Sunday, January 28, 2024


AI image generated via Dall-E 3: "cybernetics, but without using human form"

I have built a long enough list of words I have needed to look up to clarify their meaning, I could start my own dictionary – “proscribe”, “sententious”, “speechify”, “extant” and “disdain” have been my most recent additions. I like to be sure, and I want to be clear, so I need to use the right word if I can.

“Cybernetics” is one of those words for which I felt I should know the meaning, but the breadth of the subject made it hard to grasp in one go, when what I would like is a working definition that may form the basis of further discussion. Therefore, the grasping has become the discussion.

When I previously defined cybernetics here as “the science of control systems, communications and technology”, I was still under the impression that the term was mostly to do with technology, the prefix “cyber-” having been popularised in the 1980s by the cyberpunk movement of culture and literature. The use of “cyberspace” to describe online space also dates from then, but the word dates from the 1960s, “Atelier Cyberspace” having been the name of a husband-and-wife artistic group from Denmark producing installations about the management of physical space.

“Cybernetics”, both the word and the discipline, dates to 1948 and the publication of the book “Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” by Norbert Weiner, following a Greek word meaning “steersman”, but more usually translated as “governor”. This title is similar to definitions I found for “cybernetics” used by the Oxford English Dictionary at, and via the macOS Dictionary app, which used the Oxford Dictionary of English. Merriam-Webster is more detailed: “the science of communication and control theory that is concerned especially with the comparative study of automatic control systems (such as the nervous system and brain and mechanical-electrical communication systems).” This definition reads like it was written before technology captured the meaning of the first two syllables, examinations into artificial intelligence as part of cybernetics having begun further into the 1950s.

The most straightforward and useful definition of cybernetics I have found is in the book “Anti-Oculus: A Philosophy of Escape” by the artistic and philosophical collective Acid Horizon, published in 2023 by Repeater Books: “Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary science of control and communication. One can use cybernetics as a science to build social machines of control, and one can use cybernetics to analyse the machinations of production that attempt to direct and govern social reality.”

After positing that we have arrived at the “vision of ecstasy and anxiety all at once” promised by cyberpunk, the book explores how we can escape the management and control inherent in this “Cybercene”, by way of a manual produced by a fictional institute concerned with studying how systems organise, recognise and compartmentalise ourselves. The idea of this book is exciting, and it is my reason for making cybernetics that will come up here in future: it is “having a moment”. Deciding what kind of world you want to have starts with how the world acts with you, or on you.

Sunday, January 21, 2024


My musical listening journey has created a list of artists and bands for whom I don’t have a physical copy of any of their music, an omission to remedy someday: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, the Spice Girls and so on. Some works demand better than the lossy compressions of MP3 or streaming.

Kate Bush is a different matter. Upon realising I had none of her albums, I felt embarrassed by this admission - how can I have all of David Bowie’s studio albums, but nothing by Kate Bush? I practically ran to the nearest HMV to stock up: “Hounds of Love”, “The Red Shoes”, “Never For Ever”, “The Kick Inside” and “The Sensual World”, one each of what the store had in stock. 

My CD collection felt complete in that moment, and seemingly remains so until I decide I really need something by Pink Floyd, for Kate Bush always feels like a special occasion, whenever I hear a song by her, and no matter how often I hear those songs. 

From the ethereal nature of early hits like “Wuthering Heights”, “Them Heavy People” and “Wow”, to the spiky characters of “The Dreaming” album, and the triumph of both sides of “Hounds of Love”, Kate Bush’s output became better as more creative freedom was afforded to her, and her increasingly experimental albums, made in her own time, at home through technological advances and portability, like the Fairlight CMI album first used on “Babushka”, have allowed this experimentation and freedom to become mainstream.

My favourite Kate Bush album is 1985’s “Hounds of Love”, and my favourite song of her songs is “Running Up that Hill (A Deal with God)”, from the commercial-led side A of that album – the perceived failure of 1982’s “The Dreaming”, which still reached number 3 in the charts despite singles not charting, led to a compromise that put more avant-garde material onto side B, while also becoming Bush’s first album recorded entirely at home, in her own time, at her own pace.

“Running Up That Hill” reached number 1 in the UK singles chart for three weeks in June 2022, having been used as a plot device in the Netflix TV drama “Stranger Things”. Having a song that talks about exchanging sexes to achieve a greater understanding to have come back from 1985 to become more relevant and celebrated than ever intended, is perhaps one of the best things that could have happened in pop music, and it was entirely deserved – it was like us, as the audience, had caught up with the song at last.

Kate Bush’s last album of new material was 2011’s “50 Words for Snow”, a chamber-pop-jazz-ambient album based around a single theme, with no track shorter than seven minutes in length. There is a natural expectation for any future release, but I currently like to think that she thought long enough to make music her way, having achieved a position where she can make music entirely for herself, any clash this makes with the image of a publicly accessible rock star is her audience’s problem alone.  

Sunday, January 14, 2024


The BT Tower, seen from St Paul's Cathedral

Leaving home for work as usual, I opened the BBC Sounds app on my phone to play BBC Radio 6 Music. Chris Hawkins has a brilliant weekly feature about people’s names heard unintentionally during songs, and as the time for it approached, the app would not load. Sometimes it takes a while, but realising this was taking longer than usual, I opened my web browser to stream the station via the BBC’s website. This also failed to load, along with any other website I tried.

