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American Society for Cybernetics
ASC 2008 Conference
May 11-15, Urbana IL 


'Our' Cybernetics: Documentation and Archives
Formal, informal, traditional, digital, material

Panel conducted at the 2008 ASC Conference, Urbana IL

12 May 2008


Panelist Statements

Paul Schroeder (Co-chair, Orono, Maine)

Randall Whitaker (Co-chair, Dayton, Ohio)

Jan Müggenburg (Vienna, Austria)

Stuart Umpleby (Washington, DC)


This session continues the conversation about documentation and related issues in cybernetics. Focus will be on how materials from this tradition are being preserved, organized and made available for access. Existing resources such as ASC and BCL materials at Illinois will be highlighted, particularly as they contribute to understanding of the overall scope of cybernetics. The challenge of integrating efforts across projects and organizations globally in today's digital communications environment will also be explored, toward opening possibilities or inventing particularly cybernetic solutions. The "why" as well as the "how" of documentation efforts will be emphasized, as well as the importance of non-textual materials such as the "prototypes" created at BCL. Panelists invite participants to contribute their knowledge of existing resources as well as their ideas about practices going forward.

Paul Schroeder

Focus on Archives: Collections at Illinois and Other Recent Initiatives

I will provide a brief overview of some of the major collections and projects that preserve textual and other material documents related to prominent people, projects and organizations related to cybernetics. Particular attention will be given to the current status of the ASC archive at Illinois, established in the mid-1990s, and to the BCL and Herbert Brün archives there. The presentation will also open the question as to how the ASC and other federated groups might cooperate in regularizing the collection, preservation and access to these materials in the future. Schedule permitting, a staff member of the U of Illinois Archives will present the details about local collections.

Paul Schroeder has been enmeshed in cybernetics since encountering Heinz von Foerster in 1967, and he helped to establish the ASC archive at Illinois in the 1990s. He teaches in the interdisciplinary studies program at the University of Maine, Orono.


Randall Whitaker

Preservation, Dissemination and Generation of Cybernetics' Record

Cybernetics has long been generated from and refined within interpersonal conversations (e.g., the Macy Conferences). However, these interactions neither span nor subsume the entirety of the field's 'corpus'. I was initially drawn to the field by what I read. The thinkers who represent cybernetics to me are included in 'my cybernetics' based primarily on what they wrote, presented, or performed. After all - the Macy Conference attendees laid out the scope for the field in conversation, but named it for a book.

I suggest there are three primary thrusts in managing a discipline's record or corpus:

(1) The preservation of prior materials and records
(2) The dissemination of extant materials
(3) The generation or accretion of new materials

Preservation is underway in the forms of (e.g.) the ASC Archive at UIUC, the Pask and von Foerster archives in Vienna, and the new Ashby archive in the UK.

The second thrust - dissemination - is underway, but in fragmentary form. Why has cybernetics become something of a disciplinary 'ghost'? One reason is that its 'corpus' has become increasingly obscure - out of print, generally inaccessible, or so scattered as to require significant effort to locate and collate. This has impaired the field's ability to attract new participants and educate them. With the rise of the Internet, some of this corpus has regained (or initially achieved) global visibility and accessibility through individual and small group efforts such as Principia Cybernetica, the ASC website, the Radical Constructivism site, the Observer Web, and others,

The third thrust - generation - has also ramped up over the last decade. We now have two ongoing journals (Cybernetics & Human Knowing and Constructivist Foundations) providing publication venues for cybernetics authors.

For these developments we owe a great debt of gratitude to a number of people. By the same token, we owe it to ourselves (ASC members specifically; cybernetics' audience generally) to take seriously the importance of our shared 'corpus' and to seek ways to nurture its preservation, dissemination, and extension without blithely relying on fortune and the spontaneous efforts of others to achieve these ends.

Randall Whitaker is a senior human-systems integration researcher, specializing in work-centered design.  His interest in 'documentation' issues relates to activities such as his roles as creator / steward of the Observer Web (autopoiesis and enaction) and as ASC's VP for Electronic Publications.


Jan Müggenburg

Prototypes: The Useful Ambiguity of the "Biological Computer"

Starting with Norbert Wieners efforts to build an Anti Aircraft Predictor more than 60 years ago, Cybernetic reasoning has always involved mathematical modeling and means of engineering. Thus Cybernetics' record also includes the models and prototypes generated in the course of cybernetics research.

The design and construction of electronic prototypes that show "biological" behavior was an integral part of the research done in the early years of the Biological Computer Laboratory. Engaging in a history of the BCL demands a close examination of the machines actually built there. The term "Biological Computer" is interestingly ambiguous, though, since it can refer both to the machine and to the living prototype upon which it was modeled.

In my talk I am going to argue that this intended ambiguity (referring to analysis and synthesis at the same time) gives us a hint how to look at these artifacts today. Electronic prototypes such as the "NumaRete", the "Visual Image Processor" or the "Dynamic Signal Analyzer" were material manifestations of theories derived from the analysis of biological phenomena, combining ideas from Cybernetics, Systems Theory and Experimental Physiology. Rather than treating them as finalized applications of basic research, a historical approach to the BCL should disentangle the different threads of the scientific process that led to their construction. Taking such an approach will enable us to gain from the BCL-artifacts an insight into the diverse and complex world of BCL.

Between 1998 and 2005 Jan Müggenburg studied media studies, philosophy and British cultural studies at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (Germany) and the Edith Cowan University in Perth (Australia). He wrote his masters thesis on "The History of the Computer as Medium and its Presentation in Museums of Technology". As a member of the Initiativkolleg "The Sciences in Historical Context" at the University of Vienna, he is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on the Biological Computer Laboratory (1958-1974).


Stuart Umpleby

The Early Days of Electronic Mail

As people began to use time-shared computers in the 1960s, they created email systems to exchange ideas about the programs they were writing. By the early 1970s these systems were seen by some people as a new type of communication technology - computer-based communications media. However, programmers tended to see email only as an aid to writing programs. Chat programs in particular were regarded as a nuisance that used CPU time and encouraged non-programmers to use computer terminals. Archiving email was not a concern, since it was not considered to be serious work. I shall present to the ASC archives some early email documents showing discussions among students on several campuses in the early 1970s. Included will be perhaps the first case of electronic censorship which occurred as a result of a suggestion to use computer networks to coordinate an effort to impeach President Richard Nixon.

Stuart Umpleby is a professor of management at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. As a graduate student in the early 1970s he was associated with Heinz von Foerster and Ross Ashby at the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.  In the late 1970s he was the moderator of an on-line discussion of General Systems Theory, which was funded by the National Science Foundation. He is a past president of the American Society for Cybernetics.

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HTML transcription: Randy Whitaker, 2008