The Politics of a Cybernetic World. Exploring today’s digital world through the historical lens of cybernetics

*** This event is now fully booked, if you want to reserve a seat on the waiting list, you can email ***

What: A creative and engaging event exploring the politics of cybernetics with Katherine Hayles, Luc Steels, Andrew Pickering, and Ricarda Franzen
When: March 23, 4-7 PM
Where: Crea Muziekzaal, Nieuwe Achtergracht 170, Amsterdam
Entrance: free, registration required
Funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) as part of the research project Safeguarding long-term equal stakeholdership in the Smart City & the Center for Urban Studies of the University of Amsterdam as part of a collaboration with the Sheffield Urban Automation Institute

This is the concluding event of the two-day seminar The State of Cybernetics. The digitization of cities, bodies and communities. Click here for more information about this seminar.

What do cities, robots, corporations, political organizations, human bodies and the ecological environment have in common? For the scientists involved in the development of cybernetics in the 1940s, this was all but an awkward question. In seminars organized across the world, the cyberneticians came to think of humans, machines and the social and natural world as identical in their informational essence. In their intellectual and hands-on experimentations, they called forth a world in which machines, bodies and nature are entangled as complex, permanently evolving systems. As they theorized information to flow ever more effortlessly within and between these systems, they conceived new modes of social organization and political subjectivity. Humans no longer appeared as sovereign and bounded individuals but as circuits of polymorphous informational systems.

The purpose of this afternoon is to revisit the legacy of cybernetics to shed light on contemporary digital politics. Many of the fundamental questions asked by cyberneticians regain salience today. What remains of liberal individualism when the boundaries between humans, machines and nature are blurred? What are the systemic properties and operating routines of democracy in a world in which machines and humans are increasingly entangled?


4-4.30 PM performative reading directed by Ricarda Franzen

“Cybernetics Performed”
A theatrical reading of the Macy Conferences, directed by Ricarda Franzen (University of Amsterdam)

This six week long theatrical research was motivated by an interest in the content and form of the Macy conferences on cybernetics (1946-1953) — the latter described as “a moment when a new set of ideas impinged on the human sciences and began to transform some traditional fields of inquiry.” (Heims 1991). Together with the four performers, counseled by Dorien Zandbergen, and based on an initial idea of David Gauthier’s, Ricarda Franzen directed the actors in exploring the performative potential of a text that she composed entirely out of the original transcripts of the Macy conferences. While the performance features a number of noted cyberneticians, conceptually it centers on the figure of Gregory Bateson as observed through the eyes of his daughter who would go on to write an ethnography of a 1968 conference.

Performed by Jono Freeman, Kaylee Spivey Good, Merel Eigenhuis and Alzbeta Tuckova

4.30-5.30 PM lecture Katherine Hayles and short Q&A

“Does a Computer Have an Umwelt? An Exploration of Meaning-making Beyond the Human”
Keynote lecture professor Katherine Hayles (Duke University)

This talk explores the possibility of meaning-making beyond the human and beyond the biological into artificial forms of cognition. Many of our environmental crises today can be understood as an over-emphasis on humans as the most important species on the planet and an under-recognition of meaning-making among nonhuman animals and plants. Exploring that possibility opens up in a new way how meaning-making occurs, and thus sheds new light on cognitive assemblages, where humans and computational media interact. Jakob von Uexküll’s “umwelt” theory, which he articulated in the 1920s and 1930s, proposes that biological lifeforms construct subjective worlds for themselves based on the kinds of sensory systems they have and their environmental interactions. In addition, von Uexküll was an early cybernetician, proposing feedback mechanisms for many biological systems. Although von Uexküll’s work remains central to biosemiotics, the cybernetic aspect is little known or cited. This nearly-forgotten thread suggests the possibility for an expansion of the umwelt beyond the biological. Computers, like biological organisms, know the world through the data available to them, which may be limited to their programs or may extend into the world through sensors and actuators. The crucial element that the umwelt idea adds to existing discourse is the link between sign and meaning, potentially casting new light on the ways in which computational media construct meanings for themselves as subjects. This talk will explore that possibility, comparing contemporary media archeology with the umwelt and outlining the implications for a theory of meaning for networked and programmable machines.

5.30-6.30 PM lecture Luc Steels and short Q&A

“Cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence, and Artificial Life. Past interactions and future prospects.”
Keynote lecture professor Luc Steels

In the late eighties and nineties I was a core participant – and hence privileged observer – of the rise of Artificial Life, working and interacting intensely with Chris Langton, Rodney Brooks, Francesco Varela and other key players in the field. What were the movitations of this research field and what has come of it?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) had sprung up in the late nineteen fifties out of the earlier work on cybernetics, focusing on similar issues as cybernetics, namely the nature of intelligence and how it could be captured in artifacts, but bringing a new powerful toolkit from the then emerging field of computer science to the table. Computer Science goes beyond electrical engineering by being able to represent and process hugely complex data structures at high speeds, so that it becomes possible to seriously start modeling human language processing, problem solving, logical reasoning, and expert decision-making. By the early nineteen eighties symbolic processing technologies had reached maturity and AI had become a field with industrial applications and a growing impact on information technology. By comparison cybernetics became almost exclusively restricted to the construction of adaptive controllers for autonomous systems.

