted to reconcile the vile roots of this syncretic enterprise. . For within the coils deployed by this ethical world-building of cosmological proportion, we are to this day ensnared precisely as we are spurred.
Of Cosmic Forks
The ramifications of nuclear technoaesthetics form the very backbone of our infrastructure. Every region has been choked by the Free Market and its techno-scientist apparatus. What is the alternative? To dismantle the primacy of cyberneticised information is to dismantle its self-anointment as the conduit for actions and thoughts. It is to resist both the associated discourse that only empowers the hierarchies imposed by an imperial centre, and the representational schemes based on the epistemological claims of data. . What connects us to the negative commons we’ve ended up with? Who relies on them for work, for survival? How do they generate and hold information, social communion, or expression? What are their pathways for revenue, rent or speculation?
This is Fine: Optimism & Emergency in the P2P Network
Cade Diehm, The New Design Congress
Like subaltern studies scholars have already explored, . This process necessarily originates from the epistemological practices of the embodied localities and the first concerned, constituted in epistemic communities. Such formations are, for instance, It therefore accomplishes the dual task of tactically exploiting every window of opportunity created by the mismatches residing within the incumbent powers’ representations and modes of sensing; all the while discarding our reliance on technologies stemming from their hegemonic epistemology that might have seduced us.
Anders Dunker, Researh Network for Philosophy and Technology
Yet we should be careful not to fall for the trappings of a ‘local’ or a ‘decentralisation’ that perfectly fits the project of atomised neoliberal firms at every level – be it individual, familial, associative, governmental and supragovernmental. Neither should we resume the local to the sclerosed geographical or cultural enclaves fantasised by nationalism. How could this be accomplished? Focus could for instance be directed towards the concrete project of , the purposeful and programmatic reduction, where needed, of . Following Jasper Bernes, interrogating negative commons through fragmentation is “to graph the flows and linkages around us in ways that comprehend their brittleness as well as the most effective ways they might be blocked as part of the conduct of particular struggles.” In this Vitally, this will also redirect resources towards targeted communities by compensating, in money and in kind, their active involvement, .
The concept is borrowed from the book Héritage et Fermeture written by Emmanuel Bonnet, Diego Landivar and Alexandre Monnin. A book at times complex for the sake of it, it nonetheless provides interesting templates for the closing of the negative commons.
Jasper Bernes, Endnotes
The Para-Real: Finding the future in Unexpected Places
Cade Diehm, Ellis Jones, et al.
The New Design Congress
The claim to intelligibility generated by the coupling of cyberneticised information and nuclear technoaesthetics is dysfunctional, sociopathic and brittle. The real always spills over the fences constructed by its representations. It isn’t the substance-information presented with pseudo-objectivity that leads our desire, but the myriad combinations of the ways we're affected. The forms arising from the hegemonic epistemological process are but one way, and recycling them over and over through a closed-loop system can only engender a stale understanding of the world. Refusing this despotic hold over existence is an aspect found in . Such refusals are the antidote to these planetary-scale systems and global governance structures rebranded as saviours of crisis, but whose core is the same illegitimate power that mistakes geese for missiles and brutalises life and land alike. By dismantling the world of cybernetics and nuclear technoaesthetics, by embracing, instead of denying, the flotsam and jetsam that irrigate individuations, becomings and political imagination, we might yet thwart this pretence of control over the real, the virtual, and all forms of life.
For instance, Partha Chatterjee, in The Nation and Its Fragments, traces back the dyad knowledge-power within the post-colonial Indian State with epistemological endeavours imagined outside of politics. The Indian State created subjects and objects of power whole cloth, and remained split between a desire for homogenisation and the fundamental heterogeneity of reality. Within this totalising seizure, State planning made use of information and signals, and these sets of representation came to replace reality. Chatterjee concludes on a reflection around the community, as the complex site of resistance to capitalism and its hegemony – complex because constituted by the beings who are part of this community as much as by the gaze of colonial epistemology, and doubly erased by the individualistic and universalist framing of liberalism.
Edited & art directed by Cade Diehm.
Thanks to moss heim and Howard Melnyczuk for their feedback.