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.[1]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.[2]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[3]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”?[4]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.

What I appreciate in the cybernetic framework is how it situates humans within a communicative relationship with non-human actors in understanding social systems and changes. This perspective challenges human-centrism in anthropology by looking at humankind as another subsystem constituting a bigger global system.[5]Mihajlo D. Mesarović, David L. McGinnis, and Dalton A. West, Cybernetics of Global Change: Human Dimension and Managing of Complexity, MOST Policy Papers (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1996). Humans are, in the words of Donna Haraway, one “companion species” among others.[6]Donna Haraway, “Encounters with Companion Species: Entangling Dogs, Baboons, Philosophers, and Biologists,” Configurations 14, no. 1 (2006): 97–114. The key concepts of feedback mechanism and circularity in cybernetics allow us to understand that humans do not only change the subsystems external to them but are also changed by them. This perspective resonates strongly with The Nonhuman Turn in 21st century anthropology which highlights the agency of the non-human world in shaping human cultures and behaviors. Anna Tsing, one famous proponent of the approach, argues that more-than-human actors—in her case, fungi—have sociality in the sense that they react to, get transformed by, and entangle with both human and non-human others.[7]Anna Tsing, “More-than-Human Sociality: A Call for Critical Description,” in Anthropology and Nature, ed. Kirsten Hastrup (Routledge, 2013).

Another aspect that I think is important about cybernetics is that it has a goal: that is, the creation of stability. In the context of anthropology, I can see how this perspective can be used to answer problems related to phenomena characterized by social instability, such as inequalities. Although not explicitly cybernetic, I have seen many anthropologists of infrastructure use a similar network-centered approach in answering how technologies—made by humans—in turn create infrastructural and environmental racism. Understanding infrastructure as a network of people and things that facilitate circulation,[8]Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. Volume 42, 2013 (October 21, 2013): 327–43. they study how various parts of the infrastructural system interact with each other and what outcomes emerge from that particular relationality. Nikhil Anand’s work is an important example. Acknowledging that pressure is both physical and social, he explains how unequal access to water emerges as a result of “a complex matrix of sociocultural relations” consisting of water pressure, pipes, pumps, and human bureaucracy.[9]Nikhil Anand, “PRESSURE: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai,” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4 (2011): 542–64. Understanding infrastructure as a network, therefore, makes it possible for scholars to point out which parts in the infrastructural system need fixing to reduce inequalities.

Lastly, since cybernetics regards humans to be systemically bound with technology, infrastructure, and the environment, the approach also challenges the understanding about what is considered internal and external when it comes to human bodies. Anthropologist Cassandra Hartblay wrote that the framework “trouble[s] boundaries like human/tool, human/animal, animal/machine, body/mind, and physical/nonphysical.”[10]Cassandra Hartblay, “Cyborg,” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights (March 29, 2018). Scholars like Bateson and Haraway have also asked: What constitutes the body, and where does the body start? This critical discussion about what constitutes the “natural” can encourage anthropologists to expand their understanding about the body in anthropology, especially in design and disability studies.

However, despite being an important model to answer large-scale questions, I do think that cybernetics, and its direct or indirect descendants, can benefit tremendously from reflexivity—both of the observer towards themselves and towards the research subjects. As told in Code, this computer-like model in understanding society has been historically used to simplify the human dimension into a uniform subsystem devoid of cultural, political, and historical backgrounds.  Geoghegan astutely argues that the global history of cybernetics and computing has included “the suffering, strife, and participation of persons deemed less than full citizens or subjects by the state” (8).

The lack of political analysis in Mead and Bateson’s thesis on schizophrenia exemplifies the absence of native subjectivity in their study. Both anthropologists were very much aware of the presence of the Dutch colonial power on the island. However, their ethnography did not regard politics as an important aspect in their cybernetic model while, in fact, it constituted a huge part of Balinese life. This does not mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Going forward, I think scholars explicitly and implicitly influenced by cybernetics should reflect critically on questions such as: Who is considered “human” in the cybernetic model? Whose bodies and whose experiences are sampled to formulate the model? And—as asked by second-order cyberneticians—how does the subjectivity of the observer affect the data collected? This reflection allows us to acknowledge that diverse life experiences—heavily shaped by culture, politics, and history—affect the outcome of any cybernetic model.

Anthropologist Matt Artz has written that AI and digital technologies will keep altering anthropology in tremendous ways, especially in unveiling new insights and patterns humans often miss.[11]Matt Artz, “Ten Predictions for AI and the Future of Anthropology,” Anthropology News website, (May 8, 2023). Historically, we have seen how new technologies change anthropology both theoretically and methodologically. Modern-day linguistic anthropology benefited tremendously from the invention of the sound spectrograph, tape recorder, and electronic computer.[12]Dell H. Hymes, “Notes toward a History of Linguistic Anthropology,” Anthropological Linguistics 5, no. 1 (1963): 59–103. Archaeologists today use LiDAR (light detection and ranging) to measure and map objects that otherwise would remain hidden. Latter-day cultural anthropologists have also treated digital spaces as ethnographic sites of their own in the growing field of digital anthropology.

Code pushes us to appreciate cybernetics as the “conceptual forerunner of today’s digital exercises, from data crunching to cultural analytics” (175). This appreciation then allows us to reflect one level deeper, including on how the development of AI and digital technologies is not—and has never been—an impersonal project free of sociopolitical interests and consequences. Reflecting on the history of cybernetics, we can see how the use of digital technologies in anthropology might have been peppered with imperialistic and technocratic tendencies. However, I do think it is possible to use technology with a different purpose from how it was originally used.

The use of cameras in ethnography serves as a fitting example of anthropology’s shifting entanglement with technology. When Mead and Bateson first came up with the visual methods to record Balinese cultures, they had strong inclinations toward objectivity in cultural research.[13]Ira Jacknis, “Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali: Their Use of Photography and Film,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 2 (1988): 160–77. They saw the camera as a tool that could overcome human limitations in observing Balinese postures and spaces. On her expedition proposal to the Social Sciences Research Council, Mead wrote that the use of a camera would make field research more reliable as it could “act as an automatic correction on the variability of the human observer.” In my opinion, Mead and Bateson did not use cameras to understand, but to document. They saw Balinese as pathological objects of observation serving as “models for technocratic reform” (57)—in this case in curing schizophrenia—instead of as research participants.

Today, anthropologists still regard Mead and Bateson’s methods as pioneering in visual anthropological practices. However, the intellectual spirit in using camera technologies has radically changed from when it was earlier devised. No longer seeing technology as a tool aiming at objectivity, anthropologists now are critical of its subjectivity and how it affects the observer’s point of view. There is significant movement towards giving marginalized communities—who were previously objectified by cybernetic approaches—the autonomy to visually represent themselves ethnographically through visual cultures. In 1992, Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris developed a community-based participatory method using camera called photovoice.[14]Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris, “Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment,” Health Education & Behavior 24, no. 3 (1997): 369–87. Instead of being observed by anthropologists, research participants in photovoice studies are asked to express their life experiences and social issues by photographing their surroundings. This method has become widely used in anthropology for its ability to put forward the voices of the marginalized, and I think this will be one part of what anthropology’s digital future looks like.

References

References
1 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).
2 Ira Jacknis, “Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali: Their Use of Photography and Film,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 2 (1988): 160–77.
3 Amrina Rosyada, “Unsung Native Collaborators in Anthropology,” SAPIENS, October 13, 2022.
4 Tessel Pollmann, “Margaret Mead’s Balinese: The Fitting Symbols of the American Dream,” Indonesia, no. 49 (1990): 1–35.
5 Mihajlo D. Mesarović, David L. McGinnis, and Dalton A. West, Cybernetics of Global Change: Human Dimension and Managing of Complexity, MOST Policy Papers (Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1996).
6 Donna Haraway, “Encounters with Companion Species: Entangling Dogs, Baboons, Philosophers, and Biologists,” Configurations 14, no. 1 (2006): 97–114.
7 Anna Tsing, “More-than-Human Sociality: A Call for Critical Description,” in Anthropology and Nature, ed. Kirsten Hastrup (Routledge, 2013).
8 Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. Volume 42, 2013 (October 21, 2013): 327–43.
9 Nikhil Anand, “PRESSURE: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai,” Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4 (2011): 542–64.
10 Cassandra Hartblay, “Cyborg,” Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights (March 29, 2018).
11 Matt Artz, “Ten Predictions for AI and the Future of Anthropology,” Anthropology News website, (May 8, 2023).
12 Dell H. Hymes, “Notes toward a History of Linguistic Anthropology,” Anthropological Linguistics 5, no. 1 (1963): 59–103.
13 Ira Jacknis, “Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali: Their Use of Photography and Film,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 2 (1988): 160–77.
14 Caroline Wang and Mary Ann Burris, “Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment,” Health Education & Behavior 24, no. 3 (1997): 369–87.