Book Abstract - Orit Halpern

pantgrievousAI and Robotics

Nov 30, 2013 (3 years and 8 months ago)



Beautiful Data

A History of





Dr. Orit Halpern

Assistant Professor

Department of History
/Media Studies

New School for Social Research


Overview of the Manuscript

In his memoir,

the MIT professor and

cybernetics researcher Norbert
Wiener writes, “I longed to be a naturalist as other boys longed to be policemen and
locomotive engineers. I was only dimly aware of the way in which the age of the naturalist
and explorer was running out, leaving the mere
tasks of gleaning to the next generation.”

Developing this theme, he later writes, “even in zoology and botany, it was diagrams of
complicated structures and the problems of growth and organization which excited my
interest fully as much as tales of adven
ture and discovery…”

In a series of popular books
and technical manifestos, Wiener goes on to interrogate this “problem” that complexity
poses. Written in a reflective moment after World War II, Wiener’s comments seek to mark
the passing of one age to an

the end of “exploration” and the emergence of another
type of “organization”.

This is no small claim. Wiener indicates a desire to see an older archival order
adjoined to modern interests in taxonomy and ontology rendered obsolete by another mode


Norbert Wiener,
, Third Printing, 1972 ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 195





Cultural Exchange
Glimpses of the United States,
Media Installation by Charles and
Ray Eames


Cybernetic Figures

Neural Nets



thought invested in prediction, self
referentiality, and communication.
He dreams of a
world where there is no “unknown” left to discover, only an accumulation of records that
must be recombined, analyzed, and processed. Wiener argues that in observing t
oo closely
and documenting too “meticulously”, one is unable to deduce patterns, to produce in his
words a “flow of ideas”. He expresses a new desire

to model thought, itself, from data

Wiener’s memoires bridge between late 19

and early 20

tury ideals of
taxonomy, ontology, and archiving and post mid

century concepts of organization,
method, and storage. He articulates a desire to see previous traditions in natural history and
scientific representation replaced by a discourse of active
diagrams, processes, and
complexity. My book,
Beautiful Data: A History of
Vision and R



takes Weiner’s
words as a point of departure to explore this historical shift in attitudes to
temporality, and epistemology occurring after

the war

We are arguably still negotiating the legacy of this transformation. Weiner’s
memories find concrete expression in such diverse places like the new multi
architectures of spectacular geo
politics and the minute neural nets of the mind. All

locations repeat, encode, and circulate a way of looking and interpreting that can be said to
constitute an architecture of both knowledge and perception.

Today, seated behind our personal computer monitors, constantly logged in to data
networks th
rough our personal devices, we stare at interfaces with multiple screens and no
longer aspire to go out and explore the world. There is no “unknown” left to discover. We
have come to assume the world is always already fully recorded and archived; accessibl
e at a
moment’s notice through the logics of computational searches. Wiener’s words seemingly
technologically realized. Our relationship to historical time, documentation, and knowledge
apparently reconfigured through the terms of communication and control
. In the realms of
science and the many attention deficit disorders we now cultivate as pathologies this
situation is ordained genetic. Humanity, it seems, always sought to communicate through
screens, always wanted to garner ever more data from mor
e locations, more immediately.

It is my ambition in this book to denaturalize these assumptions. How would one,
then, go about telling a history of this structure of perception and the cultural forms of the
interface and storage systems upon which it rest
How would one narrate a history of our
contemporary forms of interactivity and attention?
Beautiful Data

addresses this question
methodologically, historically, and ethically.

Miming Wiener’s opening refrain about a historical transformation in epistem
and ontology,
Beautiful Data

links histories of the archive and knowledge to genealogies of
digital media. Using the post
war discourse of cybernetics

the study of communication and

as a point of departure
, this book
maps contemporary obsessi
ons with storage and
interactivity in digital systems to previous modernist concerns with temporality,
representation, and archiving.

Beautiful Data

deploys a topographical structure that mirrors our computational
machines to navigate within, and through,

time, in order to explore this history of
Horizontally, I examine the synchronic relationship between cybernetics and neuroscience,
political science, computing, design,
and the arts
. By examining the iterative interactions and
translations betwee
n cybernetic theory and these other sites

interactions that both changed
those other fields and transformed ideas of representation in return

Beautiful Data

makes a
preliminary case for a historically specific reformulation of memory,
, and


tion in relationship to communication that occurs in the second half of the twentieth

Beautiful Data

works through history to locate cybernetic ideas within
longer running philosophical and scientific heritages. To this end, I track t
he intellectual
heritage of cybernetics in psychoanalysis, psychology, Pragmatism and Bergsonism, Gibbsian
physics, design, and the
. All are late 19

century and early 20

century philosophical,
scientific, and aesthetic endeavors that produced bot
h epistemological and technological
approaches to abstraction, communication, and archiving that intersect, and diverge, in
critical ways from those in the discourses of communication and control.

The book thus innovatively utilizes my own training at Harv
ard in the History of
Science to bring the study of knowledge, objectivity, and technology to bear on the history
of media through a study of cybernetic discourses. In focusing on inscription, storage, and
epistemology this book creates a new type of medi
a archeology. I concentrate not on
specific technologies, but on tracing the remains of an epistemic shift in what constitutes
knowledge, how objectivity is understood, and how modern ideals of truth, archiving, and
history are transformed through the dis
course of communication and control

into new
modes of attention

and observation

In tracing these complex histories, the book offers a historical and ethical account of
our contemporary perceptual field; developing a framework for considering specific
hnological changes in media

the accompanying epistemological transformations that
continue to underpin our contemporary relationship to
interface, and have restructured
our practices of knowledge production. This book is thus a critical interventio
n in the history
of science, correlating a history of digital media with a history of knowledge and power.

But I want us to turn our attention to one final element. As the opening images
demonstrate, one of the central convictions of
Beautiful Data

is that

while technologies and
mediums like computers are central in re
conceiving the practices of perception and
concomitant forms of representation, they are hardly determinate. As the very title of the
text denotes, this is a book about histories of perceptio
n, cognition, and representation; a
history of temporality, not a history of technology. The opening scenes show, for example, a
myriad of practices and histories contributing to the imaginary of a world defined by

These neural nets and mul
media architectures are, however, “failed” projects.
They are wish images. In their time, they did not produce the intended effects their
designers hoped for. In this sense, these opening images and memoirs demonstrate the
desires that anticipate any
technology. They are prototypes to a world that did not yet exist
when they were produced. Both minds and machines become uncanny when historically
situated in cybernetics. That there is any resemblance between our present and these wish
images is a matte
r of historical accident and choice.

It is to these accidents and choices that this book is dedicated. In making cybernetic
thought an appropriate historical and philosophical object, constructed and unstable,
Beautiful Data

reveals the possibility that o
ur contemporary attitudes to communication and
technology may contain within them an evolutionary archive of potential paths for

some that have been realized, and some that have yet to be imagined. What
direction those imaginations take is at

stake in how we choose to narrate the history of our
digital systems and our contemporary modes of perception.



Book Organization

This history operates like the feedback loops of machines between storage,
memory and interface. The book vac
illates between demonstrating synchronic ideas
of aesthetics and cognition at the time, and diachronically exploring how mid

century ideas of vision, knowledge, and recording were haunted and troubled in
untimely ways by older 19

century concepts bo
rrowed from psychoanalysis,
philosophy, mathematics, and physics. If there is a certain repetitive feature to this
exercise, a performative stuttering that forces arguments to be returned to only to
become new cyborg entities, then it deserves comment. T
he very nature of the
phenomena of systems that use their past to predict the future in eternal loops
mitigates against a linear or causal history. I have stayed true to my objects of study,
and the book is organized thematically, not on a time line. It is

also genealogical, the
final chapter is an
accumulation of those before it;

an accumulation of densities. This
feedback and loop
ing is
in the interest of
excavating sites of emergence
, and perhaps

a “false” vision of our present in the name of t
he future.

The first chapter is an interface to the book and outlines the dominant
themes of archiving, knowledge, and vision by mapping the work of Norbert Wiener
and his colleagues, particularly in neuro and cognitive science at MIT, in relationship

century concepts of recording, memory, and time. I track how process
philosophy, psycho
analysis, pragmatism, Gibbsian physics and cinema and
photography were reformulated in cybernetics to produce contemporary concepts of
interactivity, storage, and
information. Focusing on the cybernetic use of
Bergsonism, Pragmatism, and psychoanalysis, I make a case for a contested history
of time in digital media, and probe the emergent potentials of a tension between the
archive and the interface that underpins c
ontemporary desires for interaction, data
storage, and data visualization.

Plans for EDVAC

stored program computer

Turing Machine

Image of Memory Extender
(MEMEX) from


The second chapter works within the 1950’s
60’s to trace one vector from
the first chapter

the reformulation of perception, particularly vision
by way of
examining how cybernetic

concepts transformed design practice and engineering,
business school, and design pedagogy. Tracing the work of two designers and an
urban planner
the designer and artist Gyorgy Kepes, the urban planner Kevin
Lynch, and the designer Charles Eames

the ch
apter scales between the training of
the individual observer, to a changing aesthetics of information and knowledge, and
the emergence of environmental and systems approaches to management and
planning. These three figures were central to American modernis
m, post
war design
and engineering education, and urban planning, and all of them engaged with
cybernetics and the communication and cognitive sciences. Their work is landmark
in creating infrastructures for post
war American life

both attentive and physic

In their respective projects we can trace the re
imaging of the observer as
isolated but networked. This observer was linked to a new aesthetics of
and management
; interactivity as a personal mode of attention and environment as a
rse for managing systems became interlaced ideals in fields ranging from
marketing to urban planning. The chapter culminates with an examination of one site
where practices in design, marketing, and management recombined in the 1962
New York World’s Fai
r with the innovative launch of the IBM installation “Think”
advertising the new information economy, by way of an aesthetic of information
inundation as a virtue, in the midst of massive urban transformations in
transportation, suburbanization, economy, a
nd race relations.

The third chapter explores the doppelganger of perception in cybernetics

cognition. I experiment with how aesthetics and perception were linked in new
assemblages to revise how, to cite IBM, we “think”. The chapter mirrors the first
pter by diachronically mapping how 19

and early 20

century ideas of
consciousness in psychoanalysis and reason and computability in mathematics and
logic were transformed into cognition and rationality. Starting with psychiatrist and
cybernetician, War
ren McCulloch and logician Walter Pitt’s conception of neural
nets, I examine how
new ideas about mind and communication entered fields
ranging from government to economics to computing. I trace the networks of
interchange between cybernetic ideas of

mind, and the work of political scientists,
such as Harvard professor, Karl Deutsch, organizational management
, finance,

artificial intelligence pioneer, Herbert Simon, and a number of other human and
social scientists.

These nervous networks while l
abeled rational were also in McCulloch’s
psychiatrically informed language “psychotic”. Arguably psychotic logic became the
definition of rationality and subsequently an infrastructure for data mining with
implications for governance and economy. Curiously

enough, having turned to
psychosis and logic to redefine the behavior of subjects and systems, policy makers
and social scientists turned to data visualization as a technique to compensate for
what was increasingly understood to be a world of unknowns, ch
ance, and
unreasonable behavior.

The remaining question is why it had been forgotten that rationality was
defined in terms of psychosis, not reason, throughout the 1950’s? And what is at
stake in our contemporary amnesia? While contemporary culture looks
ever more


frequently to neuro
science, behaviorism, and data mining to predict human
behavior, economists, policy makers and even the public also continue to insist on
older 19

and earlier 20

century definitions of consciousness and choice.
ppens in this interstice between the memory of liberal reason and the embrace of
psychotic logics.

The fourth chapter completes the book in a feedback loop, by linking the
transformations in cognition and perception with governance and rationality, to ask
specifically how politics and aesthetics are linked through the valorization of
beautiful data. Examining cybernetic work on vision and cognition done by
McCulloch, MIT neuro
scientist Jerome Lettvin, and psychologist George