H/T to Melanie Doherty for turning me on to this book (her judgment never steers me wrong). If you haven’t come across it already, go out and get yourself a copy of John Johnston’s Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI immediately. This is quite simply the most exciting book I’ve read in recent memory and one I wish I’d come across when I was writing The Democracy of Objects (certain aspects of Johnston’s book are what I wish I’d written). I consider my version of object-oriented ontology “cybernetic-OOO”. That is, I conceive my objects as cybernetic machines in a continuous interplay with their environment. For those of you not familiar with cybernetics– and I’m always amazed that people aren’t screaming cybernetics from rooftops everywhere –wikipedia gives a somewhat accurate definition of what it’s all about:
The term cybernetics stems from the Greek κυβερνήτης (kybernētēs, steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder — the same root as government). Cybernetics is a broad field of study, but the essential goal of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with desired goal, and again to action. Studies in cybernetics provide a means for examining the design and function of any system, including social systems such as business management and organizational learning, including for the purpose of making them more efficient and effective.
Cybernetics was defined by Norbert Wiener, in his book of that title, as the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Stafford Beer called it the science of effective organization and Gordon Pask extended it to include information flows “in all media” from stars to brains. It includes the study of feedback, black boxes and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines and organizations including self-organization. Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks. A more philosophical definition, suggested in 1956 by Louis Couffignal, one of the pioneers of cybernetics, characterizes cybernetics as “the art of ensuring the efficacy of action”. The most recent definition has been proposed by Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics, “Cybernetics is the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves”.
Concepts studied by cyberneticists (or, as some prefer, cyberneticians) include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaption, social control, emergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy and interconnectivity. These concepts are studied by other subjects such as engineering and biology, but in cybernetics these are removed from the context of the individual organism or device.
Other fields of study which have influenced or been influenced by cybernetics include game theory; system theory (a mathematical counterpart to cybernetics); psychology, especially neuropsychology, behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology; philosophy; anthropology; and even theology, telematic art, and architecture.
John Johnston’s rich and beautifully written book gives an excellent discussion of the basic concepts of cybernetics, it’s history, the basic concepts of information theory, and an analysis of how these concepts have evolved in fields like artificial life, artificial intelligence, as well as their importance for social and political theory, as well as psychoanalysis. Along the way he has amazing discussions of Lacanian psychoanalysis and the machinic life of Deleuze and Guattari. From the back of the book:
In The Allure of Machinic Life, John Johnston examines new forms of nascent life that emerge through technical interactions within human-constructed environments—”machinic life”—in the sciences of cybernetics, artificial life, and artificial intelligence. With the development of such research initiatives as the evolution of digital organisms, computer immune systems, artificial protocells, evolutionary robotics, and swarm systems, Johnston argues, machinic life has achieved a complexity and autonomy worthy of study in its own right.
Drawing on the publications of scientists as well as a range of work in contemporary philosophy and cultural theory, but always with the primary focus on the “objects at hand”—the machines, programs, and processes that constitute machinic life—Johnston shows how they come about, how they operate, and how they are already changing. This understanding is a necessary first step, he further argues, that must precede speculation about the meaning and cultural implications of these new forms of life.
Developing the concept of the “computational assemblage” (a machine and its associated discourse) as a framework to identify both resemblances and differences in form and function, Johnston offers a conceptual history of each of the three sciences. He considers the new theory of machines proposed by cybernetics from several perspectives, including Lacanian psychoanalysis and “machinic philosophy.” He examines the history of the new science of artificial life and its relation to theories of evolution, emergence, and complex adaptive systems (as illustrated by a series of experiments carried out on various software platforms). He describes the history of artificial intelligence as a series of unfolding conceptual conflicts—decodings and recodings—leading to a “new AI” that is strongly influenced by artificial life. Finally, in examining the role played by neuroscience in several contemporary research initiatives, he shows how further success in the building of intelligent machines will most likely result from progress in our understanding of how the human brain actually works.
The book, however, is so much more than what this blurb suggests. I would also recommend reading this alongside Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. I am not ordinarily one to gush, but as someone whose thought has been deeply influenced by cybernetics and systems theory for over ten years I genuinely believe that it is no exaggeration to say that cybernetics and systems theory changes your understanding of just about everything. Johnston’s book is a tremendous contribution to this tradition and deserves wide readership and discussion.