Cybernetic Serendipity

Cybernetics is one of the most widely misunderstood concepts. The word itself seems sinister and futuristic, but the term has ancient roots – the Greek word kybernetes, meaning steersman. Cybernetics was famously defined in more recent times by Norbert Wiener in 1948, as the science of “control and communication, in the animal and the machine.” Words like “control” may seem to have creepy overtones, but at its heart, cybernetics is simply the study of systems. “Cybernetics is the discipline of whole systems thinking…a whole system is a living system is a learning system,” as Stewart Brand put it in 1980. Cybernetic systems have been used to model all kinds of phenomena, with varying degrees of success – factories, societies, machines, ecosystems, brains — and many noted artists and musicians derived inspiration from this powerful conceptual toolkit. Cybernetics may be one of the most interdisciplinary frameworks ever devised; its theories link engineering, math, physics, biology, psychology, and an array of other fields, and ideas from cybernetics inevitably infiltrated the arts. The musician and producer Brian Eno, for example, was a big fan of connecting ideas from cybernetics to the studio environment, and to music composition, in his work in the 1970s.

Eno was first exposed to concepts in cybernetics as a teenager in the mid-1960s, during his days as a student at Ipswich Art College. Several art schools in the UK in the ’60s were incorporating ideas from cybernetics into their pedagogical approaches, mainly via Roy Ascott’s infamous “Groundcourse” curriculum. Ipswich Art College, where Eno studied in the mid-’60s, was run by Ascott, an imposing presence who incorporated cutting-edge cybernetics principles into his offbeat teaching style. Before Ipswich, Ascott had been head tutor at Ealing, a nearby art school where a young Pete Townshend was studying. “The first term at Ipswich was devoted entirely to getting rid of those silly ideas about the nobility of the artist by a process of complete and relentless disorientation,” Eno recalled some ten years later, in a guest lecture he gave at Trent Polytechnic. Ascott’s teaching philosophy involved countless mandatory group collaboration exercises — an echo of cybernetics’ emphasis on “systems learning” — and mental games. Very little of the teaching at Ipswich had anything to do with what the teenage Eno had ostensibly set out to do — study the fine arts. Instead of daubing canvases with oil paints, Eno and his fellow students were instructed to create “mindmaps” of each other.

Eno became very interested in cybernetics, and possible ways to apply those ideas to music. As an art school student, he had gotten into observing life on a “meta” level, and looked at his own creative process with a bird’s eye view. Cybernetics concepts challenged Eno to think in different ways about the process of making music, and these ideas infiltrated Eno’s thinking on many of his 1970s albums in key ways. Groups of musicians working in the studio could be conceptualized, in some general sense, as cybernetic systems. A piece of music composed using feedback, or tape loops, could be construed using cybernetics principles, too. One of Eno’s favorite quotes, from the managerial-cybernetics theorist Stafford Beer, would become a fundamental guiding principle for his work: ”Instead of trying to specify it in full detail,” Beer wrote in his book The Brain of the Firm, “you specify it only somewhat. You then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go.” Eno also derived inspiration from Stafford Beer’s related definition of a “heuristic.” “To use Beer’s example: If you wish to tell someone how to reach the top of a mountain that is shrouded in mist, the heuristic ‘keep going up’ will get him there,” Eno wrote. Eno connected Beer’s concept of a “heuristic” to music.


Brian Eno, Peter Schmidt, and Cybernetics

by Geeta Dayal

Read the article | Rhizome


Geeta Dayal holding a copy of her new book,  Another Green World

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3 thoughts on “Cybernetic Serendipity

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