, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 519–524

Cybernetics as a usable past

Andrew Pickering: The cybernetic brain: Sketches of another future. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, x+526pp, US$55.00 HB
Essay Review

DOI: 10.1007/s11016-010-9497-x

Cite this article as:
Kline, R.R. Metascience (2011) 20: 519. doi:10.1007/s11016-010-9497-x

The Cybernetic Brain is a strange, wonderful, and frustrating book. Beautifully written, passionately argued, and based on a decade’s worth of research, the book presents a detailed, wide-ranging history of British cybernetics as a usable past to challenge how we think about science and modernity.

A sociologist of science who has written landmark books on quarks and “posthumanist” science studies, Pickering explains that Cybernetic Brain “is very much my own history of cybernetics in Britain—not a comprehensive survey, but the story of a set of scientific, technological, and social developments that speak to me for reasons I will explain and that I hope will interest others” (4). To create his own history of cybernetics, Pickering follows a strand of research extending from the work of two first-generation British cyberneticists—brain scientists W. Grey Walter and W. Ross Ashby—to that of second-generation researchers Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask, a strand that extends from the late 1940s to the 1970s. The psychiatric research of Gregory Bateson and R. D. Laing is considered with the first group. Along this strand, Pickering studies cybernetics in practice rather than the history of ideas, the performative rather than the representational aspect of British cybernetics. He emphasizes, for example, the unpredictable exploratory movements of Walter’s “tortoises” (small-scale electronic robots), rather than Walter’s attempts to use those movements to understand and represent the functioning of the human brain. In this trajectory of research, British cybernetics was transformed from the “science of the adaptive brain” (8) in the early 1950s, as instantiated in Walter’s tortoises and Ashby’s electromechanical “homeostat” model of the brain, into a “protean science” of the 1960s and 1970s, symbolized by Pask’s design of the Fun Palace, an interactive and adaptive architectural project, and Beer’s Project CyberSyn, an interactive computer system built to run the Chilean economy.

Research on the “cybernetic brain” as adaptive and performative, rather than representational, speaks to Pickering because it illustrates the thesis of his book, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (1995): that science is best understood as a performative “dance of agency” between reciprocally and temporally emergent material and human agency, in which human actions accommodate the resistance of materiality and knowledge (representations) is produced through this mangle of practice.

In Cybernetic Brain, Pickering argues that British cybernetics provides examples of a “nonmodern performative ontology” (22) as an alternative to the representational “dualist ontology” (18) of modernity (using the term “nonmodern” in a Latourian sense, p. 18). He studies a nonmodern ontology that “goes with a performative understanding of the brain, mind, and self, and which undoes the familiar Western dualism of mind and matter, resonating instead with many Eastern traditions” (13). Key to this interpretation is the idea, expressed by Beer, of the unknowability of “exceedingly complex systems.” Pickering contrasts this “ontology of unknowability” (23, his emphasis) with the knowability of systems assumed by modern science. Drawing on Heidegger’s notions of enframing and revealing, Pickering maintains that past examples from British cybernetics “demonstrate concretely and very variously the possibility of a nonmodern stance in the world, a stance of revealing rather than enframing, that hangs together with an ontology of unknowabilty and becoming. Hence the invitation to see the following scenes from the history of cybernetics as sketches of another future, models for another way to go on…” (33). An alternative to enframing is necessary because of such disasters as the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, caused by 150 years of attempts to control the Mississippi River. Pickering does not aim at replacing modernity and representationalist science with performative cybernetics but at offering an alternative vision that will challenge the dominant way of understanding the world.

The stakes could not be much higher in a book on the sociology, philosophy, and history of science and technology! I will limit my critique to Pickering’s history of British cybernetics, which makes up the vast majority of the book and which forms the basis for the usable past he employs to challenge modernity.

