Wessel Reijers

Workshop: Biological Life and Political Cybernetics

Cybernetics might seem a post-war relic to some, but in fact it has undergone a widespread revival, most notably in the humanities. Early cybernetic thinking largely ‘failed’ because it assumed the world, like the first digital computers, to be in equilibrium. In fact, however, the world is dynamic, always in flux. 21st century cybernetic thinking, in contrast, is increasingly dealing with anticipating, predicting and adapting to a dynamic world. As Yuk Hui stresses, we are witnessing the increasing dominance of recursivity over mechanism, and recursivity feeds on contingency (change) to improve.

The intellectual roots of cybernetic thinking do not emerge for the first time with the early cyberneticians like Norbert Wiener. Proto-cybernetic thinking can already be found in ancient Eastern (Taoism) and Western (Socratic) thinking. It is no coincidence that Wiener took the metaphor of Kybernetes from Plato to describe his new science. In a way, this metaphor keeps traveling, from the Greek trireme, via the organisation of the Greek city state, through Kant’s formulation of the organic as the condition of philosophy, via biology, computer science, ecology, and complex systems engineering, to again arrive at politics, for instance with the introduction of giant projects like China’s Social Credit System. In a way, cybernetics is situated in a conceptual triangle between technology and the crafts, politics and citizenship, and the life sciences.

This workshop series seeks to understand how today’s cybernetic thinking explicitly and implicitly, through science and the use of new technologies, impacts our political systems. We look forward to discuss how cybernetic concepts have shaped our thinking about politics and the way humans have built political institutions in the digital age.

This first workshop will be held at the University of Vienna, Vienna on December 2, 2022. It will bring together world-leading academics in the fields of philosophy, ecology, political theory, law, and computer science, to discuss the notion of cybernetics in light of emerging sociotechnical systems.

The urgency of this workshop is emphasised by the proliferation of recursive, cybernetic systems as applied to the governance of people and societies. This includes the vast ecosystems build by the world’s major tech giants (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Tencent), but also by governments (China’s Social Credit System, Citizen Risk Score Systems like in the Netherlands), and by more ephemeral, distributed entities (Bitcoin, Ethereum). On the one hand, these systems represent radically different modes of governance (e.g., corporate, authoritarian, democratic), yet they converge on the point of their structures and operations. This workshop will therefore focus on the cybernetic legacy of these systems, and on the ethical and political implications of this legacy.

The workshop asks how cybernetic concepts in the study of life have impacted our thinking about machines. The aim is to consider how our thinking about the organism, its metabolism, and its mental processes, has led to ideas about “living” and “thinking” machines.

Moreover, it asks how cybernetic concepts in the study of machines have impacted our thinking about life and its environment. The computer and other machines have given us a powerful analogy to think about the life of ecological systems, for instance how they (supposedly) achieve homeostasis. It has also given us ecological concepts like those of spaceship earth, which colour or popular understanding of nature.

Finally, it asks how the merger of mechanics and vitalism (i.e., cybernetics) is impacting our political systems and citizenship. New sociotechnical systems that are introduced in governance show increasing proclivity to establish recursive feedback loops between the behaviours of citizens and structures of power, of corporations, states, and other entities – including distributed global computing systems.

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© 2024 Wessel Reijers

Thema door Anders Norén