Primary Source Seminar: Transactions of the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, 1949–1953
Ten conferences were held between 1946 and 1953 to investigate ‘Circular Causal, and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems’. The meetings, sponsored by Josiah Macy Jr., laid groundwork for the ambitious architecture of cybernetics. The complete transactions of the final five conferences constitute the foundational document to this epoch-making project. Cybernetics was supposed to establish a unified theory of thinking across the physical, life, and social sciences that took technological concepts such as ‘information’ and ‘feedback’ as a starting point. A hard-wired dedication to discussions across fields cemented a blueprint of interdisciplinary communication between mathematics, physics, biology, sociology, linguistics, computer science, psychoanalysis, and economics. The exclusive ranks of the participants shared the intention of developing a utopia for a forthcoming unity of knowledge, a universal theory of regulation and control. Cybernetic theory was to integrate economic as well as mental processes, encompass sociological as well as aesthetic phenomena, and apply to living beings as well as to machines. The transactions allow deep insights into this systematic enterprise of integrating concepts that had been hitherto kept far apart and illuminate the emergence of lasting conceptual frameworks such as our distinction between the analogue and the digital.
Primary Source Essays
This seminar is one of six you can choose as a basis for one of two primary source essays you will write for Part II. You should submit a list, in order of preference, of four primary sources on which you might like to write essays to the department office by 24 October. If you end up writing paper based on this seminar, or would like to discuss the option, email me to arrange a time to meet, discuss a topic, and set a supervision schedule. Keep in mind that the final submission deadline for primary source essays is 29 January 2018.
The departmental guidelines for framing your primary source essay are as follows:
The examiners expect all primary source essays to display close engagement with the source. They recognise that a wide range of different approaches to any primary source is appropriate. Different approaches may include (among others) historical contexualisation of the source; a comparative study of the source; questions concerning the reception of the source; an approach addressing a single passage from a source in great depth; the literary and rhetorical analysis of a source; and a close philosophical analysis of the argument in the source.
See the department website for further information and guidance.
The principle primary text for this seminar will be:
Claus Pias, ed. Cybernetics: The Macy Conferences, 1946–1953: The Complete Transactions (Zurich: diaphanes, 2016). [Available at the Whipple and as an e-book. Additional copies are available at the UL.]
For additional primary grounding, you may wish to consult:
Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, or: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Mansfield Center, CT: Martino,  2013). [Whipple]
Key Secondary Sources
The following secondary literature will help you understand the Cold War world within which the Macy Conferences took place. We will engage with excerpts from some these works in our seminars, and you will find them helpful if you pursue an essay based on the Macy Conferences.
Tara H. Abraham, Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch's Transdisciplinary Life in Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016). [Whipple]
Paul Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988) [Whipple and e-book].
Paul Erickson, Judy Klein, Lorraine Daston, Rebecca Lemov, Thomas Sturm, and Michael Gordin, How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold War Rationality (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2013). [Whipple and e-book]
Paul Forman, ‘On the Historical Forms of Knowledge Production and Curation: Modernity Entailed Disciplinarity, Postmodernity Entails Antidisciplinarity', Osiris 27 (2012): 56–97. [EJournal]
Steve Joshua Heims, The Cybernetics Group (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991). [Whipple]
Ronald Kline, The Cybernetics Moment, or: Why We Call Our Age the Information Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2015). [Whipple and e-book]
William Thomas, Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015). [Whipple]
SCHEDULE OF MEETINGS AND TOPICS
Each week, we will engage with some excerpts from the Macy Conferences, as well as supplementary sources that help to place them in context. With the exception of Week 1, which will serve as a course overview and introduction to the topic, you should come to each seminar having considered the questions posed below in light of that week’s reading. In weeks 2–4, student presenters will come ready to introduce the readings and provide two or three additional discussion questions. These questions might also be taken as a starting point for a primary source essay.
Readings from the Macy transactions are indicated by [Macy ###–###], where ### indicates the page numbers and the relevant excerpts can also be accessed on the Moodle site. Other readings are either posted to Moodle, available in the Whipple, and/or accessible through the library’s digital subscriptions.
