Filming the World Laboratory

Cybernetic History in Das Netz

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What does it mean to be part of a cybernetic system? For a conscious human being it means taking part in an evolving loop, where you are both the subject and the object of experimentation. This is the relation that has developed between scientific inquiry and world-changing technology. Researchers reshape the environment that defines them, and vice-versa. Such self-affecting loops are the vectors of a radical constructivism, an artificialization of existence. Their content and their continuous metamorphosis are what gives form to life in a cybernetic society.

From its earliest beginnings in logic and control engineering, cybernetics grew to become not a single discipline but a full-fledged scientific paradigm, based on the concepts of purpose, information, feedback, circular causality and dynamic equilibrium. Warren McCulloch conceived this science as an “experimental epistemology”: a way of knowing continually tested and modified through laboratory investigations which only that particular way of knowing makes possible.1 Biological processes and man-machine interactions were the initial sites of cybernetic investigation. But as the paradigm expanded, thanks to the patronage of Anglo-American research administrators in the 1940s and 1950s, the laboratory shifted its sites of inquiry from the deepest recesses of the mind to the entire range of social relations, before finally focusing on the most integrated circuit of them all, the ecosystem. Engineers, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, neurologists, linguists, psychiatrists, anthropologists and sociologists all made it their business to animate this experimental laboratory, in order to satisfy their own curiosity as well as the demands of the state, the military and the corporations. To the extent that such experimentation continues – using the almost limitless behavioral data furnished by the Internet – we are all part of a cybernetic system, which may be called the world laboratory. One crucial question for understanding the societies we live in today is how this laboratory has developed historically, on what basis, with which raw materials and to which ends: because only through its historical unfolding can an epistemology bring forth a world. Another crucial question concerns our own roles in the construction, alteration or rejection of the world laboratory.

Cybernetics was a hot topic in scientific journals and the mainstream press from the end of World War II until the late 1970s. Its public presence then declined, as the disciplines it had transformed began producing their own breakthroughs and as cognitivism arose to provide a more strictly objective paradigm for the sciences of mind. Mass access to the Internet in the 1990s gave millions of people their first chance to use the communications technologies that had been developed in the military labs, to experience their global reach and to verify that information, as Gregory Bateson had explained, is the “difference that makes a difference” in your own life. This turning-point in the experience of everyday existence was accompanied by a spate of fascinating books on the history of cybernetics, whose authors have become well known among hackers, cyberpunks, computer scientists and social theorists. But it was left to an artist and filmmaker, Lutz Dammbeck, to attempt a deeply historical and fully actual critique of this technological way of knowing, in a feature-length documentary film entitled Das Netz.2

Dammbeck is a former East German, born in 1948, the year that Norbert Wiener published his foundational work, Cybernetics: or Communication and Control in the Animal and the Machine. His distance from the Western euphoria over computers has given rise to the most probing and skeptical documentary film yet to be made about networked technologies. In the tense, militarized atmosphere of post-9/11 America, he uses interviews and archival research to explore the relations between the Internet, Adorno, LSD and the motivations of Ted Kaczynski: the mathematician, madman and violent eco-revolutionary known to the world as the Unabomber.

Pushing his outsider status to the hilt, Dammbeck raises questions that most American intellectuals do not dare to formulate, because they challenge our basic sense of legitimacy.3 Why did control engineering leave such a deep mark on postwar social science, and indeed, on the American psyche? How did avant-garde artistic culture become so entangled with the ultra-rationalized discourse of cybernetics and the libertarian techno-utopia of the Internet? What else might be strung on the red thread that binds together the Cold Warriors of repressive military psychiatry, the psychedelic Merry Pranksters of the 1960s and the hybrid entrepreneurs of the New Economy? And what were the motivations of the man who mailed deadly letter bombs to a number of figures located precisely within that paradoxical triangle?

Feedback in the Flesh

The film begins with artistic images, like Marshall McLuhan’s face distorted into a spiral on one of Nam June Paik’s early videos: an exploration of reality’s fundamental plasticity. Dammbeck uses a cool female voice-over for his distanced commentaries, but he also stages himself as a faux-naive narrator. He has just bought a new Macintosh: intrigued by the shared multimedia rhetoric of ’60s artistic vanguards and ’90s consumer electronics, he sets off on a trip to the USA, to do interviews with figures from the histories of experimental art and informatics. On the plane he sketches a network of interconnected concepts: Art, Technology, Computer. The network will morph and transform as the investigation continues. His first contact is John Brockman, a former investment banker who became the literary agent of a hybrid group of scientists, artists and entrepreneurs called “the Digerati.”4

Brockman sees technology as a fundamentally artistic or artificializing force. His reminiscences take us through a world of circuit diagrams, mainframe computers, avant-garde cinematographers and cybernetic theorists. He quotes the biologist J.Z. Young: “We create tools and then we mold ourselves in the use of them.” This is a doctrine of radical constructivism. But when Dammbeck asks Brockman about the Unabomber – who mailed a letter-bomb to David Gelernter, a member of the Digerati network – the businessman suddenly freezes up, cutting short the conversation and leaving the room. Such a brusque reaction only sparks the narrator’s curiosity. What might lie behind Brockman’s refusal to even speak about Ted Kaczynski? And why would anyone want to attack the Digerati?

