I spoke last night at an event hosted by the Breaking the Frame collective. Breaking The Frame is based on the idea that everyone has the right to take part in decisions about technology. The collective aims to break the frame that conceals the politics of technology — to expose the common roots of the wide-ranging social and environmental problems caused by technologies.
My talk followed that of Ursula Huws of the University of Hertfordshire who described the terrain that defines the relationship between the digital and capitalism. There are details of the event, and other events in this series, here.
I was asked to speak about The Cybernetic Hypothesis, which was published by the collective that produced Tiqqun (reparation, restitution, redemption), a French journal with two issues in 1994 and 2015. It was argued that Tiqqun was a space for experimentation (pace The Situationists). It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. At issue was how to recreate the conditions of another community. See The Theory of Bloom and Introduction to Civil War for more information about Tiqqun’s philosophical basis.
Joss Winn’s notes on Reading the Cybernetic Hypothesis are especially helpful in unpacking the concepts developed in this short-ish tract (published in Tiqqun 2, and 43pp in eleven sections). Below, I detail the core themes I wished to open-out, alongside some further reading.
Cybernetics and control
It is important to situate the Cybernetic Hypothesis against the history and development of cybernetics, which was amplified in the aftermath the Second World War across a range of (inter-)disciplines. In particular, it focused upon structures, constraints and possibilities for homeostasis/regulation across specific systems. This focused around work involving to designate what was hoped would be a new science of control mechanisms, in which the exchange of information, four flows of data as real-time feedback mechanisms, would play a central role.
In discussing the cybernetic vision, Peter Galison argues that ‘Cybernetics, that science-as-steersman, made an angel of control and a devil of disorder.’ As a result, resistance (developed in the final three sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis) has pointed to mechanisms that increase disorganisation, noise, and uncontrollability, such as capacity, panic and fog, as ways to resist silence and control.
Here it is worth reflecting on Brian Holmes’ work on control, in terms of the continuous adjustment of an apparatus, or an environment, according to feedback data on its human variables. The environment is overcoded with an optimizing algorithm, fed by data coming directly from you and me. In this way we might view our use of social media, search engines and the Internet of things is a way of mapping ourselves both into a wider value-chain (with differential spatial and temporal aspects) and into a new political terrain. See Holmes’ work on Do Cybernetics Dream of Digital Resistance?, and this video on the society of Control: The Neoliberal Civilization.
What emerges in this analysis is a complex architecture the lies beyond the surveillant-architecture of the panopticon, where transnational activist networks (operating as geographies of neoliberalism) continually attempt to manipulate the environments in which individuals exist. This takes the form of ensuring risk-management by focusing on governing networks (as opposed to network governance) exerting hegemonic forms of social authority in a new ways. It also ensures that the system acts as a form of semi-autonomous ‘piloting’ (according to Tiqqun), through which new forms of accumulation can be generated rooted in the circulation of value. One key outcome is control of the future for consumption, and smoothing out outliers, which may form a terrain for resistances and rupture (in the form of reparation, restitution and redemption). For Tiqqun:
It is no longer a question of static order, but of dynamic self-organisation. The individual is no longer credited with any power at all: his knowledge of the world is imperfect, he doesn’t know his own desires, he is opaque to himself, everything escapes him, as spontaneously co-operative, naturally empathetic, and fatally interdependent as he is. He knows nothing of all this, but THEY know everything about him.
Thus, we might see the role of cybernetics in the interlocking systems that congeal as capitalism as enabling a set of holistic, self-regulating, self-organising processes, which in turn underpin a stable equilibrium between interdependent elements. It should be noted that the original hopes for cybernetic theory were in part grounded in systems as self-organising, although this potentially leads to increased complexity and noise, and the possibility for rupture. Such ruptures stand against the production of an objectively-controlled, stable society; such ruptures are amplified by slowing or breaking the flows of information and data. This is important because, as Tiqqun note:
That is to say, cybernetics is not, as we are supposed to believe, a separate sphere of the production of information and communication, a virtual space superimposed on the real world. No, it is, rather, an autonomous world of apparatuses so blended with the capitalist project that it has become a political project, a gigantic “abstract machine” made of binary machines run by the Empire, a new form of political sovereignty, which must be called an abstract machine that has made itself into a global war machine.
In her brilliant MIT PhD, Jessica Eden Miller Medina described the use to which the Chilean state, under Presidents Frei and Allende (and then repurposed under Pinochet), put computers as technologies of the state. She refers to these technologies as “state machines.”
These new record-keeping technologies and practices, including early computers and tabulating machines, in turn allowed state officials to plan economic policies and simulate their effects; map the national population statistically with increasing accuracy; and keep detailed inventories of national resources. The resulting databases in turn shaped future economic policies and their underlying theoretical frameworks, the behavior of international lending agencies, perceptions of government efficacy, and levels of public satisfaction. They also created new forms of state control.
Rationalization, organization, coordination, and, at bottom, tecnificacion not only played a crucial role in Frei’s economic policies for development, but also the social changes outlined in the “revolution in liberty” and the president’s dream for modernizing the state so that he might create a better society.
Crucial here was the focus on the relationship between technical relations of production and political vision. Miller Medina quotes President Allende’s speech welcoming visitors to the Cybersyn Operations Room:
We set out courageously to build our own system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.
However, inside Chile, there were problems in realising a new social terrain, because of: the relationship between deliberative democracy and the realpolitik of power relations; the messiness of economic planning and information at different levels of state and society, from the factory/community to central government; and because of the messy relationship between economic planning and social revolution. That said, analysing examples like CyberSyn, the involvement of the FLOK Society in delivering Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living, and the Lucas Plan, each offer alternative ways of exploring the relationships between human activity, human needs and technology.
