November 5, 2008 Ben Peters

Dissertation Update: “Reconstructing Information in Cold War Cybernetics and Social Science”

Abstract: “Reconstructing Information” attempts to internationalize understanding of the emergence of information as a computer-compatible, or cybernetic, keyword before and during the cold war. Chapter studies include complimentary precursors to cybernetic thought in pre-Revolutionary Russian and American philosophy, the Soviet translation of cybernetic vocabulary for at first reforming and then reaffirming structural power in Soviet society, to an examination of why the Soviets failed to build a computer network equivalent to the US ARPANET. These and other cautionary tales help defamiliarize, broaden, and reconstruct a history of a term critical to the modern search for knowledge and social order.

Project Question and Outline: “Reconstructing information” asks, How did information become associated with computers in a cold war context? Whence the modern-day computer-compatible, or cybernetic, visions of social and scientific order? In particular, how can internationalizing the history of the association of information with computers help reconstruct and correct understandings of the philosophy and politics of digital communication in modern society? In effort to address these questions, my project also looks to denaturalize and challenge conventional thought on American triumphalism in the rise of computers.

The history of cybernetics—a variously understood postwar science of control and communication—helps focus and direct the narrative structure for these questions, beginning with the philosophical precursors of cybernetics, to the Sovietization of an initially western cybernetic vocabulary in at first reforming and then reaffirming structural power, to cautionary explanations for why the Soviets failed to develop an equivalent to the ARPANET or what historian of science Slava Gerovitch calls “the Soviet InterNyet.”
The introduction offers a literature review of critical information scholarship and a brief historical backdrop of how especially cybernetics helps capture the connection between the role information plays in cold war visions of the search for knowledge and social order. I hypothesize cybernetics as a particular rich postwar expression of a broader international movement to make analogies scientific and precise. Cybernetics can be understood as a “likening science” in the sense that it—like the English word like—contains three increasingly complex senses of structural analysis between events: analogy (“to be like”), affinity (“to like”), and application (“to liken”). Similarly, cybernetics sought a language with which to identify and bridge across traditions of discrete and continuous logics in mathematics, the leaps and the links implicit in the scientific method, and the digital and analog modes of media. Ever since, the resulting language has been one of information likened unto computers: the history of this often cold war process needs rethinking and reconstruction.
Each chapter in this project takes a different perspective and analytical lens to the problem of the cold war history of information. The first chapter takes a broad philosophical inventory of three overlapping senses of information in modern societies; the second chapter builds and then breaks an analogy between the lives and times of proto-cybernetic philosophers, Josiah Royce and Andrei Bogdanov; the third chapter moves from postwar America to the mid 1950s Sovietization of cybernetics; the fourth chapter parallels the failed Soviet economic network project and the US ARPANET in the 1960s; and the conclusion reviews and reflects on what the past may yet teach the present.
To touch on each chapter briefly: my partial drafting of the first chapter to date proposes three alternative sense of the English term information in modern history: one, information as a process of embodiment of matter and mind with form—an instructive although largely obsolete sense of the word dating from at least the 15th century on; two, information as relevant facts and communicable knowledge—the predominant sense in modern everyday English; and three, a computer-compatible abstraction of symbol. Each of these three senses of information—we could call them “formative,” “knowable,” and “cybernetic” senses—can help rethink contemporary understanding of the keyword.
The by now long-obsolete “formative” sense conceives of information as a process (cf. -“ation”) by which some material is given form, and can be found in the verb inform and past participles like “informed consent” or informed voter”. Information gives form and imprint or change quality to consent or the voter, just as Milton thought “sun informs color” and “heat [of a blacksmith’s fire] informs metal.” It acts upon the world.
Knowable information, on the other hand, dates back to at least the Bacon’s empiricist and Kant’s rationalist union of mind and matter. The common phrase “for your information” assumes the transfer of content from one mind to another. We interact through it; it is the stuff of human communication.