The strength of Cybernetic Brain from my viewpoint as a historian of technology and science resides in the detailed and analytically rich accounts of the work of four British cyberneticists: Walter, Ashby, Beer, and Pask. Pickering carefully explains his principles of historical selection and states that he is following the performative thread of their work, not representation unless it forms a “hybrid ontology” of the nonmodern and modern. Even with that caveat, the book gives the best account to date of British cybernetics in the Cold War. Pickering devotes a long chapter to each of the four cyberneticists and a shorter, weaker chapter to Laing and Bateson (Bateson’s well-known “epistemology of cybernetics” is not discussed, for example). In each of these chapters, Pickering gives a brief biography of the cyberneticist, a technical discussion of his projects (amply illustrated by over eighty figures in the book), briefly puts the work in an intellectual context (e.g., British psychiatry for Walter and Ashby), explains how the projects exemplify a cybernetic ontology, considers the social basis of the research (typically marginalization), and gives examples of cybernetics as a protean science (how the research influenced later work in music, art, architecture, and politics from the 1950s to the present). In the chapter on Grey Walter, for example, we read about the original tortoises, modifications to them, and psychological experiments on “flicker” (flickering lights producing visual effects). Then, Pickering recounts such sixties phenomena as the strobe lighting Dream Machine (derived from flicker) and biofeedback music, as well as the Walterian-inspired robotics of Rodney Brooks, who currently directs MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In the chapter on Beer, we read about a wide range of projects: the cybernetic factory, computing with biological components, Project CyberSyn, and Team Syntegrity (a New-Age management decision-making process), before learning about cybernetics as the basis for Brian Eno’s music and recent attempts to build biological computers.

Pickering generally keeps in mind the temporal contexts of this impressive range of topics within each chapter, while also analyzing in-depth the research of the four cyberneticists. I was impressed by the analysis of Ashby’s well-known homeostat and his less well-known electronic synthetic brain DAMS (Dispersive and Multistable System), whose chaotic behavior led Ashby to abandon the project in the late 1950s. Pickering’s deep knowledge of Ashby’s voluminous publications and notebooks (now online) adds much to the richness of this chapter. Pickering’s explanation of why artists, musicians, and the counterculture have been drawn to cybernetics since the 1950s is insightful. He points to two sorts of resonances: between the performativity of British cybernetics and the performativity of avante garde art, music, and architecture—including some work by Pask; and between the ontology of unknowability of British cybernetics and the precepts of Eastern religion. I prefer the cultural–historical approach to these connections taken, for example, by Fred Turner, who showed how Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolutionary Quarterly, drew on Norbert Wiener’s and Gregory Bateson’s versions of cybernetics to help form the “cybernetic counterculture” in the 1960s, and by Christina Dunbar-Hester, who explained how experimental musicians drew on cybernetics in a variety of ways from the 1950s to the 1970s.1 Yet, Pickering’s ontological argument opens up a new avenue of research.

While Pickering’s methodology of following a strand of performative research leads to an enriched understanding of British cybernetics, it raises several issues about what is left out of the story. The military support of cybernetics during the Cold War is a case in point. Pickering notes, for example, that the US military (the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force, and the Army) funded Pask’s work on adaptive training systems for 15 years, gives details of it in a long footnote, and says it helped Pask pay the bills. But he characterizes the research as “another example of the typically nomadic patterns of propagation and evolution of cybernetics” (361), rather than analyzing the military’s interest in cybernetics. A good deal of that interest had to do with bionics, an Air-Force-supported research area established by cyberneticists Warren McCulloch, Heinz von Foerster, and others in the United States in the early 1960s. Bionics researchers looked to biological systems as models for designing robust electronic weapons systems, to solve the problem of the “organized complexity” of technological systems identified by Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation in the late 1940s. Bionics and the related area of self-organizing systems provided the rationale for the ONR and the Air Force to fund von Foerster’s Biological Computing Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois. The BCL funded Ashby when he moved to Illinois in the early 1960s.2 Pask attended two ONR-sponsored conferences on self-organizing systems held at Illinois in 1960 and 1962. His paper at the second conference was funded by the bionics office of the Air Force.3 Pickering attributes Beer’s reading of “biological organisms as exemplary of the structure of viable systems in general” to Beer’s earlier attempts to make computers out of biological materials (a much different approach than that taken at the BCL, which made computers out of electronic neural nets). To me, Beer’s project is in the mode of bionics. He consulted for the BCL, and his idea of “exceedingly complex systems” has a bionic flavor. More importantly, the tie to self-organizing systems and bionics suggests that one source of the performative aspect of later British cybernetics may have been military funding, an association downplayed by Pickering.

