Thuistezien 183 — 20.02.2021

Marc Tuters
Cybernetic Cultures

In a somewhat brief period of time in America, from 1968-1972, a magazine with the name ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ was issued by a writer named Stewart Brand. The pages of this magazine included theories of ecological balance in shapes of diagrams, teaching how these could be converted into a human societies’ lives. The magazine had an overall romanticized idea of autonomy and living off the grid-ideology while also incorporating the ideas of American individualism, showing illustrations of typical ‘nomad cowboys’. At the same time, it had pages illustrating and describing early day personal computers. This ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ was adopted wholeheartedly by the ‘back to the land’ movement of the late 60s to keep them in touch and to acquire new ideas for ways to live autonomously. It briefly became a crucial source to them. It was, in fact, so important for this group that it has been described as Google in a paperback form by Steve Jobs.

Interestingly, the concept of cybernetics was continuously promoted in the magazine, such as descriptions about the famous cybernetic theorist Norbert Wiener. Additionally, the scientist Gregory Bateson, who developed the implication of cybernetics as the theory of everything, and who embraced the unity of mind and nature, became a cult figure to the counterculture movement. It is, perhaps not surprising when considering how cybernetics happened to be all the rage during the 60s.

Marc Tuters is a media artist, researcher and teacher in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam, his mean focus is on media theory. With his talk ‘Cybernetic Cultures: Fantasies of absolute control’ for the 2018 Summer Talks at West, Tuters gives the audience an introduction to the two movements of counterculture and cybernetics and how they overlap. As he states, it can be seen as a brief genealogy of this overlap, where a number of historians, who have critically assessed this topic through time, are introduced. While the movement has been seen problematically as a precursor to platform capitalism, neoliberalism, the ‘solutionalist mentality’ of Silicon Valley and, simply, a new form for control, Tuters mentions that the time also had a fundamental rejection of bourgeois values. While it has been trending to look at the period from a Foucauldian perspective, he warns that this might not be the right approach. Essentially, Tuters brief genealogy provides information while also gives idea for some critical starting points of how to approach this evident overlap.

Text: Rosa Zangenberg