A cybernetic or computer-compatible sense of information, however, does not require humans to be communicated. Rather, as abstract data independent of human cognition, algorithms can sort it; unread databases and automated messages can contain it. Humans access and act on cybernetic information, and its (often cold war inspired) systems in turn enacts it further. This chapter’s interpretive prehistory of the science and senses that can help defamiliarize contemporary uses of the term and preface closer case studies of cold war efforts to do the same.
The second chapter examines two primary philosophical precursors to the cybernetic sense of information, Josiah Royce and Alexander Bogdanov. Royce is remembered, when he is remembered at all, for being the last proponent of absolute idealism, a philosophy that engaged and lost in debate to William James’ pragmatism. This chapter revisits Royce’s later life and work as a dissertation adviser to Norbert Wiener and originally reads Royce as an early philosopher of cybernetics’ relationship to feedback. Fresh archival evidence shows that as a teenager doctoral student at Royce’s summer seminars at Harvard between 1910-12, Wiener was exposed to Royce’s vision of the scientific method as a way to conceive of both the natural world and the philosophical world as “self-representative systems” (1899). Royce’s work on maps within maps, causally looped infinite mathematical series, “exact resemblances” as precise analogies, and “self-representative systems” prefigure Wiener’s enriched sense of purposeful negative feedback as a control mechanism in 1943—an idea given shape by collaborative work on neurological behavior in the animal and semi-automatic ballistic studies.
In turn, I look to contrast Royce and Wiener respectively as a philosopher of absolute possibility and an applied poet of probability. At least two points about probability are worth developing: one, probability itself offers a discrete mathematical analogy between representations of the natural and the philosophical world, between a numerator of measurable events and a denominator of total possible events. In this sense, Wiener’s work with probability sustained a strict mathematical analogy between measurable world of his engineer peers and the thinkable world of Josiah Royce. Two, while Royce’s philosophy misses the measurable world of information, entropy, and thermodynamics ranging from, say, Austrian chemist Ludwig Boltzmann to Hungarian émigré and Cold War game theorist John von Neumann, Royce’s work on infinite series does importantly resonate with his Russian contemporary Andrei Markov Sr.’s work on stochastic series, work that influenced Turing, Shannon, and Wiener, among other early computer philosopher-engineers. Royce’s vocabulary, in short, offers an inspirational alternative to that of early cyberneticians.
The early draft second case study of chapter two explores the lifework of the old Bolshevik revolutionary, writer, economist, and philosopher Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928) a philosophical precursor to cybernetics he called “tektology” or “a universal organizational science.” Understood as a type of mathematics-less pre-cybernetics, Bogdanov’s tektology illustrates the historical contingency of the scientific analogies: while Bogdanov’s choice analogy between nature and society hints at a strong sense of collectivism, Wiener’s original analogy between animals and machines resonates with a western sense of individualism. The interaction between these analogies can help preface the postwar pacifist and leftist politics of Wiener himself with Leninist-Marxist concerns about social organization and labor expressed in the early science fiction of Bogdanov’s Red Star, the uneasy Bolshevik Evgenii Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopia We, and the Czech writer Karl Chapek’s 1921 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots.”
In brief, the completed third chapter draft, available here, examines how the language of Wiener’s cybernetics was translated into the Soviet academic discourse and comments on attending ironies of the pacifist politics and militant applications driving cold war cybernetics.
The working draft fourth chapter asks why the Soviet Union failed to develop a national network project contemporary with the US ARPANET. Several leads in the working chapter include, one, that the first person to conceive of a national computer network for civilian use was the Soviet cyberneticist and Engineer Colonel, Anatolii Kitov; that Soviet economic cybernetics tried repeatedly but could not build this network in part, two, due to the cybernetic-inspired correspondence in the hierarchically decentralized designs of both Soviet networks and Soviet bureaucracies and, in part, three, because the technical support for the network failed to appear due to unregulated competition in the Soviet bureaucracy, while the ARPANET succeed in part due to state subsidies and centralized institutions that supported them. Whatever the shape of the final narrative, the failure of the Soviet networks offer a cautionary tale about thinking with cybernetics across information science and society. Pending a grant to spend the summer in Paris writing and researching under Bruno Latour, the case study of the French Minitel network (with its centralized state support and decentralized design) may add a third dimension to this chapter case study.
The unwritten conclusion will aim to review, analyze, and rethink what such reconstructed shifts in cold war cybernetics may offer and correct in contemporary understandings of information.