As the Second World War drew to a close, a new science emerged from the secret weapons labs of the allies. Cybernetics was the study of control and communication, of how man and machine might work together. On both sides of the Atlantic, and in the Soviet Union, researchers applied cybernetic ideas to every field: warfare, biology, computer science, economics, society itself. The cyberneticists invented the first computers and robots, along with enhanced humans, automatic factories, programmable architecture and artificial intelligence. The movement became a pop culture phenomenon, started psychedelic techno-mystical cults on the West Coat and inspired the techno-utopianism that powers Silicon Valley today. At the same time, it came close to computerised totalitarianism, erasing the line between human and machine in the most worrying way.
The Cybernetic Meadow traces the history of cybernetics and sketches its future. Today, the key mechanisms of cybernetics - information and feedback - are at the heart of our own digital era, with companies like Google, Facebook and Uber creating an information economy based largely on surveillance and computer modelling. Cybernetics will become even more important in the future, when buzzwords like big data, smart cities and artificial intelligence truly become our reality. That is both exciting and foreboding. Throughout its history, cybernetics has held out the promise of technological freedom and utopia in one hand; in the other, repression and control. As Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics wrote: “Cybernetics is a two edged sword, and sooner or later it will cut you deep.”
Tom Cheshire is the associate editor of WIRED magazine, where he edits the Start section and writes long-form features (recent stories include YouTube, Thomas Heatherwick, the affects of digital hyper stimulation on children, Tumblr). In his journalism he writes about the intersection of technology, media and culture. His work has also appeared in the Observer, the Evening Standard, GQ and Condé Nast Traveller.
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