Legacies of Cybernetics in (Post)Humanistic Geography and Urbanism

Type: Panel
Sponsor Groups: Media and Communication Geography Specialty Group, Urban Geography Specialty Group, History of Geography Specialty Group
Organizers: Jonathan Bratt, Garrett Johnson
Chairs: Jonathan Bratt


Cybernetics has become something of an anachronism in contemporary academia, indexing a unwieldy movement during the postwar period that has largely faded from view as a meaningful theoretical framework. And yet the vocabulary and beliefs of cybernetics persist in various domains such as artificial intelligence, information technology, cognitive science, and biology. The concept of cybernetics belies a singular definition, but it generally denotes a set of propositions that behavior is steered or controlled toward achievement of goals, and that processes of goal achievement rely on continuous responses to information and memory contained in goal-achieving systems and their environments. These and other basic premises have been taken up and transformed in a variety of contexts. The goal achieving systems might be organisms, machines, societies, or ecosystems; the goals might be homeostasis (regulated by negative feedback) or transformation (regulated by positive feedback); the steering and controlling might be enacted from within systems, from outside systems, or among system components; information might be phenomenological and sensory (informative) or material-energetic and causal (in-formative). The academic field of cybernetics, in other words, performs its own ideas about complexity. Within the humanities and social sciences, however, the orientation of cybernetics toward steering and control also makes its application a political issue, in that power is exercised through the distribution of information.

It is rare these days to hear a geographer or urban planner use the term 'cybernetic', but early work in both domains bears a clear cybernetic imprint, particularly through economist Kenneth Boulding's book The Image. Kevin Lynch and Gy├Ârgy Kepes not only read Boulding but also rubbed shoulders with Norbert Wiener at MIT, going on to conceive urban design as the increase in information in the urban environment ('imageability') able to influence navigation and behavior. David Lowenthal also read Boulding and integrated The Image into his ideas about experience and imagination in geography. Roger Downs and David Stea invited Boulding to contribute to Image and Environment and used an overtly cybernetic vocabulary to conceive cognitive mapping as the acquisition and use of environmental information. Edward Relph drew on Boulding to articulate the contribution of 'place images' to senses of place.

In this panel we hunt for the ghosts of cybernetics haunting the landscapes of (post)humanistic geographic inquiry and urbanist practice. Where are the ghosts, and are they benign or sinister? How have the ideas of Wiener, Ashby, Pask, and other early cyberneticians been propagated by geographers and urbanists? Contemporary trends such as 'placemaking' can be said to reduce entropy and increase information in the environment, but do they do so in the service of oppressive control (homeostasis) or exploitative economic development (transformation)? Do geographers reify cybernetics in our theories of subjectivity? Do the ghosts of cybernetics from other domains now migrate to geography or urbanism? How do smart cities or urban surveillance systems bear the logics of cybernetics, and to what end? Is information technology so pervasive and powerful that, to quote the (cy)B(ernetic)org(anism), resistance is futile?


Type Details Minutes
Introduction Jonathan Bratt Arizona State University 15
Panelist Garrett Johnson Ititit{inc} 15
Panelist Maros Krivy Estonian Academy of Arts 15
Panelist Gunes Tavmen King's College London 15
Panelist Rob Shields University of Alberta 15

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