John Brockman / Stewart Brand

The quest for an answer propels him from the New York skyscrapers to a houseboat on the San Francisco Bay, for an interview with another member of the Digerati: Steward Brand, the hippie promoter of cybernetics and back-to-the-land survivalism in the 1960s. Brand worked as an artist with the multimedia group USCO, then helped organize Ken Kesey’s acid tests in San Francisco. He traveled with the Merry Pranksters on Kesey’s psychedelic bus (described by Dammbeck as a “moving laboratory”) and along with copious doses of electric Koolaid he absorbed the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, Norbert Wiener and Gregory Bateson, using them to create the immensely popular Whole Earth Catalog. He went on to set up the pioneering WELL network in the 1980s, the forerunner of today’s virtual communities.5 In the film he appears as one of the cultural gurus of what Dammbeck calls “an alternative form of cybernetics,” marked by an enduring fascination for the libertarian appeal of “open systems.” His psychedelic catalogue featured cybernetic ideas and technologies alongside craftsman’s tools for ecological homesteaders. It also included the plans for the tiny backwoods cabin where Ted Kaczynski lived for some twenty-five years, writing the Unabomber Manifesto and fashioning his deadly letters.

Unlike Brockman, Stewart Brand admits to a contradiction in his vision, between ecology and computers. He acknowledges that he was eventually forced to choose, and he chose the side of technology. Yet he is still able to see down the road not taken. He describes Kaczynski as a classic counter-cultural figure, who used “vile means” to be sure, but whose legitimate critique of technological society was ultimately heard. With that admission, the scattered pieces of the film’s introduction fall into place. Dammbeck has gained a mandate to find out what it was about postwar cybernetic culture that drove Kaczynski to terrorism.

Scenes filmed by anarchist protesters skid erratically over the screen of the Macintosh, along with quotes from the Unabomber Manifesto urging the use of advanced technologies to distribute the anti-technological message. With these activist clips Dammbeck explores the revival of 1970s ecological critique in the turn-of-the-century revolt against the WTO in Seattle. Cut without transition to the sophisticated cityscapes of Boston and an astounding archival sequence, opening with architectural plans of MIT – a key site in the collaboration between universities and the military-industrial complex – then moving rapidly to the wartime career of Norbert Wiener, the invention of cybernetics and the rise of the United States to superpower status. “How does a utopia emerge?” asks the cool off-screen voice. “Does it come into being by chance, are there one or more inventors, or is there a plan?”

The images – German dive-bombers, circuit diagrams, cut-away anatomical heads, primitive mainframe computers – are strange, distant, arresting. They show the dramatic origins of a technological cosmos, an engineer’s universe of circuits and feedback loops: “The pilot becomes one with his plane, the boundary between man and machine is blurred, and what emerges is an anonymous mechanized opponent whose actions can be modeled in war labs.” Under the cybernetic gaze, the brain is no longer the place “where ego and identity are mysteriously created through memory and consciousness.” Instead, humanity has become a “flesh machine.” The sequence lingers over bluish recordings of carefully numbered neuroanatomical models and early mainframe computers, before culminating in excerpts from staged propaganda clips displaying the global command-and-control systems of the Cold War. In a vertiginous acceleration of historical time, we watch an arcane scientific theory become worldwide practice. Before gaining its aura of countercultural liberation, cybernetics would be the operating code of America’s imperial dominance in the postwar period.

Das Netz is a brilliantly constructed film, but the demands of its narrative flow permit only this brief evocation of the genesis of an experimental epistemology. Dammbeck recalls the key notions of informational feedback and error-correction along the pathway to a goal, as developed in Wiener’s writings, but he does not even mention the logical ancestor of cybernetic automation: the Turing machine, a conceptual model developed in the late 1930s by the British mathematician, Alan Turing. This theoretical device consists of a hypothetical mechanical “head” that can read and inscribe binary symbols (zeros and ones) on the square sections of an infinitely long tape, which it moves to the left or the right. The tape is processed according to “transition rules” stored in a “table”; any specific input on the tape will yield the output values of a particular mathematical function. As Turing noted, “it is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence.”6 The transition rules of all these singular machines could then be recorded on the tape itself, so as to constitute a “universal Turing machine” capable of performing every mathematical operation on every computable number. The abstract logic of this proposal – exactly what Deleuze and Guattari would later call an “abstract machine” – is what opened the way for the multipurpose computers that would be built after the war.

Yet Turing alone would not have led to the cybernetic paradigm. The striking images of anatomical models and the evocation of the “flesh machine” are the film’s allusions to the ground-breaking work of the neuroanatomist, Warren McCulloch, and the logician, Walter Pitts. Together they developed an intricate system for notating the pathways of electrochemical signals through networks of idealized neurons. Their notation was based on the assumption that each single neuron either fires or does not fire according to the kind and quantity of signals received from other neurons. What this means is that the brain, too, is conceived to function with a binary code of zeros and ones, just like the Turing machine. But in the brain as McCulloch and Pitts imagine it, computation does not proceed along an infinite linear tape. Instead, complex series of equations are mapped out as pathways through a finite network of neurons. Patterns of electrochemical impulses correspond to the propositions of symbolic logic, expressed in the mathematical terms developed earlier in the century by logical empiricists such as Carnap (with whom Pitts had studied).7 Thus, the very process of thinking in language becomes equivalent to neural computation. In this way, the two scientists arrived at their fundamental breakthrough, stated in the title of their 1943 paper: “A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.”8 What they had done was to map out the possible circuits of feedback in the flesh.

