The backgrounds of most of the scientists mentioned in the book, including Bateson, Mead, Wiener, Lévi-Strauss, and Barthes, are well-documented. The significant contribution of the book is its revelation of the impact created by new non-human actors, or “actants” in the terminology used by Latour in The Pasteurization of France.[1]Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). It primarily explores a network of institutions where scientific projects and geopolitical agendas intricately intersect and provides a detailed examination. The concept of a “cybernetic apparatus” also exposes the intricate and ambivalent role of technical objects and devices.

On one level, this book reads like a narrative of imperialism, in which cybernetics acts as a mechanism of American soft power to to disseminate a particular worldview. This entails the objectification of life, humanity, and society, effectively leading to a venture in social engineering, particularly in Europe and France, referred to as a “well-engineered modern state” (27). On another level, the book underscores the practical power of cybernetic devices. It’s noteworthy that cybernetics, while being both reductionist (reducing everything to code) and totalizing (reducing everything to code), materializes in infrastructures that significantly complicate our quest to comprehend the world. Every effort to encode reality and make it more accessible and manipulable is countered by an accumulation of layers and socio-technical loops, ultimately constructing bureaucratic mazes that divert us from the primary goal: rationalizing action within human societies. Is there not a degree of fetishization of these “cybernetic apparatuses”? Geoghegan’s narrative effectively illustrates the chasm between the promises of a scientific program that inspired enthusiasm and fascination and the actual outcomes produced.

I could also aswer from my own situated experience of an apparatus of the field of anthropology. As a member of the Laboratory of Anthropology at the Collège de France, I often worked in close proximity to the imposing cabinets housing the Human Relations Area Files in our library. I worked “next to” them, but not directly “with” them. My relationship with this system, designed to encode the diversity of human cultures, is ambivalent. Lévi-Strauss had himself photographed in front of the Files (109), and later Françoise Héritier and Philippe Descola followed suit. They aimed to demonstrate the capability of social sciences to possess instruments as iconic as the test tubes found in biology laboratories. However, looking beyond its programmatic nature, it would be instructive to evaluate the actual knowledge produced by this apparatus. Connecting Lévi-Strauss’s photograph with the cover of the exhibition catalog featuring artifacts from his mission among the Matto-Grosso Indians suggests a critical alignment between two forms of fetishism. While attempting to decipher the essence of a people through its material culture, representing scientists with their instruments paves the way for a critical examination of knowledge construction in the realm of science, particularly among those advocating a cybernetic approach.

Like cinema that relies on a technique that attempts to give an objective and scientific view of the world but produces highly animistic effects for those who are in contact with animated images,[2]Teresa Castro, Perig Pitrou, and Marie Rebecchi (eds.), Puissance du végétal et cinéma animiste: La vitalité révélée par la technique (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2020). cybernetic apparatus are objects, capture-systems, and visual universes that help to re-enchant the world by attempting to encode it. 

Irrespective of their direct association with cybernetic projects, certain guiding principles of this approach remain relevant for modern anthropology. The development of analytical models to explore the connections between vastly different categories of facts within a systemic and process-oriented framework still stands as one of the key objectives of anthropology. A “metabolic” approach, as articulated by Hannah Landecker, serves as a fitting example, as does Valérie Olson’s description of a spaceship as a “system” wherein technical and vital processes are intricately intertwined.[3]Hannah Landecker, “A Metabolic History of Manufacturing Waste: Food Commodities and Their Outsides,” Food, Culture & Society 22, no. 5 (October 20, 2019): 530–47; Valerie Olson, Into the Extreme: US Environmental Systems and Politics beyond Earth (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). For anthropology, particularly in the context of the anthropology of life, cybernetics continues to be a domain for examining the continuities and analogies between living and technical systems. It’s worth noting that my interest lies less in the specific outcomes of cybernetic projects, as the book illustrates that many of these outcomes are now dated. Instead, I am more inclined towards an approach that underscores the human endeavor to comprehend the relationship between life and technology.[4]Perig Pitrou, “Life as a making,” NatureCulture 4 (2017): 1-37.

It’s possible to interpret the initial chapters of Code as distinct phases in a broader effort to objectify the movements of life, a multifaceted phenomenon addressed in its biological, linguistic, social, cultural, and other dimensions. For anthropology and history, it is pertinent to trace the heuristic loops that connect the observation of living entities with the construction of technical systems that seek to emulate their characteristics. Every attempt to model life leads to new questions, generating processes for data production, processing, and visualization that, in turn, alter the way we observe living entities.

Beyond the dynamic parallels between life and technology, cybernetics provides a platform for investigating the interfaces between biological and socio-technical systems. From a perspective of continuity, the issue of control and governance, which lies at the core of the cybernetic project (a term derived from kubernêtikê, rooted in kubernân, meaning “to govern,” originally used in reference to steering a ship), remains pivotal in comprehending the contemporary world. Similar to living systems engaged in random evolutionary dynamics, technical and biotechnical systems are characterized by a certain level of uncertainty regarding their development, despite programming and anticipation efforts. Questions persist surrounding the governance and control of human socio-technical systems, where interactions and interferences among different subsystems are abundant. How can humans effectively intervene in these systems without introducing new layers of complexity that hinder or obstruct action? Can political action and value systems be encoded as variables dependent on the system, or do these sorts of human institutions possess an element of external influence, if not transcendence, in relation to the system? Code offers insights into each of these issues.

In Le Geste et la Parole, André Leroi-Gourhan (1964), whose work is curiously absent from Code, traces the gradual externalization of biological functions into artifacts, a trend that persists in the creation of intellectual devices such as books, indexes, cards, and code systems. As projects involving artificial environments like Biosphere 2 and spaceships, and the increasing influence of algorithms over the environment, continue to evolve, so does the demand for codes. With the increasing power of algorithms over human existence, particularly in the context of the development of AI, a new question comes to the forefront. No longer: how have human organisms externalized biological functions? But instead: how are human lives—understood as life forms and forms of life—internalized by artificial environments? The thermostat is often presented as an example of a cybernetic device operating homeostatically, just as an organism would. But beyond this analogy, the challenge is to think how living organisms, human and non-human, inhabiting controlled artificial environments are themselves modified by technical devices.

This challenge has, for example, been taken up by Stefan Helmreich in the domain of electroencephelography: “The social life of EEGs transformed when they were patched into a cybernetic view of the organism and used not just to classify epileptics and others but also to develop therapies through which brain waves might be used as stimuli for individual self-regulation and feedback […] ‘Biofeedback’ took off in the 1970s and sought to place individual persons in the loop of monitoring and controlling the waves of activity in their bodies, particularly their brains.”[5]Stefan Helmreich, “Potential Energy and the Body Electric: Cardiac Waves, Brain Waves, and the Making of Quantities into Qualities,” Current Anthropology 54, no. S7 (October 2013): S144. With the development of AI, new research questions are opening up, not only to determine the similarities and differences between natural intelligence and its technical modeling, but also to understand how humans explore new biofeedback avenues during the most sophisticated intellectual operations.

References

References
1 Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
2 Teresa Castro, Perig Pitrou, and Marie Rebecchi (eds.), Puissance du végétal et cinéma animiste: La vitalité révélée par la technique (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2020).
3 Hannah Landecker, “A Metabolic History of Manufacturing Waste: Food Commodities and Their Outsides,” Food, Culture & Society 22, no. 5 (October 20, 2019): 530–47; Valerie Olson, Into the Extreme: US Environmental Systems and Politics beyond Earth (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
4 Perig Pitrou, “Life as a making,” NatureCulture 4 (2017): 1-37.
5 Stefan Helmreich, “Potential Energy and the Body Electric: Cardiac Waves, Brain Waves, and the Making of Quantities into Qualities,” Current Anthropology 54, no. S7 (October 2013): S144.