Ronald R. Kline
The Cybernetics Moment
Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age
Johns Hopkins University Press 2015
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I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
– Richard Brautigan, 1967
By the time Richard Brautigan distributed his fifth collection of poetry, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, on the streets of San Francisco, his reference to “a cybernetic ecology” was not an obscurantist metaphor so much as a direct nod to a pervasive and generative intellectual discourse. In The Cybernetics Moment, Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age (Johns Hopkins UP, 2015), historian of technology Ron Kline traces the emergence of this protean discourse, along with the shifting demarcations occurring within and around it as cybernetics worked its way between technology and theorization of the social world. In doing so, he provides perhaps the most comprehensive and incisive history to date of American cybernetics and information theory.
While cybernetics began as a distinctly postwar science of communication and control, Kline shows how it was linked to but split off from discussions of the physical definition of information. Cyberneticians’ emphasis on circular causality was a major influence on mid-century social science, and cybernetic theory was a common frame through which electronic computers were discussed in the media. As the subtitle suggests, Kline also grapples with the coherence of the term ‘information age,’ whose advocates departed from cybernetics yet, as he argues, remained under its shadow. Through historicizing cybernetics as a ‘moment,’ Kline characterizes the activities of its larger-than-life adherents with a sociologist’s eye, while unearthing both the material and conceptual artifacts left in its wake.