Origins of Cybernetics and Cyberculture

Vannevar Bush (1945) As We May Think

Vannevar Bush was an American military scientist, engineer and inventor. During World War II, he was the science administrator of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which oversaw wartime military research and development, including the early phases of the Manhattan Project.

In 1945 Bush imagined a way of using technology to manage information effectively, to augment and expand the way we think and learn and communicate knowledge. He postulated a new machine, the Memex, as a means for overcoming the physical limitations of arrangements of shelves, pages, editions and other physical constraints in the curation of information and the production of knowledge.

He predicted, “wholly new forms of encyclopaedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the Memex and there amplified”. He was trying to imagine a machine that might mimic the typical operations of the human brain in the assembly of knowledge and was interested in the ways we manipulate information through collections like libraries and encyclopaedias.

Bush’s article was published in The Atlantic Monthly, which was a literary and commentary magazine, like that of Time or Newsweek. It was the kind of publication that was interested in politics, technology, and international relations, just like other editorials of the time and Bush’s article was published just after Germany had surrendered at the close of World War II and while the war was still ongoing with the Japanese and therefore prior to the first use of atomic weapons, which Bush had association with. So this was a time that people were sick of war and the technologies of destruction and were looking forward to a time of peace and the improvements that the military technology might bring to everyday life.

The Memex

The Memex is a cybernetic machine for associative indexing and arranging information by categories and subjects. Human brains don’t work in an extremely hierarchical way, they work by association and pattern recognition. They are able to remember via smell, or sound, or pressure change, or music and song or event, but can struggle to recall complex numbers and computation quickly. The human brain doesn’t work by alphabetical order and Bush was trying to invent something that would mimic the capacity of the human brain with the technologies available at the time, while at the same time creating new ontologies (systems of categorisation and organisation) of links and connections between discrete elements of information to support innovation and the creation of new knowledge.

Bush imagines what it would be like if you could have all information at your fingertips, using the current technology of the time: microfilm. With the memex, you could control the navigation of your information via a controller and you could export and share your work, others could even purchase your aggregated collections stored on microfilm. Bush considered the memex as a device for individuals to store their books, records, and communication: “mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.” This is revolutionary thinking in the 1940s.

The memex would provide an “enlarged intimate supplement to one’s memory”.[2]

Note: It’s worth thinking about the animation in detail and considering what is assumed or left unsaid as well as what is said and the tropes involved, which continually reoccur in the following 50 years (the machine being plugged directly into the brain, for instance).

Global Village

The memex hugely influenced computer science and engineers who drew inspiration from the ideas and the imagined device as a vision of the future. The idea that we might use our brains and our minds in the future differently when they are augmented by technology – is a theme that was explored by Marshall McLuhan later in The Future of Man in the Electronic Age.

Marshall McLuhan was a massively influential professor and public intellectual, whose work through the 1960s is crucial to the foundations of contemporary media theory. He predicted the rise of the Web and the importance of the internet decades before its practical invention. One of McLuhan’s conceptual contributions is the idea of the Global village, a metaphor for the compression of planetary time and space caused by telecommunication technologies. He argued that the instantaneous movement of information would cause a massive change in the economic, cultural and sociological makeup of the world. He predicted that “electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree” (Understanding Media, 1964). The concept of the global village anticipated the way social media would enable people to join communities they are not physically connected to. He predicted the intense westernisation of the world and the rise of individuals as producers of information. His concept of the Global village, however, was not utopian, and he saw great division occurring as the world transformed.

Both McLuhan and Vannevar Bush, are great figures for the topic of your research project and your digital artefacts, in which you can explore, remediate and experiment with the ideas presented in their work.


In the Atlantic article, Bush describes the connecting of different blocks of a text as ‘trails’, introducing the notion of links (predating the concept of the hyperlink). Bush employs the notion of the ‘trail’ to illustrate the process of moving your way through a massive amount of information regardless of topic. The memex could be used to research about films, historical events, books or equations. Using the trail, the researcher can connect these things together and become a “trailblazer”.

The idea of a path, or a road, or a trail through different elements of information to generate knowledge is a common metaphor and one that directly translates to the contemporary information era where we leave data trails everywhere about our activity, from the web history in your browser to the metadata of your Internet activity being recorded by your ISP.

