Dr. Ron Eglash

Published in Cultural Studies 12:382-409, 1998



Cybernetics and American Youth Subculture


Cybernetics, the interdisciplinary application and synthesis of information sciences, has occupied a central place in analyses of postmodernity as a cultural condition. Lyotard (1984:60) contends that a focus on information has led to sciences based on “undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, ‘fracta,’ catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxies,” an anarchic freeing of information in which he sees socially liberating potential. Jameson (1991) sees the postmodern theme of “depthlessness” as both the product of cybernetic simulacra and the symptom of a social loss of history and place. Poster (1990) and Turkle (1995) suggest that cybernetic modes of communication have resulted in postmodern subjectivities in which personal (and even national) identity is unstable, multiple, and diffuse. Martin (1994) weaves the narratives of flexible accumulation in capitalism with the flexibility fostered by cybernetic models of the immune system. Haraway (1997:219-229) produces an 11 page taxonomy of intersecting cultural, natural, and technological categories offering vivid illustrations of a three-stage mutual construction between postmodern culture and cybernetics.


These interpretative accounts are evocative, literary, and speak to the need for an emancipatory poetics that can decode and recode the otherwise ineffable dynamics of a threatening technopolitical economics. They stand in sharp contrast to the kinds of “internalist” historical narratives that much of the scientific community has produced to account for these technological changes. Take, for example, the internalist explanations for the rise of chaos theory. Mathematician John Franks (1989:65) put this baldly in his negative review of Gleick's famous popular text Chaos -- making a new science, where he insisted that Gleick had missed "the obvious explanation of the sudden interest in chaos in many branches of science," which was "the advent of inexpensive, easy-to-use digital computers." In a rebuttal to Franks' review, Gleick did not disagree with the explanation, but quoted his own perpetual and insistent observations on the importance of computers,  which Franks oddly seemed to have overlooked (and one which he apologized for in his reply).  This explanation of technological determinism is quite common in both popular and professional circles.  For example, it was included in Heinz-Otto Peitgen's introduction to his fractal geometry course at UCSC, in Stewart (pg 138), in Pagels 1988 (pg 85), and even by Benoit Mandelbrot (1989 pg 6). There is no mention of any social changes in connection to this technological transition in these accounts.


The two approaches I have outlined here -- interpretative and internalist -- are complimentary in their abilities and blind spots. On the one hand, interpretative evocations can easily lose touch with the internal logic of a particular science. As an anthropologist I am delighted to see Haraway write “transuranic elements:transgenic organisms :: the cold war:the new world order,” but as an engineer it leaves me bewildered; there is no internal connection between transuranic and transgenic. The same could be said of the conflation of uncertainty in quantum mechanics and uncertainty in deterministic chaos in Lyotard (1984) and Hayles (1990), or Jameson’s comparison of cybernetic and architectural depthlessness. But this ability to make leaps between internally separated technological features is crucial to the power of these accounts in revealing the elusive yet systemic relations between science and culture. Conversely, the internalist view of steady progress through causal chains of scientific production, while providing a high-fidelity representation of the technical features, becomes blinded to their deeply intertwined social patterns.


This essay will attempt to combine the technologically centered view of internalist accounts of cybernetic sciences with the cultural semeiotics of interpretative representation. As in Haraway, the analysis will distinguish between three historical phases: 1) modern cybernetics, focused on digital hierarchical systems, which reached its high point in the late 1960s; (2) transitional postmodern cybernetics, focused on analog decentralized systems, which started in the late 1970s; and (3) stable postmodern cybernetics, based on a synthesis between the analog/digital and centralized/decentralized oppositions, which started in the late 1980s.  The technical characterization of this sequence has been remarked upon by some of the participating scientists and engineers, who see it as a “natural” chain of events.  What does beg for an explanation, however, is the way in which youth subculture closely parallels these changes. The simultaneous nature of the parallel transitions suggests that there are causal links between cybernetics and popular culture which work in both directions.    


1)  Information and representation in cybernetics

Cybernetic theory is based on two dimensions of communication systems (figure 1).  One is the information structure, the other is the physical


 representation of that information.  The most fundamental characterization for an information structure is its computational complexity, which is a measure of its capacity for recursion.  The extremes of this measure give us the distinction between a nonlinear, self-organizing system, in which information is recursively assembled in a bottom-up structure, and a linear hierarchy, in which information is imposed top-down. 


The most fundamental characterization for representation is the analog-digital distinction.  Digital representation requires a code table (the dictionary, the Morse code, the genetic code, etc.) based on physically arbitrary symbols (text, numbers, flag colors, etc.).  Sassure specified this characteristic when he spoke of the "arbitrariness of the linguistic signifier." Analog representation is based on a proportionality between physical changes in a signal (e.g. waveforms, images, vocal intonation) and changes in the information it represents.  A computer mouse, for example, guides cursor movement in proportion to hand movement (although there is lots of digital circuitry mediating in-between).  The difference between analog and digital is often referred to as a dichotomy between continuous and discrete signals, although that is quite misleading, since an analog parameter might change only in discrete increments.  It is more important to consider that digital systems use grammars, syntax, and other relations of symbolic logic, while analog systems are based on physical dynamics -- the realm of feedback, hysteresis, and resonance (Dewdney 1985, Eglash 1993). 


This essay will examine these two dimensions of cybernetics at three different historical moments; I have arbitrarily used the years 1967, 1977, and 1987 as foci.[1]  As noted in the first paragraph, these moments can be associated with (although certainly not reduced to) changes in technological emphasis on the two cybernetic dimensions, from the promotion of digital hierarchies typical of 1967, to the new focus on analog decentralized systems starting around 1977, to the synthesis of these approaches starting around 1987.  These technical changes will be illustrated by examining instances of the use of these two cybernetic dimensions in four different disciplines:  machine intelligence, visual neurobiology, cerebral lateralization, and mathematical modelling.


2)  Cybernetics in the modern era

It was... a considerable revelation when writing came to detribalize and to individualize man.... Cybernation seems to be taking us out of the... world of classified data and back into the tribal world of integral patterns and corporate awareness (McLuhan 1966 pg 102).


In the first few years of American cybernetics, analog and digital systems were seen as epistemologically equivalent; both considered capable of complex kinds of representation.  In 1952, for example, a study by the U.S. office of Navel Research concluded that "a choice between analogue and digital simulation is not clear cut" (Rubinoff 1953 pg 1262).  Similarly, both decentralized and hierarchical information structures were explored.  But by the late 1960s this was dramatically altered, and most research was oriented towards digital hierarchies.  Perhaps the most notorious example of this exclusionary focus was the text Perceptrons, by Minsky and Papert, which was extremely damaging to research on the decentralized approach to machine intelligence (Pollack 1989).  The authors presented a mathematical proof for the inability of distributed processing networks to recognize certain patterns; at the time it seemed an indisputable argument for their classic "artificial intelligence" (AI) approach, based on the "central processing unit" of the von Neumann computer architecture.


While artificial brains were being centralized, the natural brain was also losing its distributed characterization.  In Hubel and Wiesel's model of visual neurobiology, each cell of the retina used lateral inhibition to break the visual field into discrete points, like a digital video.  These neurons were connected in rows to cells in the first cortical layer, so that each first layer cell would fire only if there was a line in the visual field that corresponded to its particular orientation.  These were connected to the next cortical layer so that its cells could detect edges, corners and the like, and so on to successive cortical layers in an increasing hierarchy of specificity.  Following this to its logical conclusion resulted in paradox, because the cells at the top layer would have to be so specific that there would be one cell for every image you can recognize (often referred to as the "grandmother cell" for its hypothetical ability to fire only when the visual field held an image of your grandmother), but Hubel and Wiesel had excellent experimental evidence for the lower layers, and the digital video metaphor was easy to understand.


At a much larger scale, the models for cerebral lateralization in the late 1960s not only spanned the whole brain, but reached across human behaviors from motor movement to gender (Star 1979).  The left hemisphere was seen as digital, reductionistic, mathematical, and male; the right was analog, holistic, artistic, and female.  The association was not necessarily sexist per se; Bogen (1969) for example defends the right hemisphere as unjustly disparaged, and suggests that since these same attributes (intuition, gestalt perception) are attributed to women, the belittlement has a sexist bias.


It may seem all too easy to make social-historical characterizations of such wildly generalizing claims from behavioral biology, but even in mathematics, at the opposite end of the hard science/soft science spectrum, the same bias towards digital linear hierarchies can be seen during this time period.  As noted in Gleick's (1987) historical account, linear approaches to mathematical modelling, such as piece-wise linear approximation in dynamical systems, linear programming theory, and symbolic logic were well-funded, while nonlinear dynamics received little attention.  The foundations for what is today known as deterministic chaos -- an explicit illustration of the computational complexity of analog recursion -- were largely ignored.  Physicist Joseph Ford, for example, recalled his early failure to introduce notions of complex nonlinear behavior in a lecture on the Duffing equation:


When I said that? Jee-sus Christ, the audience began to bounce up and down.  It was "My daddy played with the Duffing equation, and my granddaddy played with the Duffing equation, and nobody seen anything like what you're talking about."  You would really run across resistance to the notion.... What I didn't understand was the hostility (Gleick pg 305).



Meteorologist Edward Lorenz met similar resistance: his seminal paper on deterministic aperiodicity was ignored despite the efforts of respected supporters such as Edward Spiegal and James Yorke. As noted earlier, most mathematicians have insisted that the change was due to the availability of digital computers. But the implication that digital computers can explain the revolution in nonlinear dynamics is misleading. The emergence of chaos as a legitimate and valuable research topic in the early 1970s was often carried out on analog computers. This was true for Ueda in Japan, Rössler in Germany, and “chaos cabal” of Rob Shaw, James Crutchfield, Doyne Farmer, and Norman Packard in the U.S. Not only was the cabal's method of analyzing equations and experimental data performed on the analog computer, but his theoretical breakthrough was in viewing all physical dynamics as a kind of analog computing (cf. Pagels 1988).


Rather than the lack of digital computers, a better explanation for the dominance of linear hierarchical modelling in the 1960s can be found in the political affiliations of the scientists involved. Ralph Abraham, for example, who would later become the main mathematical supporter for Shaw’s chaos cabal at UCSC, reports that the political lines in the mathematics department at UC Berkeley in the 1960s divided right versus left along linear versus nonlinear (personal communication 1991). James Yorke, whose attempt to promote the work of Lorenz was met with staunch resistance, was also known for his war resistance, having made direct use of his mathematical skill during the antiwar demonstrations in his analysis of a fraudulent government photo. In 1966 mathematician Steve Smale learned that his research funding for nonlinear dynamics was being revoked by the NSF.  But at the time Smale was also subject to a subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee due to his leftist activism; it was not clear whether his offense was non-linear science or un-American politics.


This political polarization along both the analog-digital and recursive-nonrecursive dimensions was wide-spread in the late 1960s, and this was nowhere more evident than in cybernetics itself.  The process by which the analog-digital dichotomy was established as field for contestations began at the origins of cybernetics in the first Macy conferences of the late 1940s.  This was commented on at the time by Gregory Bateson.


There is a historic point that perhaps should be brought up; namely, that the continuous-discontinuous variable has appeared in many other places.  I spent my childhood in an atmosphere of genetics in which to believe in 'continuous' variations was immoral.  ...There is a loading of affect around this dichotomy which is worth our considering.  (von Foerster 1952)


Bateson eventually took a position opposite to that of his father's; for him analog systems were closer to the Real, and thus preferred as a more holistic or Natural form of communication. Bateson, together with Margaret Mead, came to represent the anthropological sciences for cybernetics. Mead took advantage of this position to offer some recursive perspectives on cybernetics at the first Annual Symposium of the American Society for Cybernetics in 1962.  She began her introductory speech, "Cybernetics of Cybernetics," with some memories of the foundational meeting of the society for General Systems Theory.


I suggested that, instead of founding just another society, they give a little thought to how they could use their theory to predict the kind and size of society they wanted, what its laws of growth and articulation with other parts of the scientific community should be.  I was slapped down without mercy.  Of all the silly ideas, to apply the ideas on the basis of which the society was being formed to Itself! (von Foerster et al 1968 pg 10).


Mead was already famous for her blending of scientific analysis with cultural critique, dating from her refutations of theories on the biological determination of gender characteristics in the 1920s. In this talk she warned against the unreflective use of cybernetics, pointing to L.F. Richardson's pacifist approach to mathematical models of warfare, and Edmund Bacon's use of cybernetics in participatory city planning as alternatives.   Mead's articulation of the ironic lack of "circular self-corrective systems" in the science of circular self-corrective systems underscored the impending politicization of recursion in cybernetics.


This association of analog representation with the Real and recursion with liberation was taken up by many leaders of the cybernetics community: Kenneth Boulding (a founder of General Systems Theory), Tolly Holt (director of Advance Systems in Princeton), C.H. Waddington in biology, Karl Pribram in neuropsychology, Hazel Henderson in social systems, and Magoroh Maruyama and Heinz von Forester in cybernetics proper, to name a few.  The humanist translation of recursion (in his terminology "feedback") as liberation was previously proposed by cybernetics founder Norbert Wiener (Heims 1984), and the view of analog systems as closer to the Natural or the Real was independently championed by Francisco Varela[2] and Humberto Maturana, who worked under Perceptron founder Warren McCulloch.


3)  Youth subculture and cybernetics in the modern era

Youth subculture studies (e.g. Hebdige 1979,1988, McRobbie 1994,  Hall 1980) have made the reading of stylistic expressions (music, dress, speech, etc.) in these social groups accessible to semiotic analysis, and this is nowhere more evident than in the contrast between the youth subculture and parent culture of the 1960s. The contrast between the recursive analog dynamics in the counter culture and digital hierarchy in the “military-industrial establishment” was evident in the geometry of material designs chosen by each subculture. The psychedelic aesthetic of hippy adornment was essentially what we would now call fractal: paisleys with-in paisleys with-in paisleys, flowing robes with folds of folds, rippling organic hairstyles. Establishment icons were in the Euclidean shapes of rectangles, circles and triangles, as evidenced by the computer font introduced with the IBM punched card system. It is no coincidence that hippies accused “straights” of being “square.”


That the (primarily white[3]) romantic organicism of American youth subculture in the 1960s would be taken up by a scientific community is not surprising given the personal ties of these individuals.  Kenneth Boulding's house, for example, was a central location for organizational meetings of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the early 1960s (Kerman 1974, Wright 1989).  Many of the first SDS manifestos were based on the idea of "face to face communication" as a more ethical means of representation than digital encodings; this analog anarchism came from Paul Goodman, who was in turn influenced by a line of holistic scientists from Peter Kropotkin to Gregory Bateson (Goodman's next-door neighbor during his stay in Hawaii).  In the amalgam created by late-modernist youth subculture, zen philosophers (Watts 1961), psychoactive drug advocates (Leary 1968), and social scientists (McLuhan 1966) began to use cybernetics themselves, proclaiming that by reviving the analog chaos of an organic past, we would escape the oppressive digital order of the present.


The conservative half of this cybernetic politics, starting with von Neumann in the 1940s, is already well-described in a literature which, in my view, over-emphasizes this side due to technophobic bias (e.g. Lilienfeld 1976). Here we see rationalists with an affirmation of the artificial, and an authoritarian love for imposed control.  The digital hierarchists managed to take control of the majority of funding and institutions for cybernetic research during the 1960s, and made an effort to suppress the legitimacy, if not the existence, of the analog decentralists.  It is a sad irony that critics such as Lilienfeld have simply duplicated that erasure. 

figure 3


 The political polarization of cybernetics was not, of course, absolute.  In the 1968 conference organized by Bateson, for example, Barry Commoner's claims for humanist recursion and natural analog communication (illustrated with examples ranging from urban recycling to African anthropology) were aggressively countered by Gordon Pask, who constantly re-asserted his need for professional authority and corporate managerial practice throughout (M.C. Bateson 1972).  As a converse of Pask, one might point to Anatol Rapoport, an advocate of the linear digital approach (e.g. von Neumann game theory), who supported anti-authoritarian politics.  But these were exceptions to a paradigmatic pull in which researchers were increasingly asked to take sides, as illustrated in figure 2. 


This portrait of the historical changes in the cybernetic map, from its flat equipotential surface of 1947 to its bifurcated basins of attraction in 1967, should be seen as coupled to an similarly changing map of politics, as I have drawn for Bateson and Mead (figure 3).  Here the changes are coming from opposite causal directions for the two individuals.  Mead's political involvement was a long-term commitment for her; but the technical dimensions were not polarized for Mead until after she understood how the politics might couple with this cybernetic map.  For Bateson, the direction of causality was the reverse.  His collaborator Ken Norris (personal communication) suggests that for Bateson, cybernetics was an opening into the political arenas he had previously avoided, and Bateson's daughter has made similar implications (M.C. Bateson 1984 pp 217-220).  Bateson was quite fixed on the technical significance of both analog representation and recursion, but his political map was flat until he saw how a hyperbolic humanism could match his own cybernetic topology.


The actor-network formalism of Latour, Callon and others is typically portrayed as a struggle in attempts to recruit scientists (and in more recent versions, non-human actors) into a web of power relations that supports a particular device or theory. But the polarizations in these two cybernetic dimensions goes far beyond a particular laboratory or even a single discipline, and have specific links to socio-political positions of their day. Between the decentralized organicism of hippie lifestyle and the hierarchical linearity of industrial and governmental institutions, the 1960s could be summarized as a fight between the natural chaos of counter-culture and the artificial order of "the establishment."


