So who put the cyber into cybersex?

Today we have cybercafes and cyberwars but cybernetics the word that launched a dozen prefixes has been lost. In a new book, Thomas Rid aims to reconnect cyber to its original notion of man-machine symbiosis

Where did the cyber in cyberspace come from? Most people, when asked, will probably credit William Gibson, who famously introduced the word in his celebrated 1984 fiction, Neuromancer . It came to him while watching some children play early video games. Searching for a name for the virtual space in which they seemed immersed, he wrote cyberspace in his notepad. As I gazed at it in red Sharpie on a yellow legal pad, he later recalled, my whole delight was that it entailed absolutely nothing.

How wrong can you be? Cyberspace turned out to be the space that somehow morphed into the networked world we now inhabit, and which might ultimately prove our undoing by making us entirely dependent on a system that is both unfathomably complex and basically insecure. But the cyber- prefix actually goes back a long way before Gibson to the late 1940 s and Norbert Wieners book, Cybernetics, Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine , which was published in 1948.

Cybernetics was the word Wiener, an MIT mathematician and polymath, coined for the scientific study of feedback control and communication in animals and machines. As a transdiscipline that cuts across traditional fields such as physics, chemistry and biology, cybernetics had a brief and largely unsuccessful existence: fewof the worlds universities now have departments of cybernetics. But as Thomas Rids absorbing new book, The Rise of the Machines: The Lost History of Cybernetics indicates, it has had a long afterglow as information sources of mythic inspiration that suffers to the present day.

This is because at the heart of the cybernetic notion is the proposition that the gap between animals( especially humen) and machines is much narrower than humanists believe. Its debate is that if you ignore the physical processes that go on in the animal and the machine and focus only on the information loops that govern these processes in both, you begin to see startling similarities. The feedback loops that enable our bodies to preserve an internal temperature of 37 C, for example, are analogous to the way in which the cruise control in our vehicles operates.

Dr Rid is a reader in the war examines department of Kings College London, which means that he is primarily interested in conflict, and as the world has gone online he has naturally been depicted into the study of how conflict manifests itself in the virtual world. When states are involved in this, we tend to call it cyberwarfare, a word of which I suspect Rid disapproves on the grounds that warfare is intrinsically kinetic( like Assads barrel bombs) whereas whats going on in cyberspace is much more sinister, elusive and intractable.

In order to explain how weve got so far out of our depth, Rid has effectively had to compose an alternative history of calculating. And whereas most such histories begin with Alan Turing and Claude Shannon and John von Neumann, Rid starts with Wiener and wartime research into gunnery control. For him, the modern world of technology begins not with the early digital computers developed at Bletchley Park, Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania but with the interactive cannon systems developed for the US armed forces by the Sperry gyroscope company in the early 1940 s.

From this unexpected beginning, Rid weaves an interesting and original narrative. The seed crystal from which it grows is the idea that the Sperry gun-control system was essentially a way of augmenting the human gunners capabilities to cope with the task of hitting fast-moving targets. And it turns out that this dream of technology as a way of augmenting human capabilities is a persistent but often overlooked topic in the evolution of computing.

A mechanical dog manufactured by robot maker Boston Dynamics. Cybernetics proposes that the gap between humans and their machines is much narrower than humanists believe. Photograph: Boston Dynamics

The standard narrative about the technologys history concentrates mostly on technical progress processing power, bandwidth, storage, networking, etc. Its about machines and applications, companies and lucks. The underlying premise is that the technology is empowering which of course in principle it is feasible to. What, after all, is the web but a memory providing assistance to people? What the dominant narrative conveniently ignores, though, is that the motive force for most tech industry development is not human empowerment but gain. Which is why Facebook wants its 1.7 billion users to stay within its walled garden rather than simply being empowered by the open web.

The dream of computing as a way of augmenting human capabilities, however, takes empowerment severely rather than utilizing it as a cover story. It is, for example, what underpinned the lifes run of Douglas Engelbart, “the mens” who came up with the computer mouse and the windowing interface that we use today. And it motivated JCR Licklider, the psychologist who was, in a way, the godfather of the internet and whose newspaper Man-Computer Symbiosis is one of the canonical text in the augmentation tradition. Even today, a charitable interpretation of the Google Glass project would place it securely in the same tradition. Ditto for virtual reality( VR ).