October 11 – Introductory Seminar: A Cold War Science
Cybernetics, a grand, interdisciplinary attempt to understand and control systems of many types and at many scales through the study of feedback and information, formed in the aftermath of World War II. Its founders saw cybernetics as a peacetime extension of the types of work they had conducted in aid of the Allied war effort, much of it using the new digital computers. In this seminar, I will introduce some of the background to cybernetics and we will discuss both some general methodological issues that crop up when manipulating primary sources and the particular ways in which those issues apply to the Transactions of the Macy Conferences.
1. Frank Fremont-Smith – Introduction to the Eighth Macy Conference on Cybernetics (with participant list) [Macy 338–340]
Questions to consider:
- What distinguishes a primary from a secondary source?
- What do you know about cybernetics already? What impressions of the field to you bring with you to this seminar?
- What do the ambitions that Fremont-Smith articulates in his introduction to the eighth conference tell you about the world in which cybernetics emerged?
October 18 – The Material Culture of Cybernetics
N.B.: Class will meet in the Learning Gallery of the Whipple Museum.
Far from being a mere theory of systems, cybernetics was both inspired by and sought to influence the physical world of things. This week, we will consider what we can learn from the Transactions by considering them in light of the objects and technologies that were both the source of the analogies behind cybernetics, and the products of cybernetics research.
1. Claude Shannon – ‘Presentation of a Maze-Solving Machine’ [Macy 474–479]
2. Ralph W. Gerard – ‘Some Problems Concerning Digital Notions in the Central Nervous System’ [Macy 171–202]
3. Michael S. Mahoney – ‘Reading a Machine’ [unpublished manuscript; Moodle]
4. Lydia Pine – ‘The Day We Brought Our Robot Home’, The Atlantic, 30 September 2014 [link].
Questions to consider:
- In what ways did Shannon and his interlocutors consider his maze-solving machine to be an analogue to human cognition?
- Why is it important to the Macy participants whether the underlying mechanism of the nervous system is digital or analogical?
- To what extent did objects guide or constraining the thinking of cyberneticists?
- To what extent can you see cybernetic thinking guiding or constraining the shape of objects (contemporary or historical)?
October 25 – Cybernetics as (Inter)Discipline
A defining characteristic of cybernetics was its approach to disciplinary expertise. Although grounded in engineering and mathematics, it attracted linguists, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, and others alongside representatives from the physical sciences and technology. Navigating the tangle of disciplinary terminology, divergent epistemic assumptions, and friction-inducing prestige asymmetries was one of the steepest challenges participants faced. In this seminar, we will use the Transactions to examine the notion of disciplinarity in the Cold War.
1. Margaret Mead – ‘Experience in Learning Primitive Languages through the Use of Learning High Level Linguistic Abstractions’ (plus 1950 Participant List) [Macy 273–290, 166]
2. Paul Forman – ‘On the Historical Forms of Knowledge Production and Curation: Modernity Entailed Disciplinarity, Postmodernity Entails Antidisciplinarity’, Osiris 27 (2012): 56–97. [EJournal]
Questions to consider:
- What assumptions (about nature, about science, about scientists) are necessary for a project like cybernetics to get off the ground?
- How do the conversations recorded in the Transactions demonstrate the difference in disciplinary approaches to similar questions?
- Were the participants able to transcend these differences effectively?
- Was cybernetics, in Forman’s terms, antidisciplinary?
November 1 – Cybernetics in Social and Political Context
The Macy Conferences took place within a distinctive and transitional historical moment after World War II, when the shape of the postwar world was still to be determined, and the sense that it could yet be shaped was powerful. Assessing the Transactions therefore requires understanding them within this context. Our discussion for this week will examine how the consensus (and lack of consensus) to emerge from the Macy Conferences fit within the wider social and political circumstances that gave birth to them.
1. Warren S. McCollouch, ‘Appendix I: Summary of the Points of Agreement Reached in the Previous Nine Conferences on Cybernetics’ [Macy 719–725]
2. William Thomas – Rational Action, Introduction and Chapter 11 [Whipple and Moodle]
3. Ronald Kline - The Cybernetic Moment, Chapter 3 [e-book]
Questions to consider:
- What accounts for Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener becoming a best seller?
- In what respects did cybernetics claim to be universal? Assess the merits and limitations of these claims.
