Digging into the Archeology of the Future

July 11, 2016

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Thomas Rid, Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History (W.W. Norton, 2016).

Alexander the Great had Bucephalus, from whose back he could survey his phalanxes. Frederick the Great typically sought out the vantage point of a tall hill. A forward commander in World War I had a sandbagged trench bunker, a periscope, and a hand-cranked telephone. And the Cold War had its iconic blue room.

You’ve seen its rendition in films like Dr. Strangelove and War Games: a cavernous space, giant glass-mounted world maps and cobalt-tinted screens animated by data glowing amid the gloom. Look a little closer though at the actual historical antecedent to the movie sets: the hulking AN/FSQ-7 terminal that was the cornerstone of the SAGE air-defense system, with its distinctive circular display. Next to the holster for the space-age light-gun that was used like a modern day mouse was a cigarette lighter and an ashtray, both built right into the console. They are quaintly amusing design details — and markers of a moment captured in a very different milieu by Mad Men — but they also represent a telling concession to the need for artificial stimulation (nicotine) coursing through the biological circuitry of the human operator who was expected to sit and service the terminal for hours on end.

SAGE’s blue room, with its high-tech systems for communication and control of the atomic battlespace, is a quintessential artifact of cybernetics, the loose, messy social philosophy and engineering paradigm that King’s College War Studies professor Thomas Rid presents in his ambitious new book. The cigarette lighter and the ashtray are the irreducible material signature of cybernetics; mute reminders that we have met the machines and they are us.

Nicotine addiction, in fact, can be understood precisely in terms of cybernetic precepts such as feedback and homeostasis: as the body’s natural chemical balance changes due to substance dependency, psychopharmacological routines kick in to trigger the demand for the drug to return it to a state of normality. This is much the same way that the thermostat in your home regulates the temperature. Crucially, the more one smokes, the greater the cravings (positive feedback in the parlance of cybernetics), and thus ever increasing levels of what cybernetics would term negative feedback are required to bring the body back into temporary balance, or homeostasis.

Cybernetic concepts have become so well absorbed that they seem like laws of nature or biological givens, yet, as Rid is concerned to show, cybernetics has a tangled and curious history. It was the byproduct of a shifting set of intellectual alliances and bedfellows, not to mention ferocious scientific debates. It was also a subject of immense popular interest, with monographs like Norbert Wiener’s foundational Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1949) becoming improbable bestsellers. Indeed, by the late 1960s, cybernetics had undergone a kind of cultural transfusion, not only the stuff of military command, control, communications and intelligence, but also woven into the lines of Richard Brautigan’s hippie poetry (“machines of loving grace”) and assimilated by architects of the social revolution like Buckminster Fuller and Stewart Brand.  “Cybernetics promised to guide stray missiles to targets and lost minds to exaltation,” as Rid puts it pithily.

Cybernetics wasn’t just a universal theory of machines, then; it became — sometimes over the protestations of its founders — a universal theory of, well, everything. If mechanical systems could be understood in terms of feedback and equilibrium, why not the human brain? And if the brain was a closed, computable system, then so too was the rest of nature, culture, society; all of life, in fact. In its relentless insistence that nothing under the sun was beyond the scope of systems engineering, cybernetics found itself in direct contention with the other great 20th century philosophy of mind, psychoanalysis. But where Jung and Freud saw the mind as a vast unknown, its secrets sometimes seeping through in dreams or mythopoeic archetypes, cybernetics saw only inputs, outputs, and circuits, all subject to command — and control.

The key actor in Rise of Machines, at least in its early chapters, is Norbert Wiener, the MIT professor and mathematician who coined the term cybernetics and was responsible for its promulgation (after the Greek κυβερνήτης, or “steersman”). Rid treats his protagonist with sometimes inexplicable disdain, even outright contempt: he is not just an “MIT professor” (itself repeated often enough to become an epithet), he is also (variously) “a proud professor,” “a hapless professor,” “publicity hungry,” “diffuse and incomprehensible,” and “eccentric.” Wiener himself, it must be said, looked the part: short and pudgy with a round face, white hair and beard, and thick black-rimmed glasses. But Rid misses no opportunity to portray him as impractical, alarmist, and out of his depth. One early anecdote has Wiener and his junior colleague Julian Bigelow fumbling around Fort Monroe, looking to further their research, until the authorities arrive to escort them off.

For all of this, however, we never really get a flesh and blood portrait of Wiener, and the man remains something of a cipher throughout. Was he a nutty professor or a visionary and humanitarian? An innovator or a failed academic? Portrayed more sympathetically is Ross Ashby, the British psychiatrist responsible for introducing the public to the world’s “first thinking machine” (it was a black box designed and engineered to do exactly nothing, that is to maintain a perpetual state of homeostasis). Alice Mary Hilton, meanwhile, a rare female voice from the period who wrote rhapsodically of “cyberculture” in the early 1960s — “In an era of cyberculture, all the plows pull themselves and the fried chickens fly right onto the plates” — is depicted by Rid gluttonously explaining her ideas to The New Yorker around mouthfuls of “a handmade ham sandwich.”

Others who come and go — John von Neumann, Gregory Bateson, Stewart Brand, Timothy Leary, Jaron Lanier, even Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, to name just a few (the ensemble cast is almost all male, with the exception of Hilton and a brief cameo from Donna Haraway) — fair little better, generally drawn as either over-eager science brats or California dreamers. Along the way we visit hippie communes in Big Sur, dial-in to the online discussion boards of the WELL, eavesdrop on cypherpunk enclaves, and don virtual reality headgear. Eventually Rid takes us back inside the green machine — the military, specifically the U.S. Department of Defense, aligning the precepts of the AirLand Battle that was supposed to defeat Warsaw Pact tank armies in the 1980s and the post-Desert Storm revolution of military affairs with cybernetic arts of war. But the real battlefield is inner space — which is to say, cyberspace. The climax of the book is its discussion of the complex of public fears around an Electronic Pearl Harbor (the language is Hamre’s),  a phrase whose staying power Rid sees as evidence of the machines at their apogee. And with this ascent comes one final, remarkable story.

Rid’s account of the hack (or if you prefer, cyberattack) dubbed Moonlight Maze is the single most extensively researched episode in the book. He takes us much deeper than Fred Kaplan in his corresponding account of the same events in Dark Territory (2016). Moonlight Maze goes down in history as the first known instance of state-on-state cyberwar, netting the black hats a cache of sensitive documents estimated as high as the Washington Monument. The anonymous agents who responded to the massive network intrusion apparently originating inside Russia in 1998  are some of the few figures Rid seems to treat with genuine sympathy and admiration. It’s a brilliant set-piece, and without too much in the way of spoilers let me say that Rid appears to suggest that the whole scheme is undone by a loose-lipped Russian General — though these are not loose lips of the sink ships variety. The machines are finally compromised by the foibles of human flesh.

•       •       •

Rise of the Machines is a sweeping intellectual history, engagingly written and brought to life by numerous details and anecdotes. Cybernetics and its progression of offshoots — cybernation, cyberculture, cyborgs, cyberspace, cyberpunk, cypherpunk, and finally cyberwar — are all disentangled and demystified in its pages. Rid is an able explainer of gnarly technical concepts, and a reader can reasonably expect to come away with a working understanding of, say, variable time fuses, in what is compellingly described as the first robotic war as British air defenses — aided by truck-mounted SCR-584 radar-directed fire control — used their smart munitions to shoot down Nazi Germany’s pilotless V-1 attack rockets.

Perhaps the book’s greatest success is in the way in which it injects this techno-history deep into the fabric of normality that structures contemporary life: It’s not just Predator drones that are the inheritors of the robots’ confrontation high above the English Channel, it’s also the pilot at the controls of our Airbus A380, one component among many in the feedback and control loops keeping the aircraft aloft; or ourselves, smart phone in hand, unselfconsciously tapping back into the invisible networks that surround us as we deplane. Your avatar is as much a cybernetic shell as the cockpit is for the crew, both airspace and cyberspace equally conducive to transcending the limits of earthly habitus.

