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We call our age the information age; Bill Gates talks about the digital nervous system; we tend to describe the internet as if it were a sentient being, endowed with agency; our hetero-affective devices double as control mechanisms whilst curating our browsing activities; our material objects are permeated by information flows, from the DNA code to financial algorithms; we fantasize about immersive environments in which our neural activities would be directly linked onto networks.
Digital technologies provide us not simply with the tools but also with the body of metaphors we use to describe our situation. Within this planetary fusion of surveillance and spectacle, communication is a source of control. The cultural logic of the information age is predicated on an inversion of the gaze: The screen or interface, as Jonathan Crary noted, ‘is both the object of attention and (the object) capable of monitoring, recording and cross-referencing attentive behaviour’.
This nexus of communication and control, which is by now ubiquitous, was first articulated by behaviourism, cybernetics and information theory. Cybernetics is a science of prediction, it models future actions based on past-behaviour ––like the NSA, credit rating agencies or health insurance providers. For cybernetics control means prediction: as such the theory implies a model of temporality within which the past is a standing reserve of information, waiting to be mined.
By literally conflating the nervous system with financial, social and political systems, cybernetics was also the first discipline to correlate neural nets and computer networks, confounding the meaning of information and life. These are the epistemic materials our current lifeworld is made of, and in this coming talk we will survey its history, starting with behaviourism, the theory from which cybernetics borrowed its physiology.
Ana Teixeira Pinto is a cultural theorist, and lecturer at the DAI (Dutch Art Institute). She is the editor of book series published by Sternberg Press, and also contributed to editions of MIT Press, as well as Afterall, Springerin, Camera Austria, e-flux journal, art-agenda, Mousse, Frieze, Domus, Inaesthetics, Manifesta Journal, and Texte zur Kunst. Lives and works in Berlin.