This is the second in a series of posts about Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman aimed primarily at my students this semester, and this one focuses on chapter three, which traces the Macy Cybernetics Conferences in the 50s and 60s and discusses, among other things, the challenges of observation and the “man in the middle.”
However I think it would be remiss to discount current concepts of “the middle” in a partisan political environment and specifically the Jeep Super Bowl ad featuring Bruce Springsteen seeking out the geographical center of the “lower 48.” The rhetorical illusion of the middle is that it represents some compromise of the “far” right and left, when in fact it is just another staunchly held partisan position. Let’s bookmark that for a moment and circle back after we consider Hayles.
So Hayles main interest here is uncovering how cybernetics came to define information as a disembodied abstraction. As she notes, this decision was controversial from the start. However it begins with a specific, limited concept of information, from Claude Shannon, regarding a technical definition for solving engineering problems with signals in electronic communication. Information is defined in terms of the signal and the senders, receivers and their contexts are ignored. And that was basically done for pragmatic reasons that those complexities could not be resolved by empirical methods. Perhaps that could have been ok except, as Hayles writes, “a simplification necessitated by engineering considerations becomes an ideology in which a reified concept of information is treated as if it were fully commensurate with the complexities of human thought” (54). While the complexities of human thought are not intrinsically a problem, they were/are a problem for this particular concept of information.
Part of the way this “problem” was resolved was by putting the “man” (sic) in the middle, e.g. between the radar and the anti-aircraft gun. The response is that the human is never simply in the middle and this argument drew on psychology to describe the divided nature of the human psyche. The response also turned to the general problem of observation in that the human between these two machines is also being observed by other humans/machines; in short, there’s always more stuff going on. This chapter ends in the late 70s with Gregory and Catherine Bateson (his daughter) speculating on a new cybernetic epistemology. One that “starts from the premise that we never know the world as such. We know only what our sensory perceptions construct for us. In this sense we know nothing about the world. But we know something, and what we kimono is the end result of the internal processes we use to construct our inner world. Thus we know ourselves as complex beings, including processes that extend below consciousness and beyond ourselves out into the world, through the inner world available to a consciousness that exists only because of those processes… Nevertheless, it is not solipsistic, for Gregory believes that the microcosm of the inner world is functional within the larger ecosystem only because it is an appropriate metaphor for the macrocosm” (78). So, in short, “we” (our conscious minds) only know the things our internal processes tell us, but those processes intersect with the external world, and we know that the things we know about the world are “good enough” (i.e. accurate/real/true enough) because acting on them hasn’t killed us yet.
Now let’s add one more “man in the middle” to Springsteen’s and the cyberneticists: the hacker’s attack. Basically this involves secretly placing yourself between two people who believe they are communicating directly with each other, eavesdropping on their messages and then altering them for your own purposes. The core lesson from these three figures is that the person in the middle is never neutral. Furthermore their “middle-ness” is only an illusion created by cutting away the rest of the context so that only the three elements are presented as being part of the system (e.g., the radar, the human, and the anti-aircraft gun). But we know there’s a plane out there to be shot down, and presumably some war or conflict or threat going on that demands this violence. And from there, we find a complex mess of histories, motives, people, societies, things, etc., etc. But the gunner in the middle is just meant to point the gun as instructed by the radar and pull the trigger.
So Hayles writes this chapter roughly 20 years after Bateson is making these claims about cybernetic epistemology, and we’re here 20 years after that. We can have a different picture that doesn’t worry about the problem of the individual person, in the middle or elsewhere, but rather addresses statistical populations. I suppose this has always been at the core of mass media. If I can develop accurate psychological descriptions of populations (through intensive data gathering on social media, etc.), then I can compose messages that have a high statistical likelihood of being effective with a critical mass of that population. In other words, I am not trying to get a particular gunner to pay attention to a particular piece of information from the radar; I’m reaching out to millions of potential customers (or whatever) who might pull the trigger, so to speak. This is how stochastic terrorism works, which is at least how some people explain the 1/6 insurrection. That is, no one explicitly tells anyone else they should storm the Capitol Building (though some folks have been charged now with making some plans), but if you send enough of the right kinds of messages, statistically it becomes highly likely that your population (or at least parts of it) will take this action.
When we start thinking about stochastic terrorism or QAnon and other related features of digital media, we can start to see some of the complexities in the problems these early cyberneticists were attempting to address. Most Americans encounter QAnon as nonsense, as noise. Some Americans see it as information. While in the classic man-in-the-middle attack the person in-between remains hidden, we have many people who operate (or claim to operate) openly in this middle role. Obviously there are the news media on whom we conventionally rely for news about our world, nation, community, etc. However we now also have various conspiratorial voices and other “ITKs” (people In The Know). It’s 99% lies, but there’s always a potential Wikileaks situation. And here is where the cybernetic epistemology that Bateson described breaks down because that metaphorical relationship between the inner world and the larger ecosystem no longer functions properly. We have not developed, biologically or culturally, to be able to handle our networked society.
This brings me back, finally, to Springsteen and his sojourn to the Mecca of middle-ness. The geographic middle of America (or even the “lower 48”) is an illusion, a metaphor at best. For some reason, even while they aspire to fame and fortune, Americans also love to be “average.” The geographic middle is presented as an average location (as an anywhere/everywhere America). I’ll set aside the question of whether or not the middle is terroristic or terrible, but it is certainly stochastic. It’s a signal across digital media networks addressing demographic/psychographic populations. You can maybe measure it in technical terms (i.e., this Jeep ad is so many GB sent along a network at x speed), but you can’t understand it without examining the contexts of senders and receivers. Maybe it’s about buying Jeeps. I mean it’s not not about buying Jeeps. But it is also about affective responses and the lure of identifying in particular ways.
I say, don’t be fooled by the allure of middle-ness. Much like Kansas, whatever it might be, it is the middle of nowhere and nothing.