- What did cybernetics owe to its origins in wartime research?
- Cybernetic ideas can be clearly discerned in modern computer and data science. What factors prevented it from coalescing as a stable and persisting field in its right?
Published Primary Material
W. Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Chapman & Hall, 1956).
Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (New York: Dutton, 1979)
Mary Catherine Bateson, Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation (New York: Knopf, 1972).
Stafford Beer, Designing Freedom (New York: Wiley, 1974).
Stafford Beer, ‘The World, The Flesh, and the Metal: The Prerogatives of Systems’, Nature 205, no. 4968 (1965): 223–31.
Steward Brand, II Cybernetic Frontiers (New York: Random House, 1974).
Lawrence K. Frank et al., ‘Teleological Mechanisms’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 50, no. 4 (1948): 187–278.
Warren S. McCulloch, Embodiments of Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964).
Margaret Mead, ‘Cybernetics of Cybernetics’, in Purposive Systems, ed. H. von Foerster, J. D. White, L. J. Peterson, and J. K. Russell (New York: Spartan Books, 1968), 1–11.
Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow, ‘Behavior, Purpose, and Teleology’, Philosophy of Science 10, no. 1 (1943): 18–24.
Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950).
Norbert Wiener, God & Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964).
On Applications and Extensions of Cybernetics
Jon Agar, ‘Cold War Sciences (2): Sciences from Information Systems’, in Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012), 367–402.
Geoffrey C. Bowker, ‘How to be Universal: Some Cybernetic Strategies, 1943–1970’, Social Studies of Science 23 (1993): 107–27.
Christina Dunbar-Hester, ‘Listening to Cybernetics: Musing, Machines, Nervous Systems, 1950–1980’, Science, Technology, and Human Values 25 (2010): 113–39.
Paul Erikson, ‘Mathematical Models, Rational Choice, and the Search for Cold War Culture’, Isis 101 (2010): 386–92.
Angela C. Hughes and Thomas P. Hughes, eds., Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).
Philip Mirowski, Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
David Nofre, Mark Priestley, and Gerard Alberts, ‘When Technology Became Language: The Origins of the Linguistic Conception of Computer Programming, 1950–1960’, Technology & Culture 55, no. 1 (2014): 40–75.
Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
On the Social, Cultural, and Political Context of Cybernetics
Martin Campbell-Kelly, William Aspray, Nathan Ensmenger, and Jeffrey R. Yost, Computer: A History of the Information Machine, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014).
Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
Paul Forman, ‘The Primacy of Science in Modernity, of Technology in Postmodernity, and of Ideology in the History of Technology’, History and Technology 23, no. 1–2 (2007): 1–152.
Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at Stanford and MIT (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
David E. Nye, America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).
Megan Prelinger, Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2015).
Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
On Notable Cyberneticists
Tara Abraham, ed., ‘Warren S. McCulloch and his Circle’, special issue, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 37, no. 3 (2012).
Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics (New York: Basic Books, 2005).
Peter Galison, ‘The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision’, Critical Inquiry 21 (1994): 228–66.
Andrew Pickering, ‘Cybernetics and the Mangle: Ashby, Beer and Pask’, Social Studies of Science 32 (2002): 413–37.
On Specific National Contexts
Tara H. Abraham, ‘Transcending Disciplines: Scientific Styles in Studies of the Brain in Mid-Twentieth Century America’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (2012): 552–68.
Phillipp Aumann, ‘The Distinctiveness of a Unifying Science: Cybernetics’ Way to West Germany’, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 33, no. 4 (2011): 17–27.
Peter Galison, ‘The Americanization of Unity’, Daedalus 127, no. 1 (1998): 45–71.
Slava Gerovich, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).
Adam E. Leeds, ‘Dreams in Cybernetic Fugue: Cold War Technoscience, the Intelligentsia, and the Birth of Soviet Mathematical Economics’, Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 46, no. 5 (2016): 633–68.
Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).
David A. Mindell, Jérôme Segal, and Slava Gerovitch, ‘From Communications Engineering to Communications Science: Cybernetics and Information Theory in the United States, France, and the Soviet Union’, in Science and Ideology: A Comparative History, ed. Mark Walker (London: Routledge, 2003), 66–96.