The Afterlives of Cybernetics: Tracing the Information Revolution from the 1960s to Big Data

17 November 2017 - 18 November 2017

SG1 and SG2, Alison Richard Building

Registration for the conference will open later in September. 



Andrew McKenzie-McHarg (University of Cambridge)

Poornima Paidipaty (University of Cambridge)

Egle Rindzeviciute (Kingston University)



As more and more of our collective activities (education, pension planning, health management, environmental protection) are mediated by rapidly moving markets and computerized technologies, uncertainties abound. Such visions of a technologically mediated — and seemingly limitless — future are not new. They echo the technological futurism popularized in the middle of the twentieth century by cybernetics. Beginning with the 1948 publication of Norbert Wiener’s book, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, cybernetics inaugurated path-breaking scientific explorations of feedback and self-regulation in biological and mechanical systems. It initiated an ambitious set of technoscientific discussions that provocatively transcended traditional disciplinary boundaries. Cyberneticians argued that patterns of feedback and self-regulation were key to understanding the operation of anti-aircraft guns, the erratic movements of victims of brain injury, the dynamics of group psychology, the relationship of human societies to their natural environment and much more.  

These insights furnished profound reassessments of notions of agency, of distinctions between the human and the non-human and of models of learning and memory. The scholarship on cybernetics has, however, only recently began to trace the legacies of this movement beyond the Cold War era. By providing insights into the enduring impact of mid-century techno-science on our contemporary information landscape, 'The Afterlives of Cybernetics' conference will contribute to a more thorough history of the present by helping us understand the antagonisms and synergies that animate the multiple offshoots of cybernetic thought, including operations research, AI, rational choice theory, predictive analysis, design thinking, behavioural economics and risk management. This in turn will lay the foundations for a better understanding of how these knowledge practices allow us to project, imagine and engage with uncertain and unbounded futures.




Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES), the London Graduate School, the Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme, and the University of Cambridge's Trevelyan Fund (Faculty of History).


Administrative assistance: