The Cybernetics Moment, or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age

By Ronald R. Kline. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2015. 352 pp. $54.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4214-1671-1.

It has been curious to observe: nowhere in the burgeoning secondary literature on cybernetics in the last two decades is there a concise history of cybernetics, the science of communication and control that helped usher in the current information age in America.

Nowhere, that is, until now.

To detail this claim a bit, the last two decades have seen accumulate a deep shelf of scholarly works that reclaim the postwar science of cybernetics as a historic lens for sharpening focus on other contemporary topics: cybernetics studies have helped understand computing technology, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, systems theory, feedback, genetics, ecology, economics, politics, science fiction and other literature, French theory, design, and cold war culture and counterculture in America, Britain, France, Germany, Chile, China, and elsewhere. (My forthcoming book, for example, uses cold war cybernetics to backlight Soviet attempts to build nationwide computer network projects.) The situation is such that scholars can now marshal sophisticated commands of cybernetic topics without having ever encountered a clear account of Anglophone cybernetics itself. Perhaps the recent secondary literature on cybernetics shares a similar intellectual boundary problem with cybernetics itself: both point ever beyond themselves. Hard pressed is the reader who wishes to understand the limits of that curious science called cybernetics.

That situation, thankfully, is beginning to change. Senior historian of technology Ronald Kline’s much-anticipated The Cybernetics Moment, or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age should be widely welcomed. The book is to my mind easily the leading American cultural and intellectual history of cybernetics: it is also the first sensible and rich history of the consolidation, ascent, and dissipation of that communication and control science, with special emphasis on the boundaries and tensions that delimit the cybernetics “moment” in American history from the 1940s through the 1970s (and beyond). Kline also manages to showcase a wealth of cybernetic thought while at once critically appraising longstanding disputes about its status as a “glamor science” burdened by neologisms. In particular, Kline demonstrates how cybernetics drew on and fed an emergent utopian information discourse that has both quickened and impoverished modern understanding of our so-called “information age.”

His mostly American history ranges from the wartime sources and postwar emergence of information theory and cybernetics, to their adoption and adaptation in biology, engineering, social sciences, and popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s, to the loss of the status of cybernetics as a universal science in the 1970s. Each chapter examines a central tension in the history of cybernetics: military contributions and pacifist resistance to postwar information sciences, the consolidation of disciplines and fault lines still besetting the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, the boundary disputes and bandwagons driving information theory and cybernetics, the consequences of blurring the status of humans as machines (especially the rise of what we might call systems social science) as well as of machines as human (especially artificial intelligence, bionics, and cyborgs), and finally the discrediting and reconfiguration of cybernetic concerns that continue to resonate and ricochet across how we talk about information technology today. The overall portrait is one of the disunity, not the unity, of the information sciences.

Interested readers will appreciate Kline’s snappy, no-nonsense narrative featuring a wide array of scientists, humanists, government officials, public intellectuals, journalists, science fiction writers, and others. The mathematician Norbert Wiener, engineer Claude Shannon, neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, and social scientist Herbert Simon feature most prominently, although specialists will also enjoy many new nuggets from primary documents that ornate a playbill of actors such as Ashby, Bar-Hillel, Bell, Bigelow, Brand, Bush, Deutsch, Forrester, Gabor, Hartley, Jakobson, Lettvin, Licklider, MacKay, Maturana, McCarthy, Miller, Minsky, Newell, Parsons, Pierce, Pitts, Rosenbleuth, Rosenblith, Turing, Valera, von Foerster, von Neumann, Walter, and Weaver, among others. Kline’s critical commentary on the perils of intellectual legitimacy exchange, among much else, arrives commendably interwoven with those of other leading commentators on the American cybernetic scene (Beniger, Crowther-Heyck, Edwards, Galison, Hayles, Kay, Turner, etc.) as well as leavened with new insight and previously unfamiliar material. I learned much, for example, about the relationship of cybernetics to the Technocracy movement in the 1930s, the Unity of Science movements, the Dianetics fringe, Artificial Organism Research Group (ARTORGA), the Dartmouth Conference on Artificial Intelligence (whose organizers, according to John McCarthy, invented the term “AI” to distinguish their work from cybernetics), the IEEE group on Systems Science and Cybernetics, the American Society of Cybernetics and the CIA, the ARPA’s the Cybernetics Technology Office, as well as a detailed treatment of the well-known boundary disputes between Shannon’s technocratic information theory and Wiener’s more socially ambitious cybernetics.

This balanced history, which helps constrain a once seemingly limitless science, also comes with its own deliberate confines. Kline paints a mezzanine portrait that is neither a comprehensive history nor a series of narrow case studies in the annals of American information science. Nor do the author’s historical sensibilities fall prey to the theoretical excesses driving much critical inquiry and interest in cybernetics to date. The focus throughout is on the history of discourse formation, not its ideological consequences, even though Kline sagely suggests how current tech talk could benefit from no longer equating information with a commodity, critiquing research secrecy, attending to labor and management injustices, and adopting sustainable epistemologies toward the environment—all cues following Wiener, Bateson, and other cyberneticists.

Of course specialists will quibble: to my mind, the ambiguity behind Stewart Brand’s “two cybernetic frontiers”—organic and mechanical—that frames the concluding chapter deserves critical complication, since the distinction arguably overlooks the very organic-inorganic agnosticism of system analogies at the core of cybernetics. Other readers may be left wishing for more connections to the vibrant international cybernetic scenes. I, for one, am persuaded by the book’s overarching caution against prematurely celebrating or castigating information discourse, as cybernetics enthusiasts and critics have done for decades; yet, for that very reason, I also cannot help but doubt Kline’s view that modern-day information discourse is more intellectually impoverished than previous periods. Kline does not detail the poverty of modern-day information discourse. Rather by revealing the breadth, depth, and contingent anxieties and enthusiasms of yesteryear’s information technology talk, as this book does so masterfully, his argument cannot simply reduce latter-day preoccupation with “bits, Big Data, and the all-purpose adjective cyber” to empty talk without also recognizing the potential fertility future historians, with his book in hand, may one day uncover in current conversations. The cybernetics moment is surely passed, although its implications live on in the undercurrents of the modern torrent of information change.

Readers have in The Cybernetics Moment the first authoritative history of American cybernetics. In search of such a book for a decade, I read the book in one uninterrupted gulp and will return frequently to its original, coherent, and often refreshingly contrarian story of cybernetics. It—buoyed by its abundant intellectual richness, historical caution, and theoretical modesty—will surely help keep afloat readers in search of the sources of the information age for decades to come.

Benjamin Peters

Benjamin Peters is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He is the author of the forthcoming How Not to Network a Nation: The Uneasy History of The Soviet Internet from MIT Press and the editor of Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture from Princeton University Press. Work site: