Cybernetics as a History of the Present

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.  Ours, we are told, is an information age, in which new forms of data collection and analysis will enable ever more efficient management of supply chains, regulation of energy usage and even allocation of personal time.  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 system.  In the process, it provided the conceptual foundation for contemporary advances in fields such as bioinformatics, operations research, game theory and artificial intelligence.  Our group brings together a diverse range of experts in the humanities, the social and computational sciences, law and the arts. Together we examine how emerging information models are altering experiences of social belonging and the ways in which citizens are situated within emerging projects of governance and market allocation.              

Revisiting mid-century information science and its multiple offshoots offers a powerful framework for addressing the multidisciplinary questions raised by Big Data and its growing centrality to contemporary social life.  Cybernetics attracted scholars from a surprisingly wide array of disciplines, because it provided a language and method for commensurating diverse phenomena.  Mathematicians, physicists, linguists, anthropologists, psychologists and biologists, working in collaboration, made cybernetics a popular scientific reference during the 1950s and 1960s.  Their research formed a particularly American response to the challenges of the post-World War II era, combining US Cold War defense funding with support from private foundations, academic centers and emerging industry. 

While much of this history is well researched, our work challenges the common notion that cybernetics was merely a vogueish mid-century techno-science, which fell into obscurity by the1970s.  Instead we seek to understand more precisely how systems analysis and practices of control and regulation persisted beyond that moment, transformed by new emphases on open (as opposed to closed) systems, and on disruption and innovation (rather than homeostasis).  How does the language of optimization alter how we measure and understand human excellence in everything from teacher performance to healthcare outcomes?  What are the ethical commitments of the cybernetic sciences?  How are ideas of legal justice and human rights transformed as the limits of personhood itself come to be quantified with new precision? The opportunity to cast our net far and wide — though challenging — will allow us to think about familiar questions differently, and in dialogue with knowledge outside of our individual disciplines.

Our aim is not merely to investigate the history of information theory, but to understand more precisely how the conceptual logic of our current information infrastructure has developed over the course of the last 70 years.  Cybernetics and Society will sponsor 12 fortnightly meetings throughout the academic year, four each term.  We will intersperse smaller, reading group sessions with public lectures.  Doing so gives us an opportunity to  engage with speakers' work ahead of time and will help support a more robust and lively discussion with our invited guests.   Themes will include Systems Science and Industrial Management; Histories of Modern Risk; Cybernetics and Design Thinking; Rethinking Cold War Science; Historicising the Information Age; and Cybernetics and the Psychology of Happiness.


Administrative assistance: gradfac@crassh.cam.ac.uk



Dr Andrew McKenzie-McHarg (Research Associate ,CRASSH)
Dr Poornima Paidipaty (Philomathian Reseach Associate, Faculty of History)

Faculty Advisors

Professor John Naughton (Senior Research Fellow, CRASSH)
Professor Simon Szreter (Professor of History and Public Policy, Faculty of History)

Programme 2016-17

Cybernetics and Society
Cybernetics, Unknowability and Politics
18 Oct 2016 12:00pm - 1:30pm, Seminar room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Andrew Pickering (Exeter), Simon Schaffer (Cambridge) – at Cybernetics and Society

The Liberal Effect: System-Cybernetic Governmentality during the Cold War
1 Nov 2016 12:00pm - 2:00pm, Seminar room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Egle Rindzeviciute  (London)- at Cybernetics and Society

Design for a Brain and the Humanity of the Non-Human
15 Nov 2016 12:00pm - 1:30pm, Seminar room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Reading Group at Cybernetics and Society

2084: Cryptography, Magic, and Politics (joint event)
24 Nov 2016 5:00pm - 6:30pm, Seminar room SG1/SG2 Alison Richard Building.

Joint Seminar: Technology & Democracy and Cybernetics & Society

Modelling the Complex Dynamics of Modern Economies
29 Nov 2016 12:00pm - 1:30pm, Seminar room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Reading group -at Cybernetics and Society

The Family as Machine: Film, Infrastructure and Cybernetic Kinship in Suburban America
28 Feb 2017 12:00pm - 1:30pm, Seminar room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Bernard Geoghagen (Coventry)- at Cybernetics and Society

Brainwashing the Cybernetic Spectator: The Ipcress File, 1960’s Cinematic Spectacle and …
14 Mar 2017 12:00pm - 1:30pm, Seminar room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Marcia Holmes (Birkbeck)-at Cybernetics and Society

Computational Rationality, NUTS, and the Nuclear Leviathan
6 Apr 2017 5:00pm - 6:30pm, Seminar room S1, 1st Floor, Alison Richard Building. NB Out of term session*

Sonja M. Amadae (Helsinki and MIT), David Runciman (POLIS) -at Cybernetic and Society

The Disunity of Cybernetics and the Digital
25 Apr 2017 12:00pm - 1:30pm, Seminar Room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Ronald Kline (Cornell), Richard Staley (Cambridge) at Cybernetics and Society

Cybernetic Fantasies of Value
6 Jun 2017 12:00pm - 1:30pm, Seminar Room SG2, Alison Richard Building

Seb Franklin (KCL) at Cybernetics and Society


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk