Lecture Series

04 November 2022


Cybernetics Across Cultures:
The Localization of the Universal


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The history of cybernetics is a story of crossing cultural, political, and disciplinary boundaries. In 1948 Norbert Wiener introduced a new, “universal” language, which I call “cyberspeak,” which tied together a diverse set of human-machine metaphors. Cutting across various disciplines – computing, information theory, control theory, neurophysiology, and sociology – cybernetics described living organisms, control and communication devices, and human society in the same cybernetic terms—information, feedback, and control.

Traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and then to the Soviet Union, cybernetics changed its guise multiple times: it appeared at different times and places as an instrument for devising sophisticated weapons, a theoretical underpinning for the freedom of speech, a method for designing intelligent machines, a model for describing the functioning of the human brain, a vehicle of interdisciplinarity, and a tool for reforming the theoretical apparatus of a wide range of life and social sciences with formal models from mathematics and computing. At times filled with strong ideological messages, at other times it was presented as allegedly politically neutral. Every time cybernetics crossed a new cultural, political, or disciplinary boundary, its connotations were questioned, and new ones attached.

One particularly salient example of the localization of the universalist aspirations of the cybernetic movement is the design of computer programs capable of carrying out some human cognitive tasks, known as Artificial Intelligence (AI). Both American and Soviet scientists believed that there existed a general, universal, ahistorical mechanism of human thought. Yet as those scientists themselves belonged to different cultures, they had distinct, culturally specific intuitions of human thinking. The “humans” whom they took as universal categories were, in fact, people who belonged to specific cultures. Two metaphors capture crucial differences in the cultural stereotypes of thought and behavior reflected in AI systems implemented in the Soviet Union and the United States. Life as a maze – a labyrinth in which we must find the right path – became the central metaphor for American AI. For Soviet AI specialists, the central metaphor for decision-making was not the search in a fixed labyrinth, but the flight of a butterfly, charting its flight trajectory through random streams of air. When trying to grasp universality, AI models manifested just the opposite – the specificity of different national cultures.

Slava Gerovitch teaches history of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He holds two PhDs: one in philosophy of science (from the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences and Technology in Moscow) and one in history and social study of science and technology (from MIT's Science, Technology and Society Program). He has written extensively on the history of Soviet mathematics, cybernetics, cosmonautics, and computing. He is the author of From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (MIT, 2002), which won an honorable mention for the Vucinich Book Prize for an outstanding monograph in Russian studies, Voices of the Soviet Space Program: Cosmonauts, Soldiers, and Engineers Who Took the USSR into Space (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), and Soviet Space Mythologies: Public Images, Private Memories, and the Making of a Cultural Identity (University of Pittsburgh, 2015), the winner of the Gardner-Lasser Aerospace History Literature Award and a finalist for the Historia Nova Prize for the best book on Russian intellectual and cultural history. His current research project, based on more than 90 oral interviews, is to study the “parallel social infrastructure” of Soviet mathematics, which the mathematical community created to circumvent political and administrative barriers at official academic institutions.

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.