4)  Transitional postmodernism and youth subculture

To this career I did ordain

Doin' things the anthropologists can't explain

Arrhythmic sounds float like Lake Erie

Altering any scientifical theory


            Sweet Tee, "On the Smooth Tip"


African-American urban youth movements of the transitional postmodern era, often grouped under the term Hip-Hop, constitute yet another move in the analog-digital dualism game; but this time with revolt on the digital side.  The term "digital" is itself used by these movements (best exemplified by the popular rap group "Digital Underground") to signify a guerilla cybernetics, both in terms of street-wise technical competence and in cultural communication forms (Rose 1994, Dery 1994, Eglash 1995).


Rap is notorious for its non-melodic sound: a disjoint collage of flat punctuated speech, spliced sound bytes from James Brown, The Andy Griffith Show, video game lasers, and above all the scratch: deejays playing the normally silent back-cue of the record in time to the beat, letting the raw signal of a misused stylus interface the acoustic codes into a single mutant form.  Although not a commercial success until the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" of 1979 and Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" of 1982, by 1977 most of these forms were already existing from low-tech necessity: budget disco parties without the money for a band or the passivity for records.  Out of the pit of commercialized pop music -- the gold-chained discotheque scene of John Travolta and Studio 54 -- scratch turned tables on the turntables.


At the same time rap was cutting organic sounds into oppositional symbolics, breakdancing was digitizing the human body. Like rap, histories of breakdancing (DiLorenzo 1985, Hager 1984) cite traditions from African prehistory to contemporary African-American dance, in which discrete moves, rapid-fire symbolic gestures and percussive "popping" originated. Breakdancing also uses a stylistic collage of odd elements: "King Tut" friezes, Russian folk dance and street gymnastics are fused with the pro-artifice titles of "Electric Boogie," "Moonwalk" and "Robot."  The android movements of Shields and Yarnell, a husband and wife performance team seen widely on popular television in 1977, were often incorporated by breakdancers in routines which code the machine-human interface in much stronger ambiguity than anything seen in the modern era.  While an element of irony and parody are always present, there is also pride in the technical competence required to take on the cybernetic stronghold of industry, and a historical claim of ownership for these powerful modes of representation.


A third important element is graffiti: not only a claim to ownership of coding, but coding as a claim to ownership.  In 1969 an unemployed 17-year-old New Yorker started writing his nickname together with his street number on public spaces; soon Taki 183 was joined by hundreds of male and female writers of various ethnicities, genders and economic backgrounds.  Since the majority are poor, the activity is often interpreted as a rebellion against their economic trap: a signature marks possession. 


Castleman (1982), in a solid ethnographic study of New York graffiti writers, balks at such interpretations -- not necessarily because they are incorrect, but because it is all too easy to read these meanings into their work rather than seeking a thick description of their lives and activities.  What stands out in his account is the assertion of identity, both as individuals and as members of the writer's community (gangs, groups, organizations and the city as a whole).  While the literal reading of the graffiti tended toward simple identification (eg "Barbara and Eva 62"), the style in which the letters were written was an entire symbolic code unto itself, reflecting manipulations of media technology as well as a wide range of personal attitudes, ideas and affiliations.  Like rap and breakdancing, graffiti carries a positive affirmation of the artificial -- urban life is celebrated, and many styles are tight geometric forms titled "computer," "mechanical," "robot," etc. -- along with the irony and parody that keeps their sentiments accountable to the brutalities that technology can carry (Delany 1988, Tate 1992).


All three of these aspects of hip-hop include instances of analog communication, but all three emphasize the digital features in ways which make the movement as a whole far more friendly to artificial states of being: to urban life, machines, science, and even to artificial origins. 


Post-liberated black hair-styling emphasizes a 'pick n' mix' approach to aesthetic production, suggesting a different attitude to the past in its reckoning with modernity.  The philly-cut on the hip-hop/go-go scene etches diagonalized lines across the head, refashioning a style from the 1940s where a parting would be shaved into the hair (Mercer 1988, pg 51). 


The way in which the use of arbitrary symbols signifies artificiality is a crucial part of this postmodern distinction.  The New York graffiti painters may be analog artists in many ways, but their preference for the term graffiti "writer" reflects their own textual emphasis.  In the modernist discussions of African music, an emphasis on percussion was typically a demonstration of the analog character of African culture (e.g. Senghor's Negritude), but in postmodern descriptions of hip-hop (cf. Toop 1984) it becomes proof of Africa's digital heritage:


The  hums, grunts, and glottal attacks of central Africa's pygmies, the tongue clicks, throat gurgles, and suction stops of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert... all survive in the mouth percussion of "human beatbox" rappers... (Dery 1988, pg 34).


While Black youth subculture was reinventing itself as digital, white youths made a similar transformation. In 1977 - at the all-time high of teenage suicide in the U.S. - the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bullocks sounded a call to arms for a generation unimpressed by their parent's claims for a peace and love revolution. Hebdige suggests that punk expressed a white ethnicity, but one which was bound to present time rather than the skinhead's utopic past.  Rather than a modernist despair over alienation, punk affirms alienation as a part of its ethnic identity, parodying the sympathetic beneficence of liberal sociologists.


The arbitrariness of symbols and symbolic arrays is essential to all punk material culture.  The clothing is a an urban screech of plastic and metal; the hair a neon dyed, machine sculpted artifact; the make-up flaunts the taboos of all fashion advice; and the music itself is an unrelenting succession of noise.  Despite the frequent use of the term "chaos" to describe punk (eg Johnny Rotten's famous line "we're not into music, we're into chaos"), the punk aesthetic bears no resemblance to the hippy use of natural flowing chaos, to patterned organic shapes which opposed the establishment's Euclidian order.  The disorder of punk is 'white noise,' the randomness of disrupted syntax, "a place where the social code is destroyed and renewed" (Kristeva, 1975). The songs of the Minute Men are all under 60 seconds, the Circle Jerks's songs not only standardized in time, but  repeat the same chord pattern as well.  Just as Rap uses speech to break up the organic flow of music, punk interjects order where it does not belong. In hippy culture plastic meant the establishment's order (as in "plastic hippy," or Dustin Hoffman's economic advice in The Graduate).  To punks plastic is "plastic" in the sense of transformable; its excesses could force the system against itself, drowning institutional order in the noise of its own symbolics.


If punk is so intent on self-defined symbolics, doesn't that mean they subscribe to a modernist program of recursive control or humanist self-definition? Far from it.  In terms of individuals, humanism differentiates between control from false authority and control from the true, authentic self. With no interest in authenticity or the "true self," Punks promote fakes as the only legitimate sincerity.  In terms of collective activity, the same disruption occurs.  Chambers (1985) describes this for punk efforts to subvert the recording industry.


Punk's rough populism, what it would call... 'street level' music, was frequently translated into a flood of small, independent record labels.  These apparently mushroomed around the subculture's early leitmotif: musical populism + recording independence = cultural autonomy. But as the idea of 'authenticity' (hence the measure of 'autonomy')  was also a rather non-punk concept, the whole formula remained precarious.(pg 228).


In contrast to the 60s counter-culture's search for recursive control, the postmodern youth culture fought for a critique of this humanist self-reference.  Just as the paradox of Rap's natural artifice opened a space for new cultural constructions, punk's recursive critique of recursion provided   another opportunity for creating new kinds of resistance. Just as the counter-culture of the 1960s

co-evolved with cybernetics, defining itself as the cybernetic opposite of digital hierarchy (in parallel with the military, industrial and institutional move to define itself as the cybernetic opposite of analog decentralization), the affirmation of digital representation and skepticism about recursive control in postmodern youth subcultures occurred in tandem with a scientific revolution

in the opposite direction.  Postmodern cybernetics requires analog recursion; it is here that science seeks chaos.


5) Cybernetics in transitional postmodernism

Despite the institutionalization of digital representation and linear hierarchy in many areas of modernist technoscience, 1967 -- the "summer of love" -- was the peak for cybernetic order, and by 1977 this had begun to reverse.  In the same year that the Sex Pistols declared their love for the sharp Euclidian lines of urban artificiality, cybernetic models of the military-industrial establishment began to side with the natural holistic flow of chaos.


Of course, chaos theory itself is the clearest example of this transition. Fractal geometry, dynamical systems theory, cellular automata, and other models of self-organizing process created a dramatic acceleration in the ability of scientists to study the recursive flow of information which underlies a wide variety of complex nonlinear phenomena. As noted earlier, it was by reinterpreting physical dynamics as analog representation, not by sticking to the old guns of progress in digital computers, that the chaos revolution made its real impact.


It is here that the semiotic claim for a special status of digital representation is proved wrong: analog waveforms can express recursive complexity as well as any symbolic code can.  But many scientists during this transitional moment went entirely overboard, now claiming that analog systems were computationally superior to digital.  Dewdney (1985), for example, announced that he had devised an analog version of the Turing machine,[4] and had proved that it could out-perform the original digital Turing machine (I later wrote to ask him for details, but he replied that those notes were "buried somewhere" in his files).  Researchers at the Princeton University Computer Science Dept (Vergis et al 1985) claimed to have an analog machine that could solve an NP-complete problem in less than exponential time -- a performance which is theoretically impossible for any digital machine.  Their claims were disproved in Rubel (1989).  A number of prominent physicists (Pagels, Feynman, Penrose and others)  took refuge in quantum indeterminacy to claim that there are analog systems (i.e. the human brain) that have computational powers superior to digital Turing machines.  The study of non-deterministic Turing machines is decades old, and has not demonstrated that there is a computational advantage to these systems.[5]


In machine intelligence, both hardware and software went through a sudden transition away from centralized hierarchies.  In the digital parallel processing approach, many von Neumann-type (linear centralized) processors are linked together, working on different parts of the problem at the same time.  The problem can be divided up in different ways with varying degrees of autonomy.  At the most extreme decentralization we return to the perceptron.  It turned out that Minsky and Papert's analysis did not take into account the possibility of perceptrons in which there was a "learning layer" mediating between input and output; this minor addition resolves the pattern recognition limitations they had raised (Pollack 1989). 


In the simulated annealing approach (cf Kirkpatrick et al 1983), an optimal state for an information system is approached by allowing carefully controlled randomness to perturb local elements, tossing them into desired configurations (i.e., "hill-climbing" to local maxima) and then decreasing the randomness before they are tossed out. This method makes use of the digital simulation of a physical process (thermal control of annealing in metals).  The holistic extreme for hardware was the coupled oscillator approach (cf Hopfield 1982) where computation was carried out by decentralized networks of analog units modeled on neurons.


The software decentralization in machine intelligence research was first utilized in the language ABSET (Elcock, McGregor and Murray 1971), which allowed data-directed control.  More explicit decentralization was achieved in the "actor" formalism of the work of Hewett (1977) and the knowledge representation system of Bobrow and Winograd (1977). In explaining decentralization in AI software, Pylyshyn (1981) declares that "this means loosening the hierarchical authority relation common to most programs, and distributing authority in a more democratic manner, allowing for 'local initiative'" (pg 79).   By the 1980s even Minsky suggested that decentralization was a good idea in software (and in his 1986 Society of Mind he claimed that's what he had been thinking about all along).


