Cybernetics and the dual-edged sword of disciplinarity

It’s difficult to read Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain and not be swept up in his infectious enthusiasm for the British cyberneticians. They were the fun wing of an approach which “emerged from nowhere as far as established fields and career paths were concerned” with the “cyberneticians and their projects were outsiders to established fields of endeavor” (55). Cybernetics had no social basis, as he terms it, something which was a strength in many ways. The radically open character of its intellectual inquiry clearly had a foundation in modes of academic sociality, such as the Ratio dining club described on pg 58:

Ratio was interinstitutional, as one might say. It did not simply elide disciplinary boundaries within the university; it brought together representatives from different sorts of institutions: people from the universities, but also medical men and physiologists based in hospitals and research institutes, including Walter and Ashby, and workers in government laboratories.

But this strength came hand-in-hand with the weakness of cybernetics, as Pickering describes on pg 59-60:

Academic disciplines are very good at holding neophytes to specific disciplinary agendas, and it was both a strength and a weakness of cybernetics that it could not do this—a strength, inasmuch as cybernetics retained an undisciplined and open-ended vitality, an ability to sprout off in all sorts of new directions, that the established disciplines often lack; a weakness, as an inability both to impose standards on research and to establish career paths for new cyberneticians left enthusiasts to improvise careers much as did the founders.

In this sense, we can see disciplines as a dual-edged sword. They are effective carries of tradition, ensuring insights, ideas and methods get reproduced from one generation to the next. But they do this at the cost of disciplining, with the perpetual risk that creativity and innovation are foreclosed by an adherence to inherited standards.

Is it possible to overcome this by developing nomadic movements within the conservative structure of disciplines? I’m prone to seeing the bias towards novelty within the contemporary scholarly ecosystem as a fundamentally negative thing, as much as I’m well suited to it in many ways. But an optimistic reading of it cold be that it mitigates the stultifying potential inherent in disciplinarity and ensures there is room for creativity which might not otherwise be there.

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