How Not to Network a Nation. The Uneasy History of the Soviet Internet

(Ben Green) #1

A Global History of Cybernetics 25

vaccines, the lobotomy (invented in the 1930s), television, and transistor
radios—and other trends, such as rock & roll and suburban housing devel-
opments. The disruptive influences of modern science and technology con-
tinued to be felt in the 1960s as quarks, lasers, Apollo, nylon, Pampers, the
pill, LSD, napalm, DDT, mutually assured destruction, and the ARPANET
entered the world stage. The most disruptive and destructive of all was the
development of computers around the work of John von Neumann at the
Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton to study and control the effects
of nuclear bombs.^29 The technocratic promise of the computer seemed to
promise both delivery and destruction. If computers could help civilize the
terrible and awesome power of the atom bomb, thought the scientists of
the day, then perhaps it might help stabilize lesser disruptions of modern
science and technology. If not, what terrible consequences would follow?
Or as von Neumann asked, taking the pulse of the moment in 1955: “Can
We Survive Technology?”^30
Von Neumann’s question especially animated those who were engaged
in the nuclear cold war. In postwar France, United Kingdom, and Chile, the
potential of the computer to civilize awesome powers generated a “tech-
nology” of cybernetic interest in the 1950s and 1960s that was sometimes
more disruptive than the atomic bomb that troubled von Neumann. It was
the human mind imagined as an embodied machine. Might cybernetics
and its heir in cognitive science, midcentury scientists wondered, crack the
human mind and in turn spark new insights into how that most creative of
technologies might be modeled elsewhere?^31
In France, the intellectual contributions of cybernetics began with more
analogies to politics than to the parietal lobe. Cybernetics had an early start
and a long afterlife in postwar France for several reasons. The public debate
about cybernetics turned the science into a bit of a political football between
communist and anticommunist debates in postwar France; the local intel-
lectuals helped ascribe a long French intellectual tradition to cybernetics,
which softened its reception; and Norbert Wiener visited France repeatedly
and promoted his science vocabulary in person. The imprint of cybernetics
can still be seen in subsequent generations of French theorists.
These postwar happenings are described briefly below. In 1947, the year
before he published Cybernetics with the MIT Press, Wiener attended Szolem
Mandelbrot’s congress on harmonic analysis in Nancy, France, which
resulted in a French book contract for the book that, while initially resisted
by the MIT Press, sold a sensational 21,000 copies over three reprints in six
months after its release in 1948. Three years later, in 1951, at the invitation
of Benoit Mandelbrot, the founder of fractals and Szolem’s nephew, Wiener

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