Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Rise of the Machines

Rise of the Machines: the lost history of cybernetics by Thomas RidRid_machines

If you want a new idea, read an old book. Thomas Rid has done precisely that to reveal the lost history of ‘cybernetics’. In turn he provides new insight to many of our most pressing contemporary philosophical, technological and social questions.

It’s rare to read a current affairs book that doesn’t deal in some way with the vast new power of machines. Typically, this challenge is presented as both new and future-oriented. AI is just around the corner. Mass unemployment from robotics will soon disrupt society. Robots fighting robots will be tomorrow’s battlespace.

Only, none of this is actually new. Rid traces three recurring themes which have shaped the history of ‘cybernetics’. Originally a scientific discipline it came to serve as a launch pad and language for a wide variety of communities who used the emergence of complex ‘thinking’ machines to rethink and challenge existing forms of life and social organisation.

The first big idea of cybernetics is that machines are like man, giving rise to notions of computers being ‘alive’, Artificial Intelligence, and in turn our religious notions of sentience and community. Second, is the notion that man is like a machine, giving rise to notions of mechanical and organic tools, prosthesis, extensions and enablers, as well as some rudimentary but useful theories of consciousness and cognitive science. Third and finally is the idea that there is a ‘space’ within the machines which can be inhabited, utilised or retreated into.

These three ideas have motivated dozens of disparate groups as well as divided them between their optimists and pessimists. The military and national security community led the way developing new forms of computing, robotics and networks to try and control their environment. These official communities have often simultaneously reviled in the potential firepower, secrecy and ‘information superiority’ they might enjoy, as well as feared the extended vulnerability and loss of control the same process have created.

Equally many spiritualists and anarchists have seen utopia in the machines. As a way to stand outside of the state, to break out of consumerist corporate models or to develop new forms of interaction and value, these communities have also significantly contributed. In particular, a San Francisco bay culture emerged over many decades that is optimistic about technology and technological solutions, while libertarian in orientation.

In one fascinating section Rid shows how many of those most connected with the 1960s and 1970s advocacy of psychedelic drugs (such as Timothy Leary) also embraced the revolutionary power of machines. There must be something inherent to this, given that I’ve witnessed similarly overlapping communities exist here in Australia, several decades on and 12’000 km away.

The penultimate chapter reveals for the first time the history of ‘Moonlight Maze’ a sustained hack of the United States military and research communities in 1998 and 1999. The —likely Russian— perpetrators used unprotected host computers in NGOs, Library’s and Universities to access US networks in search of military technology and development information. While many who write about hacking fall into either Hollywood action or technical arcana, Rid manages to tell the story in a way that is both detailed and engaging, repeating the skill he showed in ‘Cyberwar will not take place’.

At times in ‘Rise of the Machines’ it feels like Rid tries to cover too much ground with the rapid introduction to new figures occasionally becoming overwhelming. The closer the events are to the current day, the more this emerges. Which turns the book’s focus ever so slightly in the last 150 pages from the ideas (how do man and machine interact) to the behaviour, attitudes and aspirations of those pursuing different approaches. Which is interesting as a potted history, but leaves some of the most interesting discussions to the short final chapter. Likewise, Moonlight Maze is a great story, but I was never quite sure how it helped expand or explore the thematic ideas of the book.

These are minor criticisms that should not deter anyone from picking the book up. Rid is an excellent scholar who has worked hard to make this book as widely engaging as possible. That is to his credit, as the history of this book ought to be much more common knowledge. Indeed, much of the book speaks to how long term and enduring our problems are. Take this exchange Rid highlights from 1962 between a reporter and then US President John F. Kennedy:

“Reporter: ‘Mr President, Our Labor Department estimates that approximately 1.8 million persons holding jobs are replaced every year by machines. How urgently do you view this problem – automation?’

Kennedy: ‘I regard it as the major domestic challenge, really, of the ‘60s, to maintain full employment at a time when automation, of course, is replacing men’.”

Of course, Kennedy was wrong. But how he was wrong is an important lesson. As Rid ultimately argues, these three ideas Man-Machine, Machine-Man and Machine Worlds reflect common myths of the cybernetic and technological communities. If we are to have new ideas about our current problems, or to better understand how pressing they actually are, then remembering this ‘lost’ history of thought is a necessary step

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