Lecture Series

28 October 2022


Cybernetics in Britain


media lab


In his 1948 book, Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener gave the field its name, drawing together ideas about computing, information and feedback. Since then cybernetics as has developed in very different directions in different places, and in my talk, I trace its distinctive history as it has evolved in Britain.

I begin with the brain. Cybernetics grew out of an unusual view of the brain—as an organ of adaptation rather than cognition—and this led it to diverge radically from more conventional approaches to artificial intelligence. This is clear in distinctive cybernetic approaches to robotics (Grey Walter’s tortoises and Ross Ashby’s homeostats) and psychiatry (Gregory Bateson and Ronald Laing) and eventually led to highly imaginative projects in so-called biological computing. I then turn to the social sciences, reviewing Stafford Beer’s work from the 1960s to the present, focussing on his Viable System Model of organisations and management and his concept of Syntegration as a decentred approach to decision-making. Turning to the arts, I review Gordon Pask’s cybernetic artworks, running from his Musicolour machine in the early 1950s to the Fun Palace, conceived in the 1960s as a dynamic building that could reconfigure itself in use, which became the model for much contemporary work in adaptive art and architecture. My final example is the adaptive management of the Colorado River ecosystem as an illustration of a present-day cybernetic approach to the environment.

I emphasise throughout the unusual worldview or ontology that runs through British cybernetics—a view of the world as ultimately unknowable—and I discuss the politics of this. Cybernetics is often criticised as a science of control, but I point instead to the centrality in British cybernetics of decentred and non-hierarchical “conversation” rather than top-down control. I conclude with a discussion of cybernetics as an illustration of Yuk Hui’s concept of “cosmotechnics”—the idea that different cosmologies hang together with different technologies and techniques.

For much of his career, Andrew Pickering was a Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. He is now Professor Emeritus of sociology and philosophy at the University of Exeter, UK. He has held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and universities including MIT, Princeton, and Durham. He is a leading figure in science and technology studies and has published widely on the history, sociology and philosophy of science, technology and mathematics. His writings have been translated into many languages, including Chinese translations of his books Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics, Science as Practice and Culture and The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science. His most recent book is The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. He is now working on cybernetic relations with nature and cybernetic art.

About Lecture Series

The Lecture Series is an annual event revolved around a theme curated and presented by Media Lab, inviting scholars and artists from different fields to engage in a dialogue between art, technology, and philosophy to explore critical issues in media studies.