Cybernetics: the information we share with our machines

The lines between ourselves, our machines, and others have become blurred

Content warning: This article refers to online rape and sexual assault. Support through the National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line is available on 1800 737 732.

Almost exactly thirty years ago this month researchers gathered at the University of Texas, Austin for the third CYBERCONF. Its name owed less to Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, than William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, with its evocation of ‘cyberspace’ – a fully immersive computer-generated environment of big data, communication – and criminality. Gibson gave us a c that became the descriptor for an entire era, one that lingers on, forty years after publication, in ‘cybercrime’.

Initiated two years earlier by UoT architecture chair Michael Benedikt, these conferences brought together a select group of researchers from a variety of disciplines who had been “thinking about the possibilities and challenges of computer-mediated communication”. In this, the CYBERCONF was a precise – if unacknowledged – successor to the Macy’s Conferences of the late 1940s and early 1950s, with one significant difference: the total number of computers in the world could be counted on one hand in 1946. By 1991, hundreds of millions of people used computers on a daily basis, for work and for leisure. Yet the fundamental questions remained: How had our interactions with these devices changed us? Where would it go from there? The first cyberneticists had brave theories, but very little data to work with. These ‘third generation’ cyberneticists, like Benedikt, Alluquére Rosanne Stone, Brenda Laurel, Markos Novak, Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer, had both their brave theories and a vast assortment data.

Yet the fundamental questions remained: How had our interactions with these devices changed us? Where would it go from there?

Morningstar and Farmer, in particular, had a wealth of experience from their own ‘Habitat’ project. A prototype online environment developed by George Lucas’ Lucasfilm Games, Habitat leveraged the just-emerging dial-up technologies connecting cheap personal computers (in this case, the wildly popular $300 Commodore 64), enabling users to dial into a very simple virtual world – text and some not-very-impressive graphics – and, while there, connect with other users, chat, collaborate – and build. It’s this creative component that made Habitat different from previous online systems, as Morningstar and Farmer quickly learned all of their pre-built environments couldn’t hold a candle to the environments users created for themselves – and to delight other users.

We think nothing today of amazing worlds created in Minecraft or Roblox, expecting to be amused – even amazed – by the online creative activities of others. That begins with Habitat, where we learned – for the first time, but not the last – other people are the whole reason to be online. Nearly a full decade after Habitat, CYBERCONF 3 could look beyond those first online creative communities, toward a world always online, scaled to planetary populations.

At the centre of the three-day conference, a quickly-organised evening seminar reviewed the ‘Rape in Cyberspace’ – an online sexual assault that had taken place in Pavel CurtisLambdaMOO, a text-only, participant-created virtual world considered the hot new research environment for computer-mediated communication. The culprit – already identified as ‘Mr Bungle’ – had written code that deprived other users of agency, leaving them unable to escape as the text-based sexual assault took place. What should be done with the offender? Had they committed a crime? Should they be reported to the police? Would the police even understand what had happened? Was a text-based sexual assault still an assault if the person under assault could simply abandon the virtual world?

These questions, asked for the very first time in 1993, go to the heart of everything that Norbert Wiener, Margret Mead, Gregory Bateson, JCR Licklider and all of the first-generation cyberneticists wanted to explore and understand: how much of the information we exchange with our machines sits inside of us, how much sits between us, and how much within our machines? Can we design systems for safety – and should we even try? Can we make ourselves safe? Or do we simply have to accept that vulnerability is the price to be paid for sending any messages across the gulf that separates us from one another and our machines?

1993 marks the last moment before the explosive infiltration of the World Wide Web across almost every connected computing device on the planet.

As with the Macy’s Conference, CYBERCONF 3 hadn’t been organised to deliver neat answers to difficult questions. Instead, the questions informed researchers’ further work. As we all fanned out to our respective homes – I was one of the researchers presenting my own work – we reflected upon what we’d learned about the spectrum of human behavior when coupled to and transmitted by machines, applying it to our own practice.

1993 marks the last moment before the explosive infiltration of the World Wide Web across almost every connected computing device on the planet. Within a few years that recently-largely-theoretical conception of humanity connected at scale had been named ‘cyberspace’, become a daily reality for ‘millions of legitimate users’ (Gibson’s prediction rang true), and seemed to offer boundless opportunity for people to learn, play and to connect – ‘finding the others’.

The world we inhabit today, after almost three decades of continuous, increasing and unceasing connectivity, where the lines between ourselves, our machines and others have become so blurred (sometimes accidentally, sometimes with malice aforethought), where online sexual assaults have become a recurring horror, where ‘othering’ and ‘griefing’ and ‘trolling’ form part of the background noise, had been foreseen, if only in vague outlines, by the first generation of cyberneticists. 

The second generation of cyberneticists – in particular, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela – demonstrated that the line separating human from machine becomes more and more permeable as each exchanges information with the other, eventually resulting in a ‘structural coupling’, creating a single unity from two distinct entities. Put your head into the machine, and the machine pulls itself into your head.

The third generation of cyberneticists – my generation, including such luminaries as Genevieve Bell, Danah Boyd, Kate Crawford, Douglas Rushkoff and many others – confront a world where nearly all of humanity is intensely structurally coupled with a range of machines and humans, most of whom have little to no idea about the mechanics of these relationships and therefore lack capacity to manage them.

Put your head into the machine, and the machine pulls itself into your head.

This may be why we can’t put our smartphones down, why we stay glued to social media that makes us feel bad, angry – or simply riddled with FOMO. This may be why we worry about managing ‘screen time’ for our children – while somehow ignoring the more obvious conclusion: that our entire culture needs a ‘time-out’, a intervention to create space for critical thinking and for the exercise of agency.

Cyberneticists walk a tightrope, sounding sometimes like scolds and other times like cheerleaders. So much is possible – yet so much is not working for us. Could we be making better decisions? We’ve known for four decades that human-machine connections both bring out the best in us and give free reign our worst impulses. Yet that knowledge has only occasionally been translated into practice. Too often it has been ignored or – as in the case of Cambridge Analytica – turned against us.

We need to leverage our history, our understanding, and the basic insights that Norbert Wiener shared three quarters of a century ago in Cybernetics. At this point, nothing about the human-machine relationship should be mysterious or opaque. We can see clearly how these relationships shape us, and, if we are willing to work with that knowledge, we can make for ourselves better relationships – for relationships are the essence of cybernetics.

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