Steve Joshua Heims: The Cybernetics Group (1991)

19 September 2017, dusan

“This is the engaging story of a moment of transformation in the human sciences, a detailed account of a remarkable group of people who met regularly from 1946 to 1953 to explore the possibility of using scientific ideas that had emerged in the war years (cybernetics, information theory, computer theory) as a basis for interdisciplinary alliances. The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, as they came to be called, included such luminaries as Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, Walter Pitts, Kurt Lewin, F. S. C. Northrop, Molly Harrower, and Lawrence Kubie, who thought and argued together about such topics as insanity, vision, circular causality, language, the brain as a digital machine, and how to make wise decisions.

Heims, who met and talked with many of the participants, portrays them not only as thinkers but as human beings. His account examines how the conduct and content of research are shaped by the society in which it occurs and how the spirit of the times, in this case a mixture of postwar confidence and cold-war paranoia, affected the thinking of the cybernetics group. He uses the meetings to explore the strong influence elite groups can have in establishing connections and agendas for research and provides a firsthand took at the emergence of paradigms that were to become central to the new fields of artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

In his joint biography of John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener, Heims offered a challenging interpretation of the development of recent American science and technology. Here, in this group portrait of an important generation of American intellectuals, Heims extends that interpretation to a broader canvas, in the process paying special attention to the two iconoclastic figures, Warren McCulloch and Gregory Bateson, whose ideas on the nature of the mind/brain and on holism are enjoying renewal today.”

Paperback edition appeared under the title Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group (1946–1953) in 1993.

Publisher MIT Press, 1991
ISBN 0262082004, 9780262082006
xii+334 pages

Reviews: N. Katherine Hayles (Hist Human Sciences, 1992), R.V. Jones (New Scientist, 1992), Carlos A. Martínez-Vela (2001).


PDF (3 MB, updated on 2018-7-25)

James R. Beniger: The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (1986)

26 April 2014, dusan

“James Beniger traces the origin of the Information Society to major economic and business crises of the past century. In the United States, applications of steam power in the early 1800s brought a dramatic rise in the speed, volume, and complexity of industrial processes, making them difficult to control. Scores of problems arose: fatal train wrecks, misplacement of freight cars for months at a time, loss of shipments, inability to maintain high rates of inventory turnover. Inevitably the Industrial Revolution, with its ballooning use of energy to drive material processes, required a corresponding growth in the exploitation of information: the Control Revolution.

Between the 1840s and the 1920s came most of the important information-processing and communication technologies still in use today: telegraphy, modern bureaucracy, rotary power printing, the postage stamp, paper money, typewriter, telephone, punch-card processing, motion pictures, radio, and television. Beniger shows that more recent developments in microprocessors, computers, and telecommunications are only a smooth continuation of this Control Revolution. Along the way he touches on many fascinating topics: why breakfast was invented, how trademarks came to be worth more than the companies that own them, why some employees wear uniforms, and whether time zones will always be necessary.”

Publisher Harvard University Press, 1986
ISBN 0674020766, 9780674020764
493 pages
via babyalanturing

Review (JoAnne Yates, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1988)
Review (Krishan Kumar, Journal of American Studies, 1988)
Review (Kirkus Reviews)

Book-inspired website

PDF (16 MB, updated on 2016-6-16)

Bernard Dionysus Geoghegan: The Cybernetic Apparatus: Media, Liberalism, and the Reform of the Human Sciences (2012)

11 September 2013, dusan

The Cybernetic Apparatus examines efforts to reform the human sciences through new forms of technical media. It demonstrates how 19th-century political ideals shaped mid-20th-century programs for cybernetic research and global science sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Through archival research and textual analysis, it reconstructs how and why new media, especially digital technologies, were understood as part of a neutral and impartial apparatus for transcending disciplinary, ethnic, regional, and economic differences. The result is a new account of the role of new media technologies in facilitating international and interdisciplinary collaboration (and critique) in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Chapter one examines how political conceptions of communications and technology in the United States in the nineteenth century conditioned the understanding and deployment of media in the twentieth century, arguing that American liberals conceived of technical media as part of a neutral apparatus for overcoming ethnic, geographic, and economic difference in the rapidly expanding nation. Chapter two examines the development of new media instruments as technologies for reforming the natural and human sciences from the 1910s through the 1940s, with particular attention to programs administered by the Rockefeller Foundation. Chapters three and four examine the rise, in the 1940s and 1950s, of cybernetics and information theory as an ideal of scientific neutrality and political orderliness. These chapters demonstrate how programs sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, MIT, and other institutions shaped linguist Roman Jakobson’s and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s efforts to redefine their fields as communication sciences. Chapter five considers how critics of cybernetics, including Noam Chomsky, Claude Shannon, and Roland Barthes, critically re-evaluated the claims of cybernetics to redefine the relations between technical research and the human sciences.”

PhD dissertation
Northwestern University & Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, 2012
262 pages

Related paper by the author: From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus (Critical Inquiry 38, Autumn 2011)

PDF (6 MB, updated on 2021-3-9)
EPUB (2 MB, added on 2021-3-9)