Relationship to capitalism
The development of cybernetics is a systemic, structural and secular response to the issue of maintaining stable forms of accumulation and avoiding crisis inside capitalism. It is a response to the question of how to develop new forms of value without a fatal disequilibrium arising? For Tiqqun:
It is the tool by which capitalism has adjusted its capacity for disintegration and its quest after profit to one another. A society threatened by permanent decomposition can be all the more mastered when an information, an autonomous “nervous system” is in place allowing it to be piloted.
As a result, cybernetics acts as a lubricant for circulating and extracting value, using control devices to maximize commodity flows by eliminating (or at least reducing towards zero) risk and slow-down. One key issue is the relationship between value and machinery (or state machines), which tends to generate surplus population and to generate popularisation/proletarianisation. Harry Cleaver argues that this forces us to consider the conditions under which people become surplus to a capitalist system based on the imposition of work both waged and unwaged. As Amy Wendling notes this is crucial because “the social tyranny of exchange-value is so comprehensive that it determines how things are made and even what is made […] Capitalism does not care if it produces quantities for use; it cares about producing profit.”
One way of reframing this, which we can imagine emerging from an analysis of cybernetics in Chile or Ecuador, is to recognise how productivity reduces people to appendages of the machine through Capital’s autonomy over the General Intellect. As Marx writes in volume 1 of Capital:
The productive forces… developed [by] social labour… appear as the productive forces of capitalism… Collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labour, the use of the forces of nature and the sciences, of the products of labour, as machinery – all these confront the individual workers as something alien, objective, ready-made, existing without their intervention, and frequently even hostile to them.
We may consider resisting through the recognition of our collective knowledge, skills and capabilities as forms of mass intellectuality, which might be liberated in those unalienated areas of our lives yet to be colonised by capital. This leads us towards a struggle against work. As Moishe Postone argues, this is fundamental because the machining realities of the world we are in
opens the possibility of large-scale socially-general reductions in labor time and fundamental changes in the nature and social organization of labor. Yet these possibilities are not realized in capitalism.
In discussing a co-operative pedagogy of struggle, I argue:
The fight against forms of cybernetic control is not one of destroying or refusing high technology, but rather focuses upon using technology and technique to reveal the internal, totalising dynamics of capitalism. From this position, alternatives rooted in self-organisation and a societal complexity based on variety, improbability, and adaptability emerge. For Tiqqun, this forms the negation of the cybernetic hypothesis through a return to what it means to be human. A critical role for educationalists using technology inside-and-against the cybernetic hypothesis is to develop educational opportunities that highlight the development of counter-narratives of commons, co-operation, sharing, and openness, and against the separation and alienation of money, price, quality, and competition. As Tronti (p. 105) argued, at issue is the extent to which the forms of control that pervade human existence inside the social factory can be revealed and alternatives critiqued so that ‘capital itself  becomes uncovered, at a certain level of its development, as a social power’.
Here we remember that Kautsky in discussing the class struggle argued:
The economic machinery of the modern system of production constitutes a more and more delicate and complicated mechanism; its uninterrupted operation depends constantly more upon whether each of its wheels fits in with the others and does the work expected of it.
Here there is an argument that the complexity of the wheels make up the capitalist machine offer moments of slow-down and machine-breaking. For Tiqqun, this did not mean a better, or more democratic use of technology inside capitalism. It meant a different set of social and humane formations:
a cascade of devices, a concrete government-mentality that passes through [inter-subjective] relations. We do not want more transparency or more democracy. There’s already enough. On the contrary – we want more opacity and more intensity.
Attacking the cybernetic hypothesis – it must be repeated – doesn’t mean just critiquing it, and counterposing a concurrent vision of the social world; it means experimenting alongside it, actuating other protocols, redesigning them from scratch and enjoying them.
For the collective moments of reparation, restitution and redemption were to be sought: in the increase in moments of panic disequilibrium; in the generation of noise; in becoming invisible inside the system; in the duality of sabotage and retreat; through deliberate slow-down; through humane, rather than technologically-mediated encounters; by increasing the space for opaqueness and fog. It was argued that “Speed upholds institutions. Slowness cuts off flows.”
This reminds us of Marx’s conception in the Grundrisse of the social cost of productivity and technological intensification:
The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time. (If labour time is regarded not as the working day of the individual worker, but as the indefinite working day of an indefinite number of workers, then all relations of population come in here; the basic doctrines of population are therefore just as much contained in this first chapter on capital as are those of profit, price, credit etc.) There appears here the universalizing tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production.
For Tiqqun, then, the point was widening the space for autonomy.
It gives itself the means of lasting and of moving from place to place, means of withdrawing as well as attacking, opening itself up as well as closing itself off, connecting mute bodies as bodiless voices. It sees this alternation as the result of an endless experimentation. “Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.
There are some outstanding issues which need to be addressed as part of this discussion.
- Issues of intersectional oppressions, which are reinforced cybernetically, including the emotional and psychological toll this takes. This is then related to reproduction of white, male, hetero-normative power.
- The role of accelerationism: see Jehu’s discussions over at The Real Movement.
- An engagement with issues of proletarianisation, and working class composition, autonomy and power. This leads to a discussion of the abolition of alienated-labour, across the wider social terrain.
- How do we use narratives to generate forms of solidarity, and in order to offer examples of rupture and alternatives? Here I am interested in the tactics offered by PlanC in generating a machine for fighting anxiety.
NOTE: I have written about cybernetics in the context of the relationship between Autonomist Marxism and eduction, and also in terms of emerging technologies and commodification. There are useful resources in the reference lists.