Rid is especially good on the interface between weird science and popular culture, giving us everything from Arthur C. Clarke quoting Wiener in the pages of Playboy to a spread in Life magazine with a pinup model luxuriating in the mechanical arms of General Electric’s 80-ton “Electric Beetle,” a device manufactured at the same upstate New York factory that (as it happens) Kurt Vonnegut visited to write his breakthrough first novel, Player Piano (1952), set in a dystopian mechanized society extrapolated from then-current trends in workplace automation.  This is not art imitating life so much as strange loops of attraction and repulsion, running from Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (the 1920 Czech play that bequeathed us the word robot) to, of course, The Terminator, the blockbuster franchise whose third installment gives the book its title. (Rid deliciously quotes Manfred Clynes, the researcher who created the term cyborg: “Schwarzenegger playing this,” Clynes said unironically, “dehumanized the concept completely.”)

The story of cyberspace — by which one might mean anything from the Internet to the singularity of science fiction authors like Vernor Vinge — is too-often fashioned as the triumph of the hideous progeny of the military-industrial complex. (Everyone knows that the Internet was invented to help the U.S. government survive a nuclear war, right?)  Rid reminds us that these origin stories (and mythologies) are complex, and while he gives the military origins of cybernetics its due, he is equally at home in the arts, literature, and trends in pop culture. This is another of the book’s virtues, and what commends it to an audience who may be overly familiar with only one side of the story.

And yet, for all of his range and richness, Rid overstates the novelty of his analysis. He begins by painting himself as a dupe of the commonplace that the prefix cyber was invented by novelist William Gibson in Neuromancer (1984). Unable to accept that a sci-fi “fantasy” about a “drug addict” was responsible for the word’s omnipresence today, Rid (in his own words) “. . . started digging. Rise of the Machines was what I found.” But of course the story of cybernetics — and our collective fascination with intelligent machines more generally — is not some buried colossus awaiting just the right shovel. Wiener and cybernetics, as well as mechanical fire control, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, Sperry, SAGE, the Macy Conferences, self-reproducing automata, The Whole Earth Catalog, Brautigan’s “Machines of Loving Grace,” osmotic pumps in rats, virtual communities, and techno-feminist science fiction have all been treated extensively in prior work by authorities as diverse as Paul N. Edwards, Manuel DeLanda, Anne Balsamo, N. Katherine Hayles, David A. Mindell, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, and Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi to name just a few, and especially Fred Turner, whose itinerary in From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006) Rid follows closely in key sections of the book.

Rid, however, takes a longer view of the subject than just about any of them, determined to present cybernetics not just as technological or intellectual or social history, but as a kind of master narrative — a mythos — for the 20th century and beyond. The book is ultimately about closing the loop. Rise of the Machines, in other words, reads military, cultural, and technological history cybernetically. The game is given away in the closing pages, where Rid overtly invokes the language of cybernetics to capture the anxieties and ambitions that coexisted uneasily at the human-machine interface: “The machines were always a positive and negative force at the same time, utopian and dystopian at once, although most of the time optimism dominated” [emphasis mine]. This dualism — or again, feedback loop — is the basic structuring device of the narrative. Rid turns to it over and over again, as when, to take just one example, he notes that the same model of mainframe computer powered both Stewart Brand’s legendary online community the WELL and Minuteman missile consoles, the only difference being that the former was housed in a handcrafted wooden cabinet.

Cybernetics, from Wiener’s initial attempts at flight prediction to our fantasies of virtual reality, is marked more often by its failures than its successes, Rid suggests. (When the future finally arrived it looked more like LOLcats and tweets than William Gibson’s “fluid neon origami trick.”) But if the real danger is not the machines taking over but the myth of the machines taking over, one might ask whether the book finally succeeds in escaping the logics of the very histories it seeks so thoroughly to explore. Rise of the Machines builds its narrative through eight main chapters that are organized thematically — Automation, Organisms, Culture, Space, and so on. The last of these is given over to War, and one can’t help but sense some prophecy in that sequencing. Or perhaps it’s still only a secular teleology. Can humans — and machines — change our interconnected fates? We better hope so.

 

Matthew Kirschenbaum is Professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is the author most recently of Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Harvard University Press, 2016) and is co-editor of Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (MIT Press, 2016). A 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, Kirschenbaum has previously written on computer forensics, new media, and digital humanities.

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