Given that he starts from cybernetics, the trajectory of Rids narrative attains sense. It takes him into the origins of the concept of the cyborg the notion of accommodating humen to their surrounds rather than the other way round an idea that was first explored by Nasa and the US military. Thence he moves into the early history of automation, and startling narratives about ambitious early attempts to create robots that might be useful in combat. In 1964, for example, US army contractors constructed the Pedipulator, an 18 ft tall mechanical figure that looked like a prototype of a Star Wars biped. The notion was to create some kind of intelligent full-body armour that would turning troops, in fact, into walking tanks.

From there, its only a short leaping to virtual reality also, incidentally, first fabricated by the US military in the early 1980 s. Rids account of the California counter-cultures obsession with VR is fascinating, and includes the revelation that Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD, was an early evangelist. Leary and co thought that VR was better than LSD because it was inherently social whereas an LSD trip was just chemically induced isolation. Then Rid moves on to the arrival of public-key cryptography, which put military-grade encryption into the hands of citizens for the first time( and which had been secretly fabricated at GCHQ, so one can imagine its discombobulation when civilian geeks independently came up with it ).

The final substantive chapter of Rise of the Machines is about conflict in cyberspace, and contains the first detailed account Ive seen of the Moonlight Maze attack on US networks. Rid describes this as the biggest and most sophisticated computer network attack made against the United States in history. It happened in 1996 , which means that it belongs in prehistory by internet timescales. And it originated in Russia. The attack was breathtaking in its ambition and comprehensiveness. But it was probably small beer compared with what goes on now, especially given that China has entered the cyberfray.

In some ways, Rids chapter on conflict in cyberspace seems orthogonal to his main narrative, which is about how Wieners vision of cybernetics functioned as an inspirational myth for innovators who were interested in what Licklider and Engelbart thought of as man-machine symbiosis and human augmentation. If this absorbing, illuminating book needs a motto, it is an maxim of Marshall McLuhans friend, John Culkin. We shape our tools, he wrote, and thereafter our tools shape us.

Thomas Rid Q& A: Politicians would say cyber and roll their eyes

Thomas Rid: Our temptation to improve ourselves through our own machines is hardwired into who we are as humen. Photograph: Flickr

How did you become interested in cybernetics?
The short term cyber seemed everywhere, slapped in front of coffeehouse, crime, bullying, war, punk, even sex. Journalists and politicians and academics would say cyber and roll their eyes at it. Sometimes they would ask where the funny phrase actually came from. So every time my boss introduced me as, Hey, this is Thomas, hes our cyber expert, I winced. So I believed I should write a book. Nobody, after all, had properly connected todays cyber to its historic ancestor, cybernetics.

Initially I wanted to do a polemic. But then I presented some of the history at Royal Holloway, and to my astound, some of the computer science students warmed to cyber after my talk, appreciating the ideas historical and philosophical depth. So I believed, yes, lets do this properly.

You teach in a department of war examines, so I can see that cyberwar might be your thing. But you decided that you needed to go way back not only to Norbert Wiener and the original the notions of cybernetics, but also to the counter-cultural background, to personal computing, virtual reality( VR) and computer conferencing. Why?
War examines, my department, is an open tent. Crossing disciplinary borders and adding historical and conceptual depth is what we do. So machines fits right in. I believe understanding our fascination with communication and control today requires going back to the origins, to Wieners cybernetic vision after the second world war. Our temptation to improve ourselves through our own machines big brains in the 50 s, or artificial intelligence today is hardwired into who we are as humen. We dont only want to play God, we want to beat God, building artificial intelligence thats better than the non-artificial kind. This hubris will never go away. So one of our best insurance is to study the history of cybernetic myths, the promise of the perennially imminent rise of the machines.

How long did the book take to the investigations and write?
It took me about three years. It wasnt hard to stay focused the narrative throughout the decades was just too gripping: here was the US air force building touch-sensitive cybernetic manipulators to refuel nuclear-powered long-range bombers, and theres LSD guru Timothy Leary detecting the cybernetic space inside the machines as a mind-expansion device even better than psychedelic drugs better, by the way, because the machine high was more creative and more social than get stoned on psilocybin.