But by the late eighties there was a kind of revival of cybernetics. Several of the early cybernetic experiments (such as Grey Walter’s Elmer and Elsie) were reconstructed, although now with more solid mechanical and computational technologies. New types of conferences sprung up (such as the Simulation of Adaptive Behavior series with the first one in 1990 (Steels, 1990)), a few seminal workshops (in particular the Corsendonck workshop in 1991 (Steels and Brooks, 1994)), advanced schools (the most famous one being the Trento springschool in 1994 (Steels, 1995)) and new journals (such as the journal of Adaptive Behavior). What was going on? I believe the key objective of this new wave was to address two critical issues that AI had (and still has) trouble with, namely meaning and origins. We argued that a proper handling of meaning required agency, autonomy, embodiment, and an ecological setting, all topics that cybernetics had also integrated. And to understand the origins of intelligence we needed to adapt concepts from evolutionary biology and complex systems science, such as self-organisation, selection, level-formation, a.o. Many ideas and fascinating experiments came out of all this and I will give a short overview and how these ideas spilled over into language and concept formation.

The Alife approach to AI ran its course and is no longer in the spotlight. Instead, during the past decade AI has become dominated by statistical machine learning techniques, generating a tsunami of new technologies and applications thanks to the availability of Big Data and the massive increase in computing power. This has almost swept away both the sophisticated research on knowledge representation and reasoning (although this research has its own huge impact today in the semantic web or expert decision-making systems) and the biologically inspired research that powered the temporary interaction between AI and AL in the nineties. I believe however that in the near future we will see a resurgence of the issues that were raised by Alife-AI, as AI systems become more ubiquitous and widespread.

The recent perception that AI has reached a new peak of achievement, coupled to the development of other digital technologies, such as virtual reality, cloud computing, social media, digital self-monitoring, brain-computer interfaces, etc., has recently given rise to a curious fascinating new set of narratives about the future of humankind. There seems to be a new kind of religion taking shape, centered around digital immortality, which is thought to be achievable through sophisticated virtual AI agents and technologies of mind-uploading based on digital traces of human activity. I will briefly report on an artistic project that explores these issues using the medium of opera.

6.30-7PM Panel and discussion

Panel with Andrew Pickering, Luc Steels and Katherine Hayles

About the contributors

Katherine Hayles is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Program in Literature at Duke University, and Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles. She teaches and writes on the relations of literature, science and technology in the 20th and 21st centuries. Amongst her distinguished works are How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis; How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, and Writing Machines.

Luc Steels is professor of computer science at the University of Brussels (VUB), co-founder and chairman (from 1990 until 1995) of the VUB Computer Science Department (Faculty of Sciences) and founder and first-director of the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris. His main research field is Artificial Intelligence covering a wide range of intelligent abilities, including vision, robotic behavior, conceptual representations and language.

Andrew Pickering is an emeritus professor at the University of Exeter. He is internationally known as a leader in the field of science and technology studies. He is the author of Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science and Kybernetik und Neue Ontologien. In his book The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future, he analyses cybernetics as a distinctive form of life spanning brain science, psychiatry, robotics, the theory of complex systems, management, politics, the arts, education, spirituality and the 1960s counterculture, and argues that cybernetics offers a promising alternative to currently hegemonic cultural formations.

Ricarda Franzen works as a dra­maturg, sound artist and researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Coinciding with her interests in art practice, she is interested in aspects of sound in relation to its environment but also as being used in theatre and radio dramas. For the Rotterdam-based laboratory for Unstable Media she co-produced a performance based on the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan. For the theatrical performance she developed for ‘the State of cybernetics,’ she similarly draws inspiration from a group of historical cutting-edge thinkers and tinkerers.

The performers:
Jono Freeman studied as an actor in Sydney Australia, before obtaining a Bachelor in Performance Studies and a DipEd in Drama Method (USYD and UNSW), and becoming a high school Drama teacher.
Kaylee Spivey Good is an American actor working to obtain her MA in Theatre Studies from Universiteit van Amsterdam focusing on the theatricality of antiquites in the early 19th century.
Merel Eigenhuis is -besides an enthusiastic drama teacher- a MA student Theatre Studies. She’s currently most interested in the crossover between digital technologies and contemporary theatre.
Alzbeta Tuckova is a theatre maker and performer studying MA Theatre Studies in UvA.  She has a practical background in performance art and theatre and is passionate about the power of art to express politics.

The organizers

Justus Uitermark is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. He is affiliated with the Center for Urban Studies and the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research. Uitermark’s research uses relational theorizing and network analysis to examine self-organization, political conflict, and the social organization of the city. With colleagues at the University of Amsterdam, he is currently researching the online/offline interface, utilizing data sourced from Twitter and Instagram to analyze subcultures and social movements. Recent publications include “Longing for Wikitopia. The study and politics of self-organization” (in Urban Studies) and Cities and Social Movements (co-authored with Walter J. Nicholls, Wiley).

Dorien Zandbergen is an anthropologist of digital culture and politics, currently working as a postdoc researcher at the Sociology Department of the University of Amsterdam. Her current work critically explores the politics of urban digitization. In the documentary In search of the Smart Citizen, which she co-produced with Sara Blom (Creative Commons 2015), she interrogates the vision of the “smart city.” She co-founded Stichting Gr1p  to support artistic and literary interventions that help make complex technological themes, visible, debatable and tangible for a broad audience. Her recent academic publications include “From data fetishism to quantifying selves” (with Tamar Sharon, New Media & Society, 2016) and “We Are Sensemakers.” The (Anti-)politics of Smart City Co-creation” (Public Culture, 2017).

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