Flashback to 1988. I am in an undergraduate seminar in anthropology and we’re reading Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language.[1]Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972). It is the story of structuralism, from Saussure and the Russian Formalists to Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva. The bases, in other words, for much of what counted as post-structuralism in anthropology. Flash forward a few more years, and I am a graduate student writing a dissertation on digitization and the advent of “information” as the fungible fuel of digital capitalism. What do these areas have in common? Both bodies of theory and critique trace an arc of thought putatively outside of anthropology (even as they become objects to the anthropological gaze). The two also lead us in different directions, with post-structuralism in anthropology spiraling into insouciant, representational eddies, while evocations of the digital conjure specters of big data, algorithms, and machine learning. Or that’s what I thought.  

One of the greatest contributions of Geoghegan’s Code is the obliteration of these specious genealogies: “an emerging consensus that critical and digital inquiry are more interesting as mutual composites than as opponents” (175). Code links the work of anthropology to the development of both informatics and European structuralism. Anthropology, through the pivotal work of Levi-Strauss, provides that bridge between the ascendency of computational logic and the play of semiosis that characterized French social theory in the 1950s and 1960s. That chapter in Code recognizes Levi-Strauss’s role as a “super-connecter” who linked the sciences, social sciences, and humanities in the US and France, and who traded on the “enclosure” wrought by the colonial project to build a scaffolding for communicative networks. Along the way, Geoghegan loops in the Josiah Macy, Jr Conferences on Cybernetics (1946-1953), an interdisciplinary series of meetings in New York convened in order to develop a common language around key comments: information, circular causality, and neural nets. Important in guiding research on the digital, the conferences also influenced the growth of European institutions, courtesy of the Ford Foundation and the Marshall Plan. 

Yet, this is not about who influenced whom; Geoghegan offers multiple examples of feedback loops linking together anthropology, linguistics, computer and information sciences, biology, eugenics. Ultimately, though, Geoghegan’s focus is on the bigger forces behind the datafication of these disciplines: political economy and imperialism. In other words, our data hegemonies do not spring sui generis from “ratios of signal to noise”—they originate and develop through powerful contexts that shaped anthropology, literary criticism, the academy as a whole: “the informatics of domination began not in informatics but in domination” (7). That domination included anthropology’s colonial project, alongside the social engineering that Mead and Bateson tinkered with during World War II. We’re used to parsing “humanism” from “post-humanism,” “embodiment” from “digital,” but it is much more interesting (and useful) to see the powerful agencies that led to these binarisms.

Geoghegan’s archival work leads him through letters and memoranda from scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, along with technocrats at the Rockefeller Foundation. These were the people who laid the groundwork for cybernetics and informatics, but also for an instrumental logic that would re-shape the global order into Cold War capitalist science and, ultimately, into regimes of information capitalism: “That drive toward informatic disembodiment belongs to a liberal ideology that promises equality through the technological suspension of geographical, linguistic, ethnic, and class differences” (10). More than anything else, Code eloquently sketches the network of post-war developments that we ordinarily hold separate.

Critiques of cybernetics have focused on its reduction of people, social relations, and communications to disembodied flows of information that might be commodified, manipulated, recombined, and sold. So many of the challenges we face—from alienation and deskilling, to misinformation and contagion—extend from this. The same calculus enables a host of false equivalencies and slippery metaphors that, for example, allow corporations and policy makers to substitute algorithmic systems for human expertise.

However, in the decades in and around the Macy Conferences, alternative visions of an information society were evoked. For example, Hayles looks to the work of MacKay and what he characterizes as a more “structural” information.[2]N. Katharine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). Still other alternatives arise in what has been called second-order cybernetics, which looks to reflexivity, the role of the observer and, ultimately, the possibility of autopoietic systems defining their own reality.[3]Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Elanor Rosch,The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991). For Geoghegan, however, there’s another possibility. If we locate the origins of informatic domination in anthropology’s colonial project, then what would an information society look like in light of an anticolonial anthropology? An abolitionist anthropology? As the recent podcast “Santiago Boys” makes clear, “code” can be linked to radical democratization and local empowerment; the answer to the informatics of domination lies in the emancipatory movements happening all around us.[4]John Duda, “Cybernetics, Anarchism and Self-Organization,” Anarchist Studies 21(1): 52-72; Evgeny Morozov, “The Santiago Boys” [podcast] (2023).