The crucial thing to realize is that this model of nervous activity both preceded and inspired the logical architecture of the computer, sketched out by John von Neumann in 1945 after he had encountered the work of McCulloch and Pitts.9 Yet their influence did not stop with the computer. The incarnation of Turing’s abstract machine in the anatomical model of neural nets served as the primary example of a potentially endless extension of computational intelligence into physical matter. This is what allowed cybernetics to become, not just a specialized domain of control engineering, but a general model for the informational manipulation of all dynamic systems, reiterating its structural principles in psychiatry, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, political science, genetics, etc.10 In a similar sense, Wiener would speak of cybernetics as the study of communication and control in both the animal and the machine. Today it is difficult to even imagine the prestige that came to surround this model, which promised both a unifying paradigm for the sciences and a formula for their application to the man-machine systems of industrialized society. The age of the world laboratory begins with the ambition to extend the universal model of coded informational loops into every substrate, whether physical or biological.

The influence of cybernetics was as international as American hegemony itself, and as Dammbeck shows, it responded to the need for procedures of control at a distance that had arisen during the multi-theater combat of WWII. These are the military realities that Internet enthusiasts of the 1990s were loath to remember, despite the inexorable rise of the surveillance society. Yet the extent of this influence on the social sciences and the humanities has been just as frequently neglected over the last twenty years, even as the everyday use of information technology has expanded. For example, very few students of linguistic theory now recall that Wiener’s founding book was first published in France at the instigation of a French editor, and that the information theory developed in parallel by Wiener and the telecommunications engineer, Claude Shannon, came to exercise a decisive influence on the linguist, Roman Jakobson, the anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan – in short, on the entire range of French structuralism.11 Without this background, how can post-structuralist theories be understood and evaluated? Even Félix Guattari’s fascination with abstract machines appears to have its origins in an ambiguous nexus of attraction-repulsion toward cybernetics, which would later morph into his post-68 opposition to Lacanian psychoanalysis.12

This kind of intellectual history is absent from Dammbeck’s film, which has a more pressing agenda. What’s represented on the screen is the relation of hunter and hunted, of attacker and target, from which the concepts of the feedback loop and the man-machine system first emerged. Das Netz provides a filmic approach to the “ontology of the enemy” that the historian of technology, Peter Galison, has identified at the origins of cybernetics.13 By focusing on the German bombers of the Battle of Britain and the response they elicited from Norbert Weiner, the film lets us see and feel how the victors of World War II internalized the aggressive science that informed the Nazi war machine. This rarely explored psychic drama could have been the subject of the entire documentary: the exchange of a deadly will to power between the two contenders for world hegemony.14 What both Dammbeck and Galison suggest is that the characteristic relations of this dialectical combat have been inscribed into the very circuits of cybernetic devices. But the film takes one step further than this, by analyzing the cultural and political articulations of postwar economic liberalism and thereby leading us onward to the more intricate and disorienting predicaments of the present. It shows how a command-and-control logic focused on the ontology of the enemy was transformed into its seeming opposite: the “open systems” of today’s supposedly borderless world society.

Another accelerated sequence evokes the Macy Conferences of 1946 to 1953, which gathered the outstanding minds of an era to develop the operating technologies of America’s new global governance. Conference members included McCulloch, Pitts, Wiener, Von Neumann, Bateson, Heinz von Foerster, Margaret Mead, Kurt Lewin and many others. These meetings wrote the prehistory of the digital age – but precisely here, where contemporary commentators locate the origins of computing, cognitive science and the Internet, Dammbeck shifts the focus to behavioral research in sociology and psychiatry. He claims that the participants “registered a particular interest” in a book called The Authoritarian Personality, published in 1950 under the direction of Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School.15 The authors, including T. W. Adorno, used the statistical methods of empirical sociology to analyze the American population for elements of the “authoritarian matrix” of traditional European nationalism, which in their view had given rise to fascism in Germany. The authoritarian matrix would have to be identified, dismantled and transformed to prevent any future outbreaks of racist or totalitarian aggression. This, for the filmmaker, is the focus of struggle on “the Cold War battlefield of the unconscious,” where cybernetics became the weapon of choice in the configuration of a new world order.

Macy Conferences / Authoritarian Personality

The evidence that Dammbeck can provide for direct connections between the Macy Conferences and The Authoritarian Personality is slim. But it is clear from the historical record that the dissolution of nationalist cultures and the creation of a new “world-mindedness” had been a major preoccupation of American social scientists since the 1940s. The total mobilization of the liberal principles of civilization against the Nazis led the anthropologist and future Macy Conference participant Margaret Mead to declare: “We must see this war as the prelude to a greater job – the restructuring of the culture of the world.”16 For Mead, cybernetics would be a vital contribution to this civilizing project, because it helped her see how change could be offered as a possibility to be freely chosen, rather than a straitjacket to be imposed by force. Victory in 1944-45 would set the stage for new and highly sophisticated forms of “democratic” social engineering.

Following his dialectical method, Dammbeck focuses on the contributions of the German émigré thinkers to the new American hegemony. The off-screen voice intones: “According to the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, a member of the Macy Group, the old values and balances must be destroyed, in order to make conditions ‘fluid.’” A cut to flashback-style images of laboratory surgery, followed by the zany oscillations of Nam June Paik’s electronic art, gives a hint of how such fluidity could be achieved. “Then it is possible to establish new balances and values,” the cool narrative voice continues. “Re-education will then develop into self-re-education. This would transform the world into a post-national, multi-ethnic society, with no fixed borders.” The scene cuts from a pharmaceutical production line of the 1950s, with thousands of little white pills flowing in even ranks toward their destinations, back to a contemporary American lunch-buffet under electric lights, filled with attractive and colorful dishes from around the globe. A standardized cube of orange jello trembles ever so slightly, like cellular plasma on a spoon.

At this point another figure enters the narrative: Henry Murray, who invented the Thematic Apperception Test used by the researchers of The Authoritarian Personality. Murray, a psychologist, had worked for the US government on a personality profile of Hitler, then devised stress-tests for soldiers. During the war he adopted the ideas of the World Federalist movement and argued for a process of global political unification, which, as he wrote in a letter to Lewis Mumford, “involves transformations of personality such as never occurred quickly in human history; one transformation being that of National Man into World Man.”17 As we hear in the film, “Murray sees psychology and the new social sciences as destined to make a contribution to a world that can live in peace and harmony: in a new world order, with world laws, a world police force and a world government.”

“New World Moral Order” (1942)

(for enlargement click on map; for further info click here)

These were the ideals of wartime liberalism, instituted by the United Nations, the World Health Organization and UNESCO, then revived in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the opening of international borders and the meteoric rise of the World Trade Organization. Yet here again we are invited to look at the dark side of the democratic project: for it was also Murray, the idealist of the post-war period, who administered damaging psychological tests to groups of Harvard students in the years 1949-1962. Ted Kaczynski was among the subjects in the year 1958. Although the laboratory reports of these studies have not been released, we know that the future Unabomber was given the code-name “LAWFUL.”

Dammbeck passes over the Harvard period very rapidly, retaining only key clues and symbols. Looking at the documents of the case, one discovers astonishing facts that underlie the tightly edited version of the story in the film. The year-long ordeal administered to the students by Henry Murray was designed to examine the effects of extreme psychological stress in order to improve screening and selection processes for the military. It required the participants to spend a month writing a statement of their highest ideals, in preparation for what they were told would be an inspiring discussion with a brilliant young lawyer. But in reality the lawyer’s role was to engage in character assassination, totally destroying the ideal ego of the experimental subject. For Murray, this one-to-one combat was a chance to explore the smallest of all social units, what he called “the dyad”: the exact point where psychology spills over into sociology. In other words, it was a chance to explore the psychodynamics of a social system under conditions of intense aggression, where the very plasticity of being is exposed to violent metamorphosis.18 Here again, at the heart of a carefully calibrated laboratory experiment unfolding in the calm and privileged atmosphere of a liberal university, we discover the ontology of the enemy.

Das Netz confronts us with the demons of the past: the inscriptions of the Cold War military-industrial complex on an individual psyche, standing in for the experiences of an entire population. But the important question is what this final avatar of military-industrial coercion could mean later on, in Ted Kaczynski’s adult life in 1970s and 1980s, and then again in our own era. What becomes of the world laboratory during the heyday of alternative cybernetics and “open systems”? And in what form do its violent experiments return, in the age of unlimited surveillance and the War on Terror?

Blowback in Society

The extravagant, utopian world of the year 2000, buoyed up by speculation on the Internet revolution, was suddenly shaken by the attacks of September 11. A forgotten atmosphere sprang back to the fore: executive privilege, domestic surveillance, military secrecy. Dammbeck’s strategy in Das Netz is to examine the networked society through the dark crystals of Cold War behavioral science, in the attempt to catch some prescient glimmer of America’s resurgent will to social control and sovereign power in the present. The intellectuals on whom he focuses all provide insights into the artificial nature of today’s society. During the 1940s, the sociologist Kurt Lewin was preoccupied with such questions as how to contribute to the war effort by changing the eating habits of average families. His highly influential research on group dynamics showed that citizens of a democracy could be far more effectively manipulated when they were given an active role in the process that changed their own beliefs.19 As for Henry Murray, his early work in personality assessment is considered “the first systematic effort to evaluate an individual’s personality to predict his future behavior.”20 It was subsequently used by the personnel departments of major corporations and by the CIA for the recruitment of foreign agents. Moreover, the personality assessment of Hitler which Murray produced during the war featured extensive commentary on the German national psyche, its relationship to the Nazi leadership and the most effective ways to shake that authoritarian grip and convert the population to a more liberal mentality.21 But it is the scholars with the least substantiated links either to the Macy Conferences or to Kaczynski – namely, the Frankfurt School and their study of The Authoritarian Personality – that allow Dammbeck to forge his most provocative speculations on the artificially induced “second nature” of contemporary society.

There is a parallel here with my own research into the psychosocial transformations of contemporary culture. In an essay called “The Flexible Personality,” published in 2002, I tried to show how a more pliable subjectivity emerged from the 1960s revolts against the military regimentation and industrial discipline that had produced the authoritarian character.22 The critique of the time was largely successful, according to this argument; but the openness of counter-cultural practices also proved remarkably amenable to the needs of the emerging neoliberal economy. The highly adaptive production system of the 1980s and 1990s, with its exaltation of mobility and its emphasis on cultural labor, was informed and qualified by the preceding attempts at a revolution of everyday life, whose demands for flattened hierarchies and spontaneous communications finally helped legitimate the new electronic toolkits and to distract attention from their built-in capacities for surveillance, exploitation and oppression. Flexibility, in short, was a ruse of capitalist history. Thus the authoritarian personality gave way to its dialectical successor.

Dammbeck’s analysis of Internet culture also hinges on this transition away from authoritarianism. But his conclusions are far more radical. Recurrent images of industrialized food services, coupled with scenes of people swallowing LSD on paper strips and sugar cubes, insinuate the idea that the fluid, borderless culture of a liberal “open system” was literally fed to Americans in the 1960s, along with the softer utopia of an alternative cybernetics. One generation later, he suggests, that same kind of culture was exported to the entire world by the multimedia magic of the Internet, bringing the liberal utopia to its culmination in the globalized economy. Here is where the focus on specific social scientists takes on an uncanny pertinence. It is as though Lewin’s experiments in manipulating a population’s eating habits with the full consent of the participating subjects had been applied on a massive scale, across several concerted waves of societal transformation.

No doubt this all sounds conspiratorial, if not frankly delirious. But when you know that the vast majority of early LSD research was sponsored by the CIA’s MKULTRA program – acting through the Macy Foundation among others – then such radical speculations take on their full significance.23 To be sure, as John Marks indicates, “the men from MKULTRA remained oblivious, for the most part, to the rebellious effect of the drug culture in the United States.”24 But as we have seen, nothing could be more widespread in postwar America than the involvement of social scientists in experiments seeking to impart the liberal values of a capitalist democracy even while insuring their military-industrial foundations. Where the CIA acted out brutal fantasies of “mind control” – going so far as to slip LSD-laced whiskey to unsuspecting clients in a phony brothel outfitted with two-way mirrors, or working with doctors who administered the drug in conjunction with electroshock therapy – social scientists like Murray and Lewin set up less intrusive, more rigorous and ultimately more effective experiments. What Das Netz asks us to perceive and measure are their continuing consequences on our own minds and sensoriums.

The most challenging thing the film suggests is that Ted Kaczynski was a distorted product of efforts to transform the national character: an unwanted side-effect of psychosocial engineering. As Dammbeck hints, at least some part of Kaczynski’s bizarre and twisted fate can be attributed to complex, time-delayed blowback from the American absorption of Nazi science after WWII. But this notion of unforeseen consequences takes on greater resonance when one reflects that just a few years after the publication of the Unabomber Manifesto, Al Qaeda emerged as blowback from the CIA’s attempts to subvert the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The post-9/11 atmosphere in which the film unfolds connects the isolated and eccentric American ecoterrorist to a far more successful movement of Islamist revolutionaries operating on the other side of the globe. The subject of the film now appears as a symbolic crystal, traversed in every direction by an uncanny system of interlocking fractures – or “circular causalities” – that allow the major conflicts of the present to be glimpsed in all their historical, spatial and ideological displacements. Behind them, what one begins to see is something like a cybernetic unconscious, structured at the level of entire populations by the unbearable coercion of command-and control experiments whose breakdown unleashes violence and psychic trauma. Yet as I said at the outset, in a cybernetic society, one is always both the object and the subject of the experiment. All that can be done with a powerful feedback loop is to subtly change its informational contents, its flow parameters, its intensity and modulation. Rather than remaining a neutral, external observer of American society, Dammbeck enters into the fractured networks of this dark crystal. He does so by exchanging letters with the letter bomber.

In a radical transgression of the unwritten law that bars the terrorist from ever appearing as a subject (or as an experimenter) Dammbeck lets Kaczynski speak for himself throughout the entire film, in haunting German phrases read aloud from his letters (German being one of the subjects at which the future Unabomber excelled in his Harvard days). The theme to which the prisoner continually returns in these letters is the right of resistance against a technoscientific utopia. Here is a key passage:

When I wrote that the concept of a “utopia” is crazy and dangerous, I didn’t mean that all utopias are crazy and dangerous, but rather the utopia that makes possible the creation of a society according to a specific, ideal design. You yourself, I am sure, will have your own idea of utopia. Someone else will have a different idea, which may diverge considerably from yours. How would you like it if he forced his utopia on you? Do you have the right to force your utopia on him?

Kaczynski’s rejection of the technoscientific utopia is based on arguments borrowed from deep ecology, or from mid-century critics of rationalization like Jacques Ellul. He asks whether one would want to live in a virtual world, where machines are smarter than men and all the animals and plants have been made artificial by the application of biotech. Dammbeck contrasts his resistance to the euphoric celebration surrounding the Internet, whose benefits nobody in the film seems able to question. “What do I have thus far?” he asks himself midway through the film. “I have a former mathematician, but none of my interview partners want to talk about his criticism of the system. And I have engineers and artists who are obsessed with technology.” News flashes about Afghanistan and Al Qaeda punctuate the media background as the filmmaker works his way through this national elation with the miracles of the Internet. The enthusiasm reaches its height in an interview with Robert Taylor, a former NASA engineer who managed the development of the Arpanet in the late 1960s under contract from the Pentagon, but who denies any connection between his own creation and “communication systems on today’s fully electronic battlefield.” In the opening scene of the interview where he will explain the genesis of the networked society, Taylor is shown playing the videogame Civilization on his desktop computer. One feels compelled to place the engineer’s enthusiasm and the ecoterrorist’s resistance within some larger societal pattern – or indeed, some wider net. What springs to mind is the extraordinary doctrine of a geostrategist working for the US Navy.