Arriving at my bus stop, unable to check why my phone had no internet signal, I hoped the bus company’s app will let me catch the bus. Restarting my phone did not re-establish any connection. Fortunately, I was able to carry on my journey, as whatever codes needed for the app to work today must have downloaded previously.

Unaccustomed to travelling in silence, and with my MP3 player at home, I was resigned to listening to music saved to my phone before the near-unlimited choice of a music streaming app made purchases rare. I compromised with the Muzak Corporation’s “Stimulus Progression 5” background music album, various songs by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and the reworked version of David Bowie’s 1987 “Never Let Me Down” album released in 2018, an interesting exercise that could still have been left alone. Listening to the sublime original “Rawlinson End” piece by Vivian Stanshall, I thought of looking up more information about it, then had to sit there realising I could not – I couldn’t leave my bus to work to stop at a library.

Finally logging into my work computer confirmed that Vodafone, my mobile network, had an outage of their 4G and 5G internet networks, but not phone calls and text messages – Vodafone introduced text messages to the world, so maintaining its use must be a point of pride. I thought the internet came back just before starting work at 9am, but this was after going to an area of the building with poor reception (the staff toilets) caused my phone to search out the still operating 3G network instead. This network will be phased out by Vodafone during 2024 to bolster 4G and 5G reception, a good idea in the circumstances, but GPRS (General Packet Radio Services), introduced in 2001 and still used for calls and messages, will remain.

Cybernetics is a subject I plan to discuss in greater detail in coming weeks, but nothing serves to focus your mind on the science of control systems, communications and technology than being temporarily kicked out of such a control system. As much as I would like to think I could live without the internet, I have surely arrived at the point where any period of disconnection will cause frustration. Its initial usefulness became a welcome extension of myself, and it may be time to properly make sense of that.

Everything was back to my new normal by 11am, and I listened to Chris Hawkins’ radio feature during lunchtime.

Saturday, January 6, 2024


The famous "South Park" disclaimer

Would saying “this article is based on a true story” make you more likely to read it?

Is this because you are assured of reading something true to life, inspired by real events, or because it will shed light on a wider truth? Or did I use it as a marketing tool, knowing it would work?

The truth is that I wrote “this article is based on a true story” on a Post-It note with no idea of what I meant by writing it, or of what I would do with it. This sums up my feelings about this phrase: by itself, it means nothing, but it is used to ascribe worth to other things.

Two examples of stories “based on a true story”, when they are not, are Joel & Ethan Coen’s 1996 film “Fargo”, which infamously begins with a message saying it is a true story, but in reality is a fictional story based around a real murder; and “Saturday Night Fever”, a film based on a “New York” magazine article of which its writer, Nik Cohn, revealed twenty years later was a fictional story, but inspired by people he met. “Based on a true story” perhaps sounds more “official” than “inspired by true events”, because that could feasibly be used to describe the inspiration for any and all stories.

An article on MTV’s website from 2005 quotes Joel Cohen from a “Time Out” magazine interview, which I have been unable to find online, saying “if an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.” The MTV article, by Karl Heitmueller, talks about the veracity of “The Amityville Horror” series of films, real-life atrocities being the reliable sponge base for many horror film cakes.

Disclaimer for the HBO film "Phil Spector" (2013)

For me, verisimilitude has more importance. The average Batman comic book story could be completely fantastical, from the villains to the technology deployed and the way Gotham City is portrayed, but there are elements of truth or realism that make the more outlandish elements plausible. I think this is why, in terms of the fictional stories I read or watch, I can get along with “Blade Runner” more than “Lord of the Rings” – the former, especially through its city setting, has a more immediately familiar verisimilitude to me from real life, while the rich world-building of the latter, well, builds its own plausibility, rewarding the audience’s attention.

I don’t find myself watching a straight drama very often – that is, one not tinged by a genre, like science fiction. One was “Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War”, a 2012 Australian two-part mini-series about the commercial professional cricket tournament set up for a media mogul’s television network. The two characters that drew me the most into the story were TV executive Gavin Warner, who bore the pressure of making this outlandish idea work, and Packer’s personal assistant Rose, both reflecting and deflecting her employer’s monstrous personality. 

At the end of the second episode, I saw the cast explicitly listed them as “fictional character[s]”. At the time, I felt a little like I had wasted my time in watching scenes that did not happen, but I recognised this artistic license was needed for the story to work as a drama – a talking heads-style documentary, or even a docudrama, could give you the facts efficiently, but making an emotional connection requires a different approach. I did like the fact that the credits were honest - the creation of a fictional assassin in the 1932 MGM film "Rasputin and the Empress", and the defamation trial that followed, prompted the adoption of the famous disclaimer “The events and characters depicted in this photoplay are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

In 2023, “Based on a True Story” was used to name a TV comedy series about an estate agent with a “true crime”-themed podcast, also named “Based on a True Story”. The success of this series may determine future (over-)usage of the phrase.