In visual neurobiology the challenge to Hubel and Weisel's work began with Campbell and Robinson (1968), in which suggestive evidence was presented for global frequency functions (e.g. the fourier transform) in the striate cortex.  For example, one experiment showed a neuron which fired optimally for an image of a monkey's hand: a specificity which is too great for Hubel and Weisel's model, but fits well with the global frequency model since the monkey's fingers form a spatial grating.  However, it was not until DeValois et al (1978) that "critical" experiments which purported to decide the issue actually challenged the dominance of local feature extraction models.  Many researchers concluded that the best analogy for visual neurobiology was not the digital video camera, but rather the analog medium of a laser hologram.


As in visual neurobiology, changes in cerebral lateralization models were presented as compelling objective data requiring a different conceptual frame, not as a more sensible or fashionable theory.  Once researchers had settled on a postmodern reversal -- assigning the digital left hemisphere to women and the analog right hemisphere to men -- a multidisciplinary complex of theoretical apparatus was quickly assembled.  Levy (1978) developed an origin story in which "man the hunter" needed the gestalt skills of mapping and spear tossing while "woman the gatherer and childrearer" needed her social communication skills.  While Buffery and Gray (1972, quoted in Star pg 68) suggested that female superiority in symbolic systems corresponded with "good performance on clerical tasks," Geschwind (reported in Kolata 1983) linked a supposed innate mathematical superiority in males to testosterone effects in fetal brain development, which would then produce "superior right hemisphere talents, such as artistic, musical, or mathematical talent" (pg 1312).  Note that mathematics in this description has moved from its 60s association with the symbolic left hemisphere to a postmodern association with the analog right hemisphere.


In summary: while the 60s counter-culture sought analog naturalism and recursive humanism, anti-hegemonic youth subculture in transitional postmodernism fought for a legitimation of artifice and a critique of humanist self-reference.  At the same time, mainstream information sciences [6] switched to a serious consideration of analog representation and nonlinear decentralization.


6)  Stable postmodernism and cybernetics

Starting around 1987, cybernetic models again shifted; this time to a synthesis of the competing opposites.  The term "stable postmodernism" is appropriate in that the move resolves both technical and social tensions of the previous sharp reversal in these information dimensions.


When we last left mathematics, it had moved from the Euclidian linearity of the 1960s to the fractals and dynamical chaos of the 1970s.  In the late 1980s these two approaches were brought together.  This was nicely illustrated by the "multifractal" approach initiated by Uriel Frisch (Nice Observatory) and Giorgio Parisi (University of Rome) in 1985.  Multifractals are shapes which cannot be characterized by a single fractal dimension. Since they have multiple dimension measures attributed to them, some of these can be whole numbers.  Thus multifractals can incorporate both fractal and Euclidian structures.  A similar fractal-Euclidian synthesis has developed in the use of Michael Barnsley's Iterated Function Systems (IFS).  Because combinations of both fractal and Euclidian shapes can be created (based on Barnsley's "collage theorem"), by the late 1980s a corporation had been formed for commercial application to image compression (transmitting algorithms for producing the picture instead of the picture itself).


In machine intelligence, we saw the postmodern transition from linear digital hierarchy in the 1960s to both decentralization and analog systems in the late 1970s.  By 1987 many researchers decided that the difficulty of nonlinearity, despite the new knowledge rising from chaos theory, was still too great for a pure analog approach, and that analog and digital would need to work together in new hybrid machines.  Marvin Minsky, for example, had trashed holism in his modernist text Perceptrons, and had valorized it in his transitional postmodernist text Society of Mind.  In his stable postmodernism essay of 1988, he suggested that the ultimate fulfillment of his "Society of Mind" approach would be a synthesis of the two: analog neural nets as the individual "agents" of his AI system, with centralized digital algorithms providing its governing structure. 


Pollack (1989) differentiates between "the old new connectionism, circa 1980-1985" and "the new new connectionism" on this basis, noting the crucial addition of digital representation to neural nets in "semantically interpretable higher-order elements."  The reverse adaptation can also be seen in the work of Stephen Omohundro.  In a widely circulated technical report of 1987 he described some important innovations for algorithms in digital centralized computers which could emulate neural network behavior.  Equivalences between recursion in both analog and digital systems were also approached at this time (eg Touretzky 1986), and later commercial production of the hardware that could support such hybrids (Electronic Design 1989) also occurred. 


Also appearing at this time were neural nets based on a harmony theory similar to Bak's self-organized criticality.  Whereas modernist networks were based on competition, and transitional postmodernist networks exploited formal systems of cooperation, these stable postmodernist neural nets used a balance of cooperation and competition to achieve their tasks (Maren 1990). This change from the transitional trope of reversal to the stable trope of synthesis or harmony allows a resolution of previous tensions, thus opening a new acceptability.  Harston and Maren (1990) cite an exponential rise in the number of neural net projects starting in 1987.


Analog-digital synthesis in more banal computing machines had been suggested by the UCSC "Chaos Cabal" in a 1981 NSF grant proposal, but the idea was premature and the grant was rejected, although they did receive NSF support for work on their analog computer.  By the late 1980s NSF grant directories specifically mentioned analog-digital hybrids as an area of interest.  Much of the theoretical work in this new synthesis goes under the rubric of "computational dynamics," a title which not only emphasized the new fusion of analog and digital computation, but could also serve as a respectable sounding alias for "chaos."


Reassessment of the analog optimism from transitional postmodern cybernetics was an important part of this new effort toward harmony.  While many transitional postmodern researchers saw analog computation as uncharted territory, a potentially utopic space where physical dynamics could beat a Turing machine, the new stable postmodern theories viewed analog and digital as equivalent representational forms.  The most formal recognition for this equivalence was in the work of Blum, Shub and Smale (1989), which developed a system of mathematics that could show limitations for analog computation which were isomorphic to the undecidability limitations of Turing machines.  Similar implications were reached through work in symbolic logic by Rubel (1989), who used this to critique the earlier claims of analog superiority by Vergis et al.