The notion of the trail, that you can map and render an association of data to create new information, was important to the way Bush thought the processes of knowledge formation might develop in the future. In the article, Bush considers the devices of the time – particularly the keyboard – to be cumbersome and suggests that we require new technologies of interaction and communication. He anticipates one of the primary interfaces of cyberculture, which we see in movies like the Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, and from Cyberpunk writers like William Gibson and Bruce Stirling; the ability to plug the machine directly into the human brain.

The trope of the cerebral cybernetic interface runs directly through cyberculture fiction. It is the idea that you will be able to connect directly to machines and use the brain to control technologies through concentration and electrical impulses. This is a technology currently in its infancy and we still see new innovations emerge over time that will essentially enable us to control things with our minds.

What technologies can you imagine that might create new experience and dimensions to life in the future?


Science fiction is a great source of technological imaginaries. One of my favourites is the assemblage featured in the Cyberpunk novel, Snowcrash (1992) by Neal Stephenson (a recommended further reading in Week 4), in which a major character becomes a ‘Gargoyle’. 

The Gargoyle is a cyborg, a machine-enhanced human (or a human enhanced machine) continuously connected to the internet and uploading data, living off a constant stream of micro-payments and intellectual property rights.

Gargoyles are a subculture of information aggregators using digital recording equipment to upload data morsels, that if used or accessed by algorithmic data-miner provides a payout (probably bitcoins).

Thanks to the convergence of technologies, the ubiquity of surveillance devices (we call mobile phones) and the rise of wearable technologies we are all effectively becoming gargoyles.

Ted Nelson and Hypertext

Ted Nelson is an Amercian philosopher of technology, who created the term “hypertext” in the mid-1960s. Nelson’s pioneering work, Project Xanadu, in 1960, sought to create a computer network with a simple user interface.

Nelson used the English prefix “hyper-”, which comes from the Greek prefix meaning “over” or “beyond” because it shares an origin with the Latin prefix for “super-“, which suggests overcoming the constraints or linear textual experiences. Nelson imagined that not only could text be connected but links could be expanded to include all media:

“By now the word “hypertext” has become generally accepted for branching and responding text, but the corresponding word “hypermedia”, meaning complexes of branching and responding graphics, movies and sound – as well as text – is much less used. Instead, they use the strange term “interactive multimedia”: this is four syllables longer, and does not express the idea of extending hypertext.” — Ted Nelson, Literary Machines, 1992

Nelson imagined hypertext and hypermedia as “a file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate”  thought would allow a user to follow the way a throught process was formed by examining the parts of information that sustain it.

Nelson was a pioneer of what we call electronic literature and hypertextual systems for accessing information in a non-linear fashion, he contributed to the development of the Internet, the web and cyberculture. His vision was to break the linearity of A to B to C and created Hypertext to give the ability to go directly between A and Z, with a single jump back and forth. It wasn’t until the 1980s that he really got to experiment with these forms and go beyond the linear formatting of information to access textual information in a non-linear order.

Nelson and Vannevar Bush’s ideas are connected and very similar to the way we access and use the web today: getting lost in Wikipedia, Facebook or Reddit, by endlessly clicking links and putting together knowledge and experience in a random but user-connected fashion.

Nelson’s Hypertext predates the World Wide Web, first proposed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and the first web browsers were only a partion implementation of his Hypertextual systems. Nelson tried to develop a system that would take advantage of the concept of linking together information in non-linear and non-standard ways and one of the results was Project Xanadu.  Nelson views Time Berners-Lee invention of  HTML to be an incomplete attempt at his vision. Nelson sought a system of two-way links, which would have preserved the context of the link.

Nelson’s approach was more like Bush’s than Berners-Lee’s and proposed the ability of users to draw on different texts and elements, bringing them together to create personal connections and unique documents from multiple user connected sources. In Nelson’s model the link between the source and new document retains the connection to the original, nothing is obscured, which further enables the user to assemble new ideas, observations and analyse patterns, even be reimbursed for these new assemblages of knowledge and information.


When the first available commercial internet browser became available in 1993 I was in high school and I remember very vividly going to the University of Tasmania to use the software ‘Mosaic’ and access the internet for the first time. The software was so new at the time that we actually had to use an older system called fetch to do research with because there were very few sites on the web and very few of the academics had tried it out at the time.