Focusing on performativity also ignores the widespread appeal of representation in the broad field of cybernetics, and in British cybernetics in particular. Pickering notes the hybrid ontology of performance and representation in the work of Walter and Ashby, but he de-emphasizes it in Pask and Beer. He mentions British cyberneticist Frank George as the first head of the Department of Cybernetics at Brunel University but does not say that George programmed digital computers to model psychological and biological systems. George stated in 1965, “Cybernetics is concerned with models,” by which he primarily meant representational models. The statement applies to the majority of the published work identified as cybernetics in Britain and the USA at this time.4

This is not a problem for close readers of Cybernetic Brain because Pickering clearly states that he ignores representation unless it relates to performativity. But his decision early in the book to drop the qualifier “British” from “cybernetics” unless it is needed for clarification (6) often leaves the impression that the book’s arguments apply to cybernetics in general or, at a minimum, to all of British cybernetics. A more accurate description would have been “British cybernetics in the performative mode of Walter, Ashby, Beer and Pask.”

Contemporary criticism of cybernetics is another issue. Pickering explains well why British cybernetics had a marginal institutional status, and he defends the performative version of cybernetics against the criticism that it is an Orwellian science of control. But he ignores criticisms of the field made at the time by the cyberneticists themselves. In 1969 Grey Walter stated that a “peculiar gap between theory and practice is a feature of cybernetics, and may account for the disrepute which has accumulated around the term. So often has a cybernetic analysis merely confirmed or described a familiar phenomenon in biology or engineering–so rarely has a cybernetic theorem predicted a novel effect or explained a mysterious one.” Michael Apter, who did his Ph.D. under Frank George, analyzed this type of criticism and several others in 1972. While Pickering celebrates the embrace of cybernetics by artists, musicians, and the counterculture, Apter complained that cybernetics, his chosen research field, attracted a “lunatic fringe.”5

How much do these criticisms matter to Pickering’s larger project? It is obvious that Pickering cares about writing the best history he can of British cybernetics along the performative strand. The detailed accounts based on research in published and unpublished primary sources, and his care to indicate which strands he does not follow, attest to that. Pickering’s history of cybernetics is thus more than a personal resource lode from which to mine examples about how to rethink science and modernity. It is probably the best account of the core group of British cyberneticists (Walter, Ashy, Beer, and Pask) that we will have for a long time to come. Historians of science and technology will wish that the broader context of the four cyberneticists had been fully taken into account (the extensive, discursive footnotes point to some of those contexts) and that he had paid much more attention to the representational aspects of their work (the material on ontological hybridity of Walter and Ashby is fascinating). Not fully dealing with representation may also be an issue for British cybernetics’ value as a usable past. If more ontological hybridity exists than Pickering indicates, especially in the work of Beer and Pask, what are we to make of that (a favorite turn of phrase in the book)? What would it say about Pickering’s suggestion to teach cybernetics widely at the college level to provide an alternative vision of science if representation was woven into performativity for all of the British cyberneticists? Whatever the answer to that research question might be, it is clear that Cybernetic Brain is a good history of British cybernetics and a good “book to think with”6 for historians of science and technology.


Turner (2006) and Dunbar-Hester (2010).


Kline (2009), on 345–348.


Müller and Müller (2007), Fig. 1–4, on 31; and Pask (1962). Ashby and Beer also attended the 1960 conference.


George (1965), 30; and Kline (2009), 351.


Walter (1969), on 94; and Apter (1972), on 111.


I borrow the phrase from Boczkowski (2004).


Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Science and Technology Studies Department, 334 Rockefeller HallCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

Personalised recommendations