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.

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