Before the internet, the term cyberspace was used by writers like William Gibson, to imagine the future of interconnected technology, driving a new frontier of digital information economies and online identities.

Cyberspace takes its name from ‘cybernetics’; the interaction between the human and the machine. Cyberspace is, therefore, a different kind space with new types of interactions, locations and forms of communication.

As the web made it into the home in the mid-1990s we developed the language of surfing, or browsing and exploring cyberspace. We continue to use metaphors of space, time, place, and objects to order the complexities of the systems beneath them.


Cybernetics is the notion of feedback, used in engineering, systems control, computer science, biology, and philosophy.

The ‘cyber’ in cyberspace directly refers to the principles of command and control involved in the processes of cybernetics, which comes from the Greek “Kubernetes” which means “steersman” or “to steer”.

Cybernetic functions are embedded in the technologies that make the Internet and the Web possible. The HTML and TCP/IP protocols, for example, make the Internet into a gigantic series of input, output and feedback systems.

The science and techniques of cybernetics were developed following World War 1 and 2. It was the work of Norbert Wiener, a mathematician and philosopher who took inspiration from the radar operator and the relationship between the user, the screen, the technology and the region of space in which these actors were operating in a network. His work on anti-aircraft technology led to the formulation of the principle of cybernetics, which later influence the created of robotics, computation and automation.

Wiener’s work helped to create the first designs for self-guiding rockets, which were able to respond and be programmed to independently negotiate the environmental conditions through a series of feedback systems.

We typically associated the Internet as the product of the military industrial complex and the think tank DARPA with the creation of the internet or its earliest form the ARPAnet but almost all our media and communications technologies today are dependent on Weiner’s theories of cybernetics and the ‘science of self-steering’ and the systems of control and communication between animals and machines, which followed on from WW2.

Cybernetics Overview

Norbert Wiener was working on ballistic research when he made the conceptual leap of thinking about all the different elements involved in the system, the gunner, the missile and the target, the environmental conditions, gravity and so on –  in terms of a unitary system with a central objective.

His innovation was to configure a system that enables self-correcting actions – where the machine of the rocket automatically adjusts its velocity, direction, speed etc, to match that of the target. Think of a toilet cistern – the water is always filling the top tank, until the float inside reaches a level with the top of the tank, where it switches off the flow, until the tank is flushed and the processes starts again. The idea of this kind of feedback look is central to the science of cybernetics.

Wiener worked with the MIT electrical engineer Vannevar Bush who was building analog devices to solve the differential equations, and to perform the calculations his model needed so the machine could solve equations that would take human users ten times as long to calculate.

Gregory Bateson

English anthropologist and cyberneticist, Gregory Bateson, worked in the 1940s helped to extend cybernetics to the social realm and the behavioural sciences. Bateson was interested in human systems, the ecosystem and the concept of ecological balance and the role of negative and positive feedback systems. 

Bateson framed the role of information in network as a form of constraint, a crucial element in any ecology, but particularly for the command over and control of the system. Every deviation generates information for the system, which then acts to counter the deviation and bring the system back into balance. This is what we mean by Cybernetics as the science of coordination and control. 

Using these descriptions of cybernetics we can understand complex technologies and network structures – like the internet, Virtual Reality, drones, wearable devices and 3D printers – as a series of machines that are built from the layering of basic cybernetic principles of sequence and feedback loops in a network arrangement.

Self-driving vehicles

Recently we have seen the emergence of advanced cybernetic machines or  – Smart technologies – like the Google self-driving car – that are totally automated and self-correcting and autonomous, which is achieved by complex layers of cybernetic control systems.


One of the criticisms of the prevalence of cybernetic models operating at the macro and micro-level of our everyday lives – from traffic lights to Siri – is that cybernetics are purely homeostatic – not only are they governed by the hard logic of command and control they are made of systems that aspire to equilibrium and balance. And this means that cybernetic systems are dominated by means-as-an-end rationality and pure instrumental reason: they are in essence terminators.

Read: Vannevar Bush (1945) ‘As We May Think

Katherine Hayles 1999 – ‘Chapter: One: Toward Embodied Virtuality’, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics.

Further recommend sources: Westworld (Film 1972) Westworld (TV 2016), The Mirrorshades Anthology, edited by Bruce Stirling (1988)

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