And there are still other alternatives to our “prison houses of information.” Gregory Bateson illustrates one in a talk he gave at the Naropa Institute in 1974. During the Q&A, Bateson told a story about working with a schizophrenic patient in Palo Alto (as he would often do in the 1960s and 1970s). The patient visits Bateson in his office and Bateson offers him a cigarette. The man lights the cigarette, takes three puffs, and then drops it on the carpet. After the patient does this on the second day, he and Bateson start to take a walk on the hospital grounds, but then Bateson, worried about the smoldering cigarette butt, runs back to his office to check. On the third day, the patient again drops his cigarette, and heads out for his walk:

“And as I’m following I grab up the cigarette. I palm it. And we walk out onto the hospital grounds. And we’ve gone about 100 yards, and I say, ‘Ed, I think this is your cigarette, isn’t it?’ And then he has the grace to laugh.”[5]Gregory Bateson, “Lecture on Consciousness and Psychopathology, Part 2” (Naropa Institute, 1974).  Bateson would generally follow his anecdotes with an interpretation. “He was challenging me, you see.” This time, there’s no explanation; Bateson, perhaps, meant something more transcendental. I prefer to think of this as the triumph of interaction over interpretation.

If much of Bateson’s contribution to family therapy was the examination of the “codes” evident in linguistic, paralinguistic, and nonlinguistic interaction (82), it is telling that Bateson did not “de-code” this encounter. Here, what was the message? What was sent and received? Or, is it simply that interaction is more important than understanding? In other words, here’s an encounter that both Bateson and patient found meaningful, without the two necessarily arriving at a common understanding.

That is, against the “new lingua franca” of cybernetics, where “not only scientific problems but even questions of art and human freedom could be treated in computational terms,” there’s another approach that privileges interaction for its own sake, without the promise of fungible, commodifiable information (23). This becomes clearer with the second generation of cyberneticists. Intellectual heir to Ross Ashby and (to a lesser extent) Gregory Bateson, Gordon Pask developed many cybernetic machines, among them “musicolour,” a machine that allowed people to interact with it by experimenting with sound frequencies, different (changing) thresholds of which would produce lights. For this device (and others from Pask), defined informatic output was not the goal.[6]Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 316.

We are at the convergence of multiple post-humanisms: the absolute hegemony of the digital in media and communications, the ascendency of algorithms and AI, and the near ubiquity of IT devices in everyday life. As Geoghegan writes in Code, “Digital cultural analytics premised on pervasive information enclosure appear to be an imminently realizable endeavor” (171).

Of course, there are numerous anthropologies of digital life—algorithms, applications, robots, and other non-human agents. Yet, there is also the frequent charge that anthropology is not equipped for our digital futures. Whether qualitative or quantitative, ethnographic work with groups that rarely exceed a few hundred seems ill-suited to the explication of big data. Or are these even the right questions to ask? What Geoghegan’s book demonstrates is that we are all heirs to “code,” with all of the powerful inequalities that implies. This means that our critiques of digital capitalism must also involve a reflexive understanding of the ways “code” has shaped the anthropological project over the past 60 years, and conversely, the ways that information society represents a revanchist anthropology grounded in empire. More optimistically, it extends the possibility of a more interactionist multi-agent ontology, one that extends both fields into latencies opened up by that first generation of cyberneticists.

We are surrounded by multi-agent systems at every moment in our lives. Those agents may be variously intelligent. With generative AI, we have agents that simulate human conversation, so it is easy for people to (mis)understand their agency. Most algorithms, however, toil in the background, running checks on our job applications, checking purchases against credit history, touching up photographs. Yet in all cases, it is not so easy to understand how multi-agent systems make decisions. Large language models, for example, are unable to tell us which sources they’ve consulted in their replies, and text-to-image generation has notoriously surreal moments, when, for example, Dall-E or Stable Diffusion produce monstrous figures like “Loab,” a disquieting image of what looks to be an elderly woman.

This is the world we live in now, but it is not a “post-human” one in the sense of a reduction of human life to manipulable flows of data. Instead, we find ourselves enmeshed in interactive systems that can’t be reduced to information quanta—even if powerful organizations strive to do so. Amidst these heterogeneous systems, communication may be an impossibility; instead, coordination may be the optimal outcome. The basis of that coordination lies in the questions: who defines the field for interaction? Will everything be used for profit? For state surveillance?

On the other hand, we might strive towards making these systems explicable and more predictable, more interactive, more responsive and more grounded in the experiences of diverse communities: “Explainable artificial intelligence,” “community robotics,” “community-based design”: anthropologists are uniquely poised to consider these networks of humans and non-humans as they interact together to create their world. They are also uniquely positioned to insist that non-human agents need not serve the whims of capital, and that rejecting information as “command and control” means opening up recombinatory possibilities.

References

References
1 Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).
2 N. Katharine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
3 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Elanor Rosch,The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1991).
4 John Duda, “Cybernetics, Anarchism and Self-Organization,” Anarchist Studies 21(1): 52-72; Evgeny Morozov, “The Santiago Boys” [podcast] (2023).
5 Gregory Bateson, “Lecture on Consciousness and Psychopathology, Part 2” (Naropa Institute, 1974).
6 Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 316.