The established narrative in the history of technology is that the information age—at least, its twentieth and twenty-first-century iterations—has its roots in mid-century cybernetics, an engineering discipline of control and communication that approached humans and machines as information-processing systems.[1]Ronald R. Kline, The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, 1st edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Cybernetics, then, as many historians have shown, supplied the human sciences with new metaphors and conceptual tools to reorient their tasks, goals, and methodologies in the 1950s and 1960s.[2]Jamie Cohen-Cole, The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature, Reprint edition (University of Chicago Press, 2016); Deborah Weinstein, The Pathological Family: Postwar America and the Rise of Family Therapy (Cornell University Press, 2013). The mid-century connections between engineering and human sciences approaches to communication are also the subject of Bernard Geoghegan’s Code: From Information Theory to French Theory. And yet Code’s take on the relationship between hard and soft sciences diverges in a significant way from existing historical accounts.

As Geoghegan demonstrates, far from being mere recipients of cybernetic ideas, human sciences laid as much groundwork for the information age as engineering, computing, and mathematics. American anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead (previously treated by historians as secondary figures in the cybernetics movement) and Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson and French ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss (two entirely new historical actors in the twentieth-century information sciences) began approaching human communication in terms of signals, codes, and information patterns even before mathematicians Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon formulated their information theories at MIT and Bell Labs in the 1940s.  Since the cybernetics agenda happened to match their already established research programs, these human scientists would later become a part of the international cybernetics network or, as in the case of Jakobson, would benefit from the patronage of institutions traditionally associated with information science.

Not only does Geoghegan bring new actors to the history of cybernetics, he also revisits well-known figures, such as computer engineer Vannevar Bush and Claude Shannon, to showcase how, back in the 1930s, human sciences, especially ethnography and eugenics, informed their work on computing and mathematics. For instance, as Chapter One tells us, during the height of the American technocracy movement, Bush introduced Shannon to the Eugenics Records Office, where the latter worked to streamline information processing methods.  This is one of the many historical episodes that allow Geoghegan to argue that the social engineering of the 1920s and 1930s was as important in shaping cybernetics as computer engineering of the mid-century.

Code introduces two overlapping power asymmetries—an international and an epistemic one. Many of Geoghegan’s white Western scholars developed their theories using the data about “primitive” people. The US and France were places where universal theories of the human condition were formulated, while the non-Western world served as a data mine for those theories. This line of analysis continues the historiographical trajectory that examines how Western science—ranging from early modern natural philosophy to twentieth-century anthropology—used colonized lands as data repositories for its theoretical projects.[3]Rebecca Lemov, Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity (New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2015); Londa Schiebinger, “Bioprospecting,” in Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, Illustrated edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: Harvard University Press, 2007), 73–104; Joanna Radin, “‘Digital Natives’: How Medical and Indigenous Histories Matter for Big Data,” Osiris 32, no. 1 (September 2017): 43–64.  Tracing the origins of cybernetics to Dutch Bali rather than US East Coast engineering labs, Geoghegan demonstrates that cybernetics was yet another Western science with roots deep in settler colonialism.

Flashback to 1988. I am in an undergraduate seminar in anthropology and we’re reading Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language.[4]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.

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[5]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.

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.[6]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,[7]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. 

Not prioritizing academicians as the sole producers of knowledge, Code stands out to me in its effort to capture human sciences within a complex network of non-academic intellectuals and technocrats. By discussing how ideas about cybernetics flowed and developed among philanthropists, conference-going scholars, government bodies, and even photographers, Geoghegan writes against the conception that cybernetic research was confined to the ivory tower. He intricately locates cybernetics within the dynamics of postwar global politics and its actors.

Since cultural anthropology is known for its frequent entanglements with colonial and developmentalist projects, I think understanding who facilitates research projects and their visions of humanity is of great importance when studying the discipline’s intellectual history. I particularly appreciate Geoghegan’s critical attention to philanthropic bodies and their political stakes in the development of cybernetics. He reminds readers that research funders—along with their mission and imagination towards the ideal and healthy society—held great power over methodological and theoretical trends in the discipline.

As an anthropologist studying the history of Mead and Bateson’s fieldwork in Bali, I find Code helpful in thinking about how funding organizations and their cybernetic ambitions affected the direction of their research on schizophrenia. For the Bali trip, Mead and Bateson relied on the generous funding from the Committee for Research in Dementia Praecox. The American psychiatric community in the early 1900s believed that dementia praecox—today called schizophrenia—was on the rise.[8]Tessel Pollmann, “Margaret Mead’s Balinese: The Fitting Symbols of the American Dream,” Indonesia, no. 49 (1990): 1–35; see also Richard Noll, American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox (Harvard University Press, 2011). The Committee was established to work with scientists in performing research on, and ultimately curing, schizophrenia.

It is against this backdrop that Mead and Bateson’s research developed. Ira Jacknis wrote that Mead’s Bali fieldwork was stimulated by conversations and inquiries from psychologists.[9]Ira Jacknis, “Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali: Their Use of Photography and Film,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 2 (1988): 160–77. One of the scholars was the chairman of the Committee, who asked Mead to propose an expedition studying schizophrenia (Ibid.). The cybernetic ambition to explain the illness “through experts’ technical documentation of people supposedly sheltered from the distortions of modernity” (56) also affected Mead and Bateson’s decision to use camera and recording devices. Not only were they new techniques in ethnography, but they also offered a dream to circumvent what the anthropologists called “inevitable observational error.” Reflecting on Code’s focus on scientific networks, Mead and Bateson’s schizophrenia thesis and their methodological choices were not solely individual decisions. Instead, their ideas were intricately nestled within the nexus of preexisting institutional dreams in postwar America of explaining and curing mental illnesses through technocratic means.

In Chapter 2, Code extensively discusses how Mead and Bateson’s cybernetic approach in understanding Balinese society distanced them from structural and colonial violence happening on the island. Embracing recording devices to anchor cultural research in impartial data patterns, the anthropologists also read Balinese behaviors not as political actions, but as “elementary logical forms transmitted across a social body” (63). While it is important to understand Mead’s objectifying perspective in studying the Balinese, there is a lack of understanding in how minoritized subjects contribute or respond to this type of research project (8). My research on the invisible labor of I Made Kaler[10]Amrina Rosyada, “Unsung Native Collaborators in Anthropology,” SAPIENS, October 13, 2022.—Mead and Bateson’s Balinese research assistant during the fieldwork—tries to fill this gap by examining how he asserted his agency as a Balinese in the research project. I found that his insider knowledge had helped the anthropologists tremendously in collecting data, considering that Mead only learned about Bali and trance dance from her colleague Jane Belo before leaving for fieldwork. However, to my surprise, I did not find any archival evidence of him writing about the political situation in Bali. If he was educated and well-read, why was he silent about the colonial violence prominent in Balinese life around that period—especially knowing that “Mead herself never broached a political discourse”?[11]Tessel Pollmann, “Margaret Mead’s Balinese: The Fitting Symbols of the American Dream,” Indonesia, no. 49 (1990): 1–35.

Tessel Pollman, who got the opportunity to interview I Made Kaler in 1986, revealed that the research assistant did not wholeheartedly agree with Mead and Bateson’s thesis on the schizophrenic tendency among the Balinese. He was well aware that the island’s tranquility, which so enticed the anthropologists, was colonially constructed. However, he could not be completely open to Mead and Bateson about it for safety reasons since the Dutch police might harm him and his employers. This is an important reminder that we should be careful in equating the silence of research subjects with compliance as cybernetic objects. Oftentimes, their seeming submissiveness can be nuanced with subtle political undertones, as was the case amid the power imbalances of colonial Bali.

References

References
1 Ronald R. Kline, The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age, 1st edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).
2 Jamie Cohen-Cole, The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature, Reprint edition (University of Chicago Press, 2016); Deborah Weinstein, The Pathological Family: Postwar America and the Rise of Family Therapy (Cornell University Press, 2013).
3 Rebecca Lemov, Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity (New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2015); Londa Schiebinger, “Bioprospecting,” in Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, Illustrated edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: Harvard University Press, 2007), 73–104; Joanna Radin, “‘Digital Natives’: How Medical and Indigenous Histories Matter for Big Data,” Osiris 32, no. 1 (September 2017): 43–64.
4 Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).
5 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.
6 Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).
7 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).
8 Tessel Pollmann, “Margaret Mead’s Balinese: The Fitting Symbols of the American Dream,” Indonesia, no. 49 (1990): 1–35; see also Richard Noll, American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox (Harvard University Press, 2011).
9 Ira Jacknis, “Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali: Their Use of Photography and Film,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 2 (1988): 160–77.
10 Amrina Rosyada, “Unsung Native Collaborators in Anthropology,” SAPIENS, October 13, 2022.
11 Tessel Pollmann, “Margaret Mead’s Balinese: The Fitting Symbols of the American Dream,” Indonesia, no. 49 (1990): 1–35.