In visual neurobiology, we moved from the 60s reductionist feature extraction hierarchy of Hubel and Weisel to the 70s holistic fourier transform model of DeValois.  But the experiments which had supported this view of global spatial frequency detection did not necessarily negate Hubel and Weisel's results, and following some debate a synthesis was proposed (MacKay 1981).  The model finally adopted used the Gabor transform, a combination of local and global information extraction (figure 4) which had been developed in early communication theory, prior to the polarizing split of the 1960s (Gabor 1946).  Empirical confirmation soon followed (Daugman 1984).


In cerebral lateralization, modernist theories had suggested that the digital left hemisphere was mathematical and male, and that the analog right hemisphere was artistic and female.  Transitional postmodernism saw a reversal of this association, with mathematics as an imagerial, holistic function of the right hemisphere and  "man the hunter" preferring spatial mapping in his neural evolution.  In stable postmodern lateralization, mathematical superiority is now said to depend on the interaction between both hemispheres, again leaving room for male superiority through studies reporting sex differences in interhemispheric information transfer (first described in De Lacoste-Utamsing and Holloway 1982).


In all four disciplines, information processing shifted from the holism reversal of the postmodern transition to a new, more stable holism-reductionism synthesis.  As in the case of the previous two transitions, this paradigm not only extends across many sciences, but also in popular culture. If hippies epitomize radical modernity, and punk and hip-hop give us transitional postmodernism, then an obvious choice for the pop subculture of stable postmodernism is New Age.  I hesitate to call this a youth subculture, since most of its members are not very young, but in some ways it fetishizes youthfulness even more than its predecessors.


6) New Age and the cult of harmony

Like hippy and punk rock enthusiasts, New Agers are primarily white and middle class, and the semeiotics of their subculture often concern this ethnic/class identity.  Hippy signifiers could often be read as an avoidance of whiteness, an attempted transformation into primitivised Native Americans or orientalist holy beggars.  For hippies artificial (eg Euclidian shapes, synthetics) signified a semantically empty whiteness, and natural (chaotic shapes, organic materials) filled in this blank with a more earthy identity.  Punk subculture claimed the blankness as its own, using artificial and urban-associated materials to signify both their acceptance of their ethnic identity and a refusal to ignore its ugliness.  New Age members, like the cybernetic engineers of their era, solve this problem of identity conflict neither by taking one side or the other, but by harmonious synthesis. 


The symbol which best portrays this hybrid identity is the crystal embedded in unpolished rock, a common motif in New Age fashion, art and literature.  Like multifractals (and New Age hairstyles), these objects are both Euclidian and fractal, both orderly and chaotic, and carry the paradoxical message that something can be both natural and artificial. In New Age subculture whiteness is just one of many ethnicities --  one which happens to have an odd association with artificiality, but that too is natural.   Hence the solution of identity conflict here allows New Age members to "channel" through cultures (even those long gone) in ways which make the most wanna-be of hippies look like white pride advocates.


The synthesis of artificial and natural is also conveyed in New Age music, which typically uses artificial (ie electronic) instruments to make natural sounds.  But the natural sounds are themselves supposed to reflect only the soothing harmonious essence of nature, the "music of the spheres," and therefore have an ethereal, unworldly character to them.  Another popular symbol among New Age participants is the yin-yang sign, which has a history of orentalist interpretations that has shown great flexibility.  In the 1960s the yin-yang was said to represent holism, the true unity that lies beyond dualist illusions of day and night, hot and cold, etc..  In New Age subculture the same symbol is used to represent the unity of holism and reductionism (which Toffler, writing primarily for a management science audience, terms "wholism").  Figure 5 summarizes this comparison of youth subcultures and cybernetics in the three historical moments outlined.


While this synthesis solves many of the tensions that the transitional reversal posed -- for example, justifying the lifestyles of thousands of ex-hippie computer programmers -- it presents some conceptual problems.  Should holism and reductionism be combined holistically, or reductionistically?  If holism is not the answer at the first level, why should it be the meta-level solution?  Doesn't this imply two different methods of synthesis, meta-holism and meta-reductionism, which could again (perhaps in 1997) be brought together in yet another brilliant philosophical coup? 


My cynicism here comes in part from an exasperation with the free-floating politics that this metaholism has allowed.  Riane Eisler's 1987 metaholism manifesto, The Chalice and the Blade, cites Karl Marx, Donna Haraway, and Alvin Toffler as participants in her "glyanic" (gynic/andro synthesis) wave, a sweeping inclusiveness that leaves one wondering if there is anything she does not support.  More ominous is the advocacy of prayer in public schools suggested by metaholism theorists Charlene Spretnak and Fritjof Capra.  While this may indeed combine holistic spirituality with reductionist institutionalization, it hardly seems like the cutting edge of progressive politics that they claim.


As in the case of holism pure and unmodified, I see no inherent ethical content to holism-reductionism synthesis.  Eisler, for example, suggests that the concepts of both patriarchy and matriarchy imply domination, and provides a utopic origin story in which the edenic state was a "glyanic" holism-reductionism synthesis of "partnership" rule.   But it is hard to see how this notion of partnership is inherently more liberating; it recalls Rich's "compulsory heterosexuality" and bourgeois ideals of family norms (see pg 39 of Eisler's text). And like the holism of transitional postmodernity, this holism-reductionism synthesis is also hard at work in military and industrial applications.  Robert Smithson of Lockheed, for example, recently suggested that the ultimate defense computing system would "operate in a continuum of modes ranging from analog to digital, and from network to sequential processor" with an optimum combination sought for each problem (Stoddard 1990).


7) Conclusion

How can we account for these parallel transitions between changes in information processing models and changes in and popular culture? Hess (1995:18-19) categorizes two different explanatory methods in science studies. In what he terms the  “sociological approach,” empirically identifiable social variables or actors are shown to have both correlation and causal connection with particular technological counterparts. In contrast, Hess refers to a “cultural approach” in which the correspondance between social and technological features cannot be reduced to any particular factor or artefact. Turkle (1995:264), for example, suggests that the correspondances between postmodernity and cybernetics are cultural “deep assumptions” (here using a phrase from Hayles) which  “manifests itself in one place and then another, here as developmental psychology and there as a style of engineering, here as a description of our bodies and there as a template for corporate organization, here as a way to build a computer network and there as a manifesto of political ideals.”


