The Disunity of Cybernetics and the Digital

25 April 2017, 12:00 - 13:30

Seminar Room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Professor Ronald Kline,  STS (Cornell)
Discussant: Dr Richard Staley (HPS, Cambridge)


This seminar will focus on two works in progress:   "Why the Disunity of Cybernetics Matters to the History of the Human Sciences in the United States, 1940-1980" (which is an extension of research in Professor Kline's book book Cybernetics Moment); and "Inventing an Analog Past and a Digital Future in Computing" (which is a draft of a chapter on a book in progress on the history of digitalization).  The seminar will tie these two papers together under the rubric of “disunity of science” in order to argue that the multiple interpretations of cybernetics and the term “digital” are important to understanding their past (and present and future).

The paper on cybernetics discusses disunity in regard to first-order cybernetics (in the work of such figures as Karl Deutsch in political science, George Miller in psychology and Herbert Simon in management science) and the revision of the field known as second-order cybernetics (in the work of Gregory Bateson in anthropology, who crossed this boundary.)

The second paper discusses why the venerable words analog and digital were appropriated by computer  builders in the 1940s, what alternatives were proposed, how they became paired keywords, why closure occurred so quickly in the U.S., the different ways in which digital and analog engineering cultures interpreted the terms.  The paper also speculates on the reasons why the concerns raised at the 1950 Macy conference — that the terms were vague and that analog was not the logical opposite of digital — were ignored. 


(Professor Kline's papers will be pre-circulated and may be read in advance. They can be accessed by writing to

Coffee and tea will be served after.

Part of Cybernetics and Society Reading Group series.
Administrative assistance: