None of the protagonists in Code were unfamiliar to me, but the history of their collaborations in the 1940s and ‘50s was a revelation.  I had long thought that Bateson’s path from the groundbreaking (and still underappreciated) Naven of the 1930s to his conceptualization of family dynamics, double-binds and schizophrenia in the ‘50s and ‘60s represented the wanderings of a freewheeling genius rather than as a sustained analytic focus on codes and structures.  I appreciate seeing the connection differently. I was even less aware of Mead’s connections with cybernetics and the Macy Foundation, having understood her work in the 1950s and 1960s to have focused primarily on family dynamics, kinship, and sexuality. And like my reading of Bateson, I would never have understood Mead’s studies of family dynamics and kinship relations to be conceptualized as forms of communication.  I read them as analyses of social relationships, which to my mind encompasses far more than communicative strategies: embodiment, affect, sexual desire. 

Conversely, I would not have discussed the work of cyberneticians like Shannon as directly related to anthropology, even though all that talk of communication science and code signals appeared occasionally in course work in anthropology.  Cybernetics lessons were always illustrated with figures that looked like an electronic circuit board.  Off-putting to say the least.  I, for one, never found discussions of cybernetics very illuminating, since they seemed entirely detached from the rich cultural histories that drew me to anthropology in the first place.  This is all to say that it is refreshing to learn about lively interactions of scholars whose work one had read so narrowly.

I think the broader lesson here is one of disciplinary boundaries and the nature of scholarly collaboration. A consistent theme throughout Code is the appetite scholars had for interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary collaborations. This is true of individual scholars like Bateson or Lacan, but even more so in relation to gatherings of scholars in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s committed to building bridges between natural sciences and the humanities. I have in mind groups like the Congress for Cultural Freedom[1]See Elena Aronova, “The Congress for Cultural Freedom, ‘Minerva’, and the Quest for Instituting ‘Science Studies’ in the Age of Cold War,” Minerva 50, no. 3 (2012): 307–37. and the work of Jacob Bronowski and C. P. Snow. One might ask then what kind of boundary work have disciplines engaged in since the 1970s to obscure earlier histories of interdisciplinary creativity? And for what purpose?

A parallel strain of inquiry would consider the role of private foundations and government agencies, not to mention powerful businesses, in promoting specific research agendas. Our understanding of these influential bodies in the Cold War is scattershot at best, with most of the attention focused on prominent foundations (Rockefeller, Ford, Wenner Gren) and government agencies (like the CIA in the United States). I for one was unaware of the work of the Macy Foundation. A fuller picture of the interdependencies of philanthropy, business, and US domestic and foreign policy would help to elucidate the Cold War politics of interdisciplinarity in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It would also help us to understand how interdisciplinarity in the current moment might be different. It is a testament to the provocative perspective Code offers that it prompts such wide ranging and important questions.

To be honest, the cybernetic vision of the postwar order frightens me. As I see it, in the cybernetic vision the social world is flattened into a two-dimensional landscape of 1’s and 0’s, eviscerating all that is fluid and profound. Recent work in the (pre)history of applied mathematics and computing is raising new questions about the logic of inquiry and institutional commitments that gave birth (or acted as midwives) to cybernetics (see Theodora Dryer’s work on input-output models and the prehistory of computing). We need more work like Theo’s that examines the interwar period in our studies of intellectual and political foundations of the postwar social order. I must say that, although Geoghegan states explicitly that “ideas about cybernetics, information, and computing on the rise in the 1940s belong to a program of techno-political reform that took shape across the 1920s and 1930s” (9), his discussion of this important period is limited to issues related to colonial anthropology and eugenics. Missing from this account is the enormous influence at this time of scientific management, the rationalization movement, and applied psychology, fields that epitomized techno-political reform. By narrowing the discussion to code, Geoghegan overlooks the ways interwar experiments in organizational efficiencies and innovative communication strategies contributed to the development of cybernetics.

I would never have thought of Saussure and Jakobson as related to cybernetics, but if we include them as masters in the practice of coding, then I might have a more positive take on the cybernetic vision.  For me Saussure’s emphasis on the arbitrariness of symbols is absolutely crucial as a starting point to any sort of cultural analysis.  It opens the door to a relativistic vision, a form of empathy that is required if one is to be intellectually honest when attempting to understand societies other than one’s own.  But I hasten to add that it is foundational only insofar as one recognizes that symbols are necessarily historical artifacts.  In other words, I consider the langue/parole dyad to be as vacuous as the cybernetic twins of 1s and 0s, and it is only in moving beyond the dyad to a world full of pragmatic missteps and productive neologisms that we actually may begin to comprehend complex histories of practice.[2] For a somewhat different take on this point, see Martha Lampland, “Pigs, Party Secretaries, and Private Lives in Hungary,” American Ethnologist 18, no. 3 (1991): 459–79.

I have approached questions of the digital future and AI from the perspective of science studies rather than anthropology per se, so I am unable to speak to this question within the confines of one discipline.  For me speculating on the digital/AI or machine learning future requires that I think carefully about strategies of modeling, and practices of quantification and commensuration.  I consider algorithms to be just another formalizing practice, akin to standardization and rationalization, i.e., efforts to regulate behavior and stipulate its parameters. I read Code then as a cautionary tale, since it describes the potential of cybernetics to address crucial social and political issues, a potential that is lost when French cynicism (and US processes of disciplinary professionalization) caused us to turn our backs on the political commitments of earlier decades.  Cybernetics was not alone in shedding its initial political impetus and social critique in the process of being translated into an academic discipline; the second wave women’s movement and interdisciplinary debates among humanists and natural scientists also suffered the same fate once they were reconfigured as feminist theory and science studies on university campuses.[3]See Elena Aronova’s work on the prehistory of science studies, especially: “The Politics and Contexts of Soviet Science Studies (Naukovedenie): Soviet Philosophy of Science at the Crossroads,” Studies in East European Thought 63, no. 3 (2011): 175–202; “The Congress for Cultural Freedom, ‘Minerva’, and the Quest for Instituting ‘Science Studies’ in the Age of Cold War,” Minerva 50, no. 3 (2012): 307–37; and Elena Aronova, “Big Science and ‘Big Science Studies’ in the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War,” in Science and Technology in the Global Cold War, ed. Naomi Oreskes and John Krige (The MIT Press, 2014). 

References

References
1 See Elena Aronova, “The Congress for Cultural Freedom, ‘Minerva’, and the Quest for Instituting ‘Science Studies’ in the Age of Cold War,” Minerva 50, no. 3 (2012): 307–37.
2 For a somewhat different take on this point, see Martha Lampland, “Pigs, Party Secretaries, and Private Lives in Hungary,” American Ethnologist 18, no. 3 (1991): 459–79.
3 See Elena Aronova’s work on the prehistory of science studies, especially: “The Politics and Contexts of Soviet Science Studies (Naukovedenie): Soviet Philosophy of Science at the Crossroads,” Studies in East European Thought 63, no. 3 (2011): 175–202; “The Congress for Cultural Freedom, ‘Minerva’, and the Quest for Instituting ‘Science Studies’ in the Age of Cold War,” Minerva 50, no. 3 (2012): 307–37; and Elena Aronova, “Big Science and ‘Big Science Studies’ in the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War,” in Science and Technology in the Global Cold War, ed. Naomi Oreskes and John Krige (The MIT Press, 2014).