Robert Taylor, managing engineer, ARPANET

Over the last ten years, in a continuous stream of books, articles, websites and briefing sessions aimed primarily at the military, but also at the fears and hopes of a civilian audience, the idea-man Thomas P. Barnett proclaims that “disconnectedness defines danger.”25 He explicitly conceives the US military as the “enabler” of financially driven corporate globalization, whose “new rule sets” he studied in collaboration with the Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald in joint seminars held on the upper floors of the former World Trade Towers, before the firm’s offices and most of its personnel were blown to pieces on September 11. Emboldened by the real occurrence of what he had theorized as a “system perturbation,” Barnett attempted to sketch a new doctrine, and even a new geography, for the projection of US military force. Wherever flows of capital and communication are violently cut off or simply do not penetrate, he explained, the Pentagon must prepare to intervene. Not surprisingly, the areas he maps out as most likely for invasion – what he calls the “Non-Integrating Gap” – contain both the majority of the planet’s oil reserves, and the majority of its indigenous and Muslim populations. The map is a battle plan for America’s civilizing project in the twenty-first century. This the Great Game for the Pentagon’s cartographer. And the connectivity of the Internet that allows you to play it is literally the utopia that must be imposed upon world populations. It is “a future worth creating,” as he puts it in his recent book, Blueprint for Action.

Radical constructivism reaches its height in a networked map that is destined to become the territory. When official geostrategists publish books like Barnett’s, nothing remains for paranoid critics to reveal. Conspiracy theories of the Right and the Left pale before the doctrines of today’s world-shaping elites. But what Dammbeck adds to our understanding of cybernetics is not any unveiling of hidden secrets, but instead an ontological question. What about the ground realities of life and death, he asks, in a world that has instituted the shape-shifting potential of the virtual as its dominant order? This is the question that the Unabomber raises, when he refuses to be the recipient of a technological utopia imposed by others and sends them his deadly letters in return. To be sure, the filmmaker insists that the Unabomber is part of a system, that his feedback only adds to its implacable dynamics. Still he reiterates the terrorist’s question throughout the film, by quoting his correspondence and continually bringing up his name in the interviews with the cyber-elites. Responding, as it were, to Lacan’s early fascination with cybernetics, Dammbeck attempts to be “the instance of the letter” in the American technological unconscious.26 Yet what kind of reality principle does he bring to a civilization that has placed itself entirely within the realm of the signifier – transforming not just the mind but the world itself into a flesh-and-blood experiment with the mathematical formalisms of a universal Turing machine?

From the first scene of the film, Dammbeck places Das Netz beneath the fallen star of the mathematician Kurt Gödel, who proved the impossibility of laying a perfect axiomatic ground for the sciences, then lapsed into the waking nightmares of paranoia. An eerie psychedelic dirge by the Grateful Dead moans in the background; a hand-held video camera wavers through the forest toward the site of one of Kaczynski’s abandoned workshops. This text stands out against the pixellated trees:

In 1930, the Viennese mathematician Kurt Gödel shakes the foundations of mathematics with his incompleteness theorems. He demonstrates that in every formal-logical system there are problems that are not solvable or exclusively determinable.

Gödel appears as the tragic genius who exposed the gaping hole at the heart of early twentieth-century pretensions to certainty in mathematical physics. “The truth is superior to provability,” asserts Dammbeck in white letters on the screen. But at the center of his inquiries into the cybernetic theories of the late twentieth century, the filmmaker places a figure who both accepts and undermines that assertion: the brilliant Viennese physicist and philosopher of science Heinz von Foerster, who moved to the US shortly after the Second World War and became the secretary of the Macy Conferences. Von Foerster initiated the reflexive turn of second-order cybernetics in the early 1970s by insisting on the inseparability of all feedback systems from the thought-processes of their scientific observers.27 Interviewed shortly before his death in 2002, he repeats with childlike candor his belief in radical constructivism, that is, in the artificial nature of all perception, which is only brought to its specific forms through the creative activity of thinking. “The environment as we perceive it is our invention,” he wrote in his 1973 essay, “On Constructing a Reality.”28

Strangely enough, this apparently solipsistic proposal led him to a unitary theory of systems. In an initial interview with the scientist – whose recording he then watches on the fold-out screen of Dammbeck’s ever-present Macintosh – the self-reflexive Von Foerster explains that the Indo-European root of the word “science” (but also of “schism” and “schizophrenia”) is scy, which means to separate; whereas the root sys points in the opposite direction, toward ideas of joining, merger, integration. Systems theory is an attempt to go beyond the split between observer and observed. What he sees as common to both research and art is the movement “from science to systemics.”

Heinz von Foerster

Von Foerster was both a contract researcher for the military and a fundamental critic of instrumental reason in the sciences, deeply interested in the social contestation of the 1960s and close to the radical Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. His insistence on a self-reflexive ethics of the observer’s role within any observed system gradually permeated all of cybernetic thinking, ultimately drawing it outside the pale of the objective sciences and thus effecting a deep epistemological subversion. Seen from this angle, Von Foerster becomes something like a double-agent in the American technoscientific establishment. Yet here again, one must remain aware of the ambiguity that presides over the passage from the 1960s to the 1980s. For in the new era of the world laboratory inaugurated by massively distributed networked communications, Von Foerster’s enchanting system of self-constructed representations would become yet another justification for an entire world of simulacra and simulation, an integrated “Matrix” of semiotic illusions without any critical divide, without any trait of distinction or separation. The social order that arose in the the period of financialized abundance, after the paranoiac nightmares of the Cold War, would increasingly appear as a kind of total, all-embracing hallucination, a system of perpetually suspended disbelief whose unstable equilibrium is maintained by the continuous computerized production of images and signs, constantly adapted by networked feedback to the changing fantasies and desires of entire populations. It is this overwhelmingly fictional world, still trembling with the shock of terrorist attack, that Dammbeck encounters in America.