One group thats missing from your account is the engineers who sought to implement old-style cybernetic ideas in real life. For example, the Cybersyn project that Stafford Beer led in Chile for Salvador Allende. Did you think of including stuff like that? If not, why not?
The cybernetic narrative is expansive. I had to leave out so much, especially in the 50 s and 60 s, the heyday of cybernetics. For example, the rise of cybernetics in the Soviet Union is a story in itself, and almost entirely missing from my book, as is much of the sociological run that was inspired by Norbert Wieners vision( much of it either dated or impenetrable ). Cybersyn has been admirably covered, in detail, by Eden Medinas Cybernetic Revolutionaries . I would also mention Ronald Klines recent book, The Cybernetics Moment .

Your account of the Moonlight Maze investigation( of a full-on state-sponsored cyberattack on the US) is fascinating and scary. It suggests that contrary to popular belief cyberwarfare is not just a distant potential but a baffling and terrifying reality. It is also by your account intractable. Arent we( ie society) out of our depth here? Or, at the very least, arent we in a position analogous to where we were with atomic weapon in, tell, 1946?
Cyberwar, if you want to call it that, has been going on since at the least 1996 as I prove without interruption. In fact state-sponsored espionage, sabotage, and subversion escalated drastically in the past two decades. But meanwhile weve been fooling ourselves, expecting blackouts and explosions and aircrafts falling out of the sky as a result of cyberattacks. Physical consequences happen, but have been a rare exception. What were considering instead is even scarier: an escalation of cold war-style spy-versus-spy subversion and sabotage, covert and hidden and very political , not open and of military nature, like atomic weapon. Over the last year we have find several instances of intelligence agencies breaching victims, stealing files, and dumping sensitive datum into the public domain: often through purpose-created leak forums, or indeed though Wikileaks.

Russian bureaux have been leading this trend, most visibly by trying to influence the US election through hacking and dumping. Theyre doing very creative work there. Although the forensic proof for this activity is solid and openly available, the tactic still works impressively well. Open societies arent well equipped to deal with covert spin-doctoring.

Were currently experiencing a virtual reality hysterium, with companies like Facebook and venture capitalists salivating over it as the Next Big Thing. One of the interesting parts of your narrative is the revelation that we have been here before except last hour, exuberance for VR was inextricably bound up with psychedelic drugs. Then, it was tech plus LSD; now its tech plus money. The same cycle applies to artificial intelligence. So cybernetics isnt the only field to have waxed and waned.
Absolutely not. I was often writing notes on the margins of my manuscript in Fernandez& Wells in Somerset House, where London fashion week used to happen. Technology is a bit like way: every few years a new craze or tendency comes around, drawing a great deal of attention, money, and fresh talent. Right now, its automation and VR, a bit retro-6 0s and -9 0s respectively. Of course our anxieties and hopes arent only recurring the past, and the technical progress in both fields has been impressive. But well move on before long, and the next tech wave will probably have a retro feature again.

At a certain moment in the book you effectively detach the prefix cyber from its origins in wartime MIT and the work of Norbert Wiener and use it to build a narrative about our networked and computerised existence cyborg, cyberspace, cyberwar etc. Your justification, as I see it, is that there was a cybernetic moment and it passed. But had you thought that a cybernetic analysis of our current predicament in trying to manage cyberspace might be insightful? For example, one of the big ideas to come out of early cybernetics was Ross Ashbys Law of Requisite Variety which basically says that for a system to be viable it has to be able to cope with the complexity of its environment. Given what information technology has done to increase the complexity of our current environment, doesnt that mean that most of our contemporary systems( organisations, organizations) are actually no longer viable. Or is that pushing the idea too far?
Youre raising a fascinating topic here, one that I fought with for a long time. First, I believe cyber detached itself from its origins, and degenerated from a scientific idea to an ideology. That switching began in the early 1960 s. My book is simply chronicling this larger history , not applying cybernetics to anything. It took me a while to resist the cybernetic temptation, if you like: the old theory still has charm and seductive force-out left in its bones but of course I never wanted to be a cyberneticist.

The Rise of the Machines is published by Scribe( 20 ). Click here to order a transcript for 16.40

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