Hess suggests that any one researcher might switch between the cultural and sociological approach, changing analytic tools as they see appropriate, but this makes the choice sound like merely one of personal preference or rhetorical strategy. In the discussion of relations between cybernetics and popular culture in the 1960s I was able to give a good sociological account of the particular people, events, and artifacts (or in Latour’s terms, the network actors) that created the linkage. But this was much less apparent in the 1970s and 1980s. I did not decide to switch explanatory methods; rather the nature of this particular relation between the technological and the social has undergone an historic change.


There are two possible explanations for such transformations. The first is that the technical-social coupling only existed as a strong force during the 1960s, and that this was like synchronizing two clocks -- what appeared to be coupling in later decades was merely two independent dynamics with similar time constants. The second, which I find more believable, is that the kinds of explicit, overt gestures of political and technological allegiance that were appropriate in the 1960s would have been overbearing in the 70s and 80s. The coupling between popular culture and cybernetics was more subtle not because it was any less important, but because the subtlety was itself historically conditioned.


One of the fiercest battles of postmodernity has been the arguement between the “new left” of the 1960s and their postmodern counterparts. From the viewpoint of the sixties activists, postmodernist analyses (i.e. poststructuralism) are merely an excuse for navel-gazing (cf. Epstein 1995). Postmodernists generally reply that the particular physical activity of massive street protests is not the only possible theater for political movements, and that their political activism takes more subtle routes. One of these has been a shift to new forms of cultural representation, and it is here that we may find some of the mutual influences between cybernetics and popular culture. Rose (1994: 62-96) makes a detailed argument for the co-evolution of rap music and ceratin aspects of digital sound engineering, and also notes (pg 22) that many of the computer graphic effects that emerged in the later 1970s, such as morphing, were foreshadowed by the fluid transformations of graffti and breakdancing from the early 1970s. “In a simultaneous exchange, rap music has made its mark on advanced technology, and technology has profoundly changed the sound of Black music.” 


Another example of this subtle exchange occurs in the CALAB software documentation created by white mathematician Rudy Rucker (1989).  The controls for a specific group of the cellular automata parameters are recalled by analogy to rap artist names (pp 35, 37). When I asked him about the reference, his reply was a striking mix of ethnic signifiers and science fiction--a far more subtle connection than the romantic organicism that characterized the 1960s:


Well, I just remember thinking that it sounded like Black English, DB, DC, DD ... de brothers. I got Run-DMC's record when I lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, about 1984. Even without the record, I was certainly aware of Black English.  I tried to use some of it in my sci-fi novel The Hollow Earth, which has a Black character.



What stands out in this history is not any clever end-game, but rather the strategic status of oppositional moves.  Norbert Weiner's brief attempt to apply cybernetic recursion to labor unions in the 1950s was a radical move, but in the 1980s worker "self-management" was more about eliminating union activism.  Rucker's use of rap signifiers in his seminal cellular automata lab of the late 1980s was only possible because of an politically unaccountable New Age-style ethnic collage, but in the context of the typically all-white signifiers of hacker technoculture (e.g. the MUD as multi-user dungeon, the battle-ax as anti-virus icon, and other signifiers of a playful Tolkenesque nordic mythology), it carries a cultural intervention that is not insignificant.  Anti-hegemonic critique in cultural cybernetics works best when it does not depend on final answers, unmovable grounds of truth, or ultimate formula.  The only place to stand is to keep on moving.    



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[1]. In part the use of “7” years was motivated by specific dates -- 1967 as the “summer of love,” 1977 as the year of the first successful punk and rap hits. But it also serves as an arbitrary “cut” through the temporal changes, much like the way field biologists use a transect line for arbitrary sampling.

[2]. Varela's view of an inherent ethical advantage to analog systems was contradicted by the authoritarian politics of Howard Odum's cybernetic theory (Taylor 1988), as he made clear in a later essay (Varela 1979).

[3]. African-American youth subculture was, of course, a foundational force in the counter-hegemonic aspects of the 60s, but the alienation due to primitivist romanticism in hippy subculture resulted in a distinct distancing from the McLuhan-style organicist  cybernetics, as implied by Boggs (1968).  This alienation is reversed, however, in the comparison of Hip-Hop subculture to transitional postmodern cybernetics, as we will see in the following section.

[4]. The Turing machine is a mathematical abstraction which encapsulates all computations that would be possible with any digital device.

[5]. In fact the equivalence of deterministic and non-deterministic automata for the finite case (that is, finite state automata) was proved by M.O. Rabin and D. Scott in 1959.

[6]. This reversal of bias in the two cybernetic dimensions was also apparent in many locations throughout the "military-industrial establishment" of this transitional postmodern era.  One of the first explicit attempts to move toward military applications from within the tradition of holistic cybernetics was that of James Miller, whose Living Systems (1978) drew on Wiener, von Bertalanffy and others.  The title of his essay, "Potential Applications of a General Theory of Living Systems to the Study of Military Tactical Command and Control" -- a title that might be rephrased "Applications of Life to Death" -- is an oxymoron that underscores the tensions of transitional postmodernism's trope of reversal.  A similar statement was made in a later military holism manifesto by Dik Gregory (1986) of the US Army Research Institute.  A previous collaborator of Gordon Pask, Gregory cites not only the cybernetic tradition of the 60s (noting both the disregard for analog representation and recursion), but also the zen physics of Capra and Zukav, and the latest on self-organizing systems philosophy from Varela and Maturana.  Gregory's goal is the development of self-organizing military technologies  which can constitute "a dynamic 'living' system" -- presumably resulting in static 'dying' people.