Despite the intense critique that permeates the film, something about Von Foerster’s ambiguous philosophy clearly appeals to the author of Das Netz. Indeed, the self-reflexive visual trope that recurs with subtle variations in each interview, when the filmmaker shows the subject framed between a video recorder and its real-time output on the screen of his personal computer, can be seen as an artistic homage to the constructivist epistemology of Heinz von Foerster. If an all-embracing utopia of command and control has been deconstructed, Dammbeck seems to ask, does that give us a fresh chance for face-to-face dialogue? Or does it resolve into nothing more than myriad representations of irrevocably different worlds, each of them archived solipsistically in our personal computers? This was the kind of dilemma with which the second-order cyberneticians had to grapple, when they set out on their quest to understand how the human activity of representing and modeling both natural and social processes inevitably contributed to shaping and altering those very same processes.

On the one hand, the exploration of the individual’s ethical position within the collective activity of scientific modeling could point outside the instrumental logic of the world laboratory and beyond the notion of “experimental epistemology,” toward an ecological understanding of the interdependency of living beings. This would be the path of Gregory Bateson, of Francisco Varela, of Félix Guattari, whose work I will describe in a following essay. On the other hand, it could lead to an infinite multiplication of clearly circumscribed and incommensurable world-models, open to manipulation by anyone with a superior understanding of the modeling process and its effects on the lives of those who engage in it. This would be the path that was massively taken by the entrepreneurial cultures of the new economy, giving rise to the highly sophisticated productive devices of the control society, in which most forms of artistic creativity are now caught and instrumentalized for financial, ideological and military purposes.

The second cybernetics would be far more expansive than the first, creating an entire universe of fictions. For the Viennese philosopher of science, even the subatomic particles studied by contemporary physicists are mere inventions, ways to patch holes in inadequate theories. Yet unlike Gödel, Von Foerster is not paranoid and betrays no particular anxiety about scientific incompleteness. “All that is relevant” he concludes in his discussion of the new subatomic models, “is how interesting a story each one invents to explain the origin of the universe.” He goes on to describe physics as a cosmological struggle between different poets, and when Dammbeck asks whether a theory full of holes isn’t an uncertain and dangerous basis for a worldwide system of networked machines, he offers this reply:

– “All theories are correct… because they can all be deduced from other theories… It goes on deducing indefinitely… That’s the good thing about it. You can go on forever.”

– “In logic,” chides the interviewer.

– “Yes, precisely,” replies the cybernetician.

– “But in reality?” asks Dammbeck insistently.

Von Foerster protests that there is no reality, he continues his excited gesturing. The scene is extraordinary: a wizened old man on the edge of the grave, discovering dazzling new universes. In a few minutes of candid philosophical testimony, one of the last living participants of the Macy Conferences reveals the underlying structure of the “mirror worlds” that were described in the the 1990s by the Internet enthusiast David Gelernter – the member of the Digerati who was targeted by Kaczynski.

For Gelernter, the founder of a dotcom company, the multiplication of informational worlds is simply advantageous – it offers an easier way to contact obscure offices at his university.29 For Kaczynski, who blew off Gelernter’s hand and eye with a letter bomb, the replication of the human world in a virtual counterpart is a threat, a shattering of nature’s wholeness. For Von Foerster, the self-fragmenting structure of linguistic reflexivity is itself absolute: the cybernetic system is the unity of its infinite divergences, an infinitely expanding mirror-world inherent to humanity’s very powers of creation – and therefore, a second nature of a higher and more complex logical order. Three figures of truth dispute the stage, beyond all provability. Still it is Dammbeck’s insistent question that makes the deepest impression on our minds. Is logic the only fundament of human existence? Can representations be multiplied to infinity? Where is the ground of reality in this worldwide system of machines?

.

Kurt Gödel

.

NOTES

1 Laboratory research into the ways of knowing reality was exemplified for McCulloch by a paper he co-authored with J.Y. Lettvin, H.R. Maturana and W. Pitts, “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain” (1959), reprinted in Warren McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind (Cambridge: MIT, 1965), pp. 230-55. Also see McCulloch’s preface to the book.

2 Lutz Dammbeck, Das Netz, 121’, 2003; released on DVD with English subtitles as The Net: The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet. (In the quotes that follow I have retranslated a few of the phrases from the original German, for minor questions of style.)

3 The only recent critique of comparable depth and radicality was proposed by the French ultra-left group Tiqqun, “L’hypothèse cybernétique,” in Tiqqun 2 (2002).

4 Cf. John Brockman, Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite (San Francisco: Hardwired, 1996).

5 For Brand’s ideas and career, see the critical biography by Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press, 2006).

6 Alan Turing, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,”Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society 2, vol. 42 (1937), pp. 230-65.

7 The foundations of the mathematicized logic used by McCulloch and Pitts are Rudolf Carnap, The Logical Syntax of Language (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937) and Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica (Cambridge University Press, 1997/1st ed. 1910).

8 Reprinted in Warren McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind, op. cit.

9 John von Neumann, “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” (transcribed typescript of contract research for the US Army Ordnance Department: University of Pennsylvania, Moore School of Engineering, June 30, 1945), section 4.2; available (among others) at http://www.virtualtravelog.net/entries/2003-08-TheFirstDraft.pdf.

10 On the role of the McCulloch-Pitts model in the establishment of the cybernetic paradigm, cf. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, The Mechanization of the Mind: On the Origins of Cognitive Science (Princeton University Press, 2000/1st French edition 1994), pp. 58-63.

11 The influence of cybernetics on structuralism is discussed in The Mechanization of the Mind, ibid., pp. 15-22, and Céline Lafontaine, “The Cybernetic Matrix of ‘French Theory,’” in Theory, Culture & Society 24/5 (2007).

12 As Guattari writes in the autobiographical text “So What”: “For as long as I can remember, I was preoccupied with joining together different different layers of things which fascinated me: the philosophy of science, logic, biology, early works in cybernetics, militantism…” Félix Guattari, Chaosophy (New York: Semiotext(e), 1995), pp. 7-8.

13 Peter Galison, “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision,” in Critical Inquiry 21/1 (Fall 1994).

14 The covert programs to extend US citizenship to German scientists after WWII (operations “Overcast” and “Paperclip”) are discussed in Christopher Simpson, Blowback: The First Full Account of America’s Recruitment of Nazis, and its Disastrous Effect on our Domestic and Foreign Policy (New York: Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1988), pp. 27-39.

15 Max Horkheimer, T.W. Adorno et. al., The Authoritarian Personality (New York: Harper, 1950).

16 Margaret Mead, And Keep Your Powder Dry (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1971/1942), p. 261.

17 Quoted in Alston Chase, Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist (New York: Norton, 2003), p. 257.

18 See the chapters on Murray in Harvard and the Unabomber, ibid, pp. 228-94.

19 Cf. Martin Gold, ed., The Complete Social Scientist: A Kurt Lewin Reader (Washington: American Psychological Association, 1999), chapters 10 and 11, “The Dynamics of Social Change” and “Group Decision and Action.”

20 John Marks, The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control (New York: Norton, 1991/1st ed. 1979), p. 19.

21 Henry Murray, “An Analysis of the Personality of Adolf Hitler,” typescript, O.S.S. Confidential, October 1943; available from Cornell University Law Library at http://library.lawschool.cornell.edu/WhatWeHave/SpecialCollections/Donovan/Hitler/Hitler-TOC.cfm. Cf. esp. p. 41, where Murray discusses the need for the “Substitution of a Higher Symbol” such as “World Federation” or “World Conscience” as an object for German national identification.

22 Brian Holmes, “The Flexible Personality: For A New Cultural critique,” in Hieroglyphs of the Future: Art and Politics in a Networked Era (Zagreb: Arkzin/WHW, 2002); available at http://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/1106/holmes/en.

23 See the discussion of Fremont-Smith’s relations with LSD researcher Harold Abramson (who also attended the Sixth Macy Conference), in Steve Joshua Heims, Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group, 1946-1953 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), pp. 167-68.

24 John Marks, The Manchurian Candidate, op. cit., p. 127.

25 This is the leitmotif of Thomas Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Putnam, 2004).

26 Cf. Jacques Lacan, “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” in Bruce Fink, tr., Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English (New York: Norton, 2006); here Lacan describes the divide between signifier and signified as the “algorithm” that grounds the modern science of linguistics, p. 497.

27 See the discussion in Katherine N. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (University of Chicago Press, 1999), chap. 6, which stresses the primary importance of Varela and Maturana in this relfexive turn. Indeed, Maturana was a participant in the research project on the frog’s eye that exemplified McCulloch’s experimental epistemology (cf. note 1).

28 Heinz von Foerster, “On Constructing a Reality” (1973), in Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition (New York: Springer, 2003), p. 212.

29 Cf. David Gelernter, Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox… How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean (Oxford University Press, 1992). Writing before the invention of the web, Gelernter was prophetic: “A Mirror World that encompasses a large hospital or university or a moderate-sized company is an enormous, complicated structure. A City Mirror World is immense. And such programs will blend as they grow, eventually encompassing many universities, or every hospital in the region, or all the somethings in the country or, conceivably, in many countries” (p. 35).

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8 Responses to “Filming the World Laboratory”

  1. Cybernetics and the World Laboratory « ubiwar . conflict in n dimensions Says:

    [...] the World Laboratory Posted in ubiwar by Tim Stevens on October 15th, 2008 Brian Holmes on Filming the World Laboratory, ostensibly a review of Lutz Dammbeck’s film Das Netz (2003). This is a quick post before I [...]

  2. Mayo Says:

    So, What do we do?

  3. Cybernetic History in Das Netz « Pica10 Says:

    [...] Please read Brian Holmes’ article. [...]

  4. Book Materials « Continental Drift Says:

    [...] 19-Filming the World Laboratory: [...]

  5. ben Says:

    well written.

  6. Book - machine quotidienne Says:

    [...] 18-Filming the World Laboratory: [...]

  7. Solidarity and Deterritorialization « Continental Drift Says:

    [...] mean to give a univocal reading of informationalism as some kind of dark plot. In my text Filming the World Laboratory I proposed looking at Von Foerster as a kind of double-agent within the military-industrial [...]

  8. Jozsef Says:

    This is a very thought provoking article. I have myself singled out maturana, varela, bateson, and foerster as representing a kind of light in the darkness of totalizing technomancy of informational metaphors. However even their well intentioned constructions are still quite useable by the system at large. I think we could even more broadly add some of the American Pragmatist tradition of William James et al as a kind of forerunners to experimental constructive epistemics. Indeed “Poison” Ivy Lee, Walter Lipmann and many of the other propagandists and PR men of the progressive era latched strongly onto the notion of “truth” as a kind of expedient social commodity to be constructed for immediate use then disbanded when opportunistic usually in the favor of corporate power or the creation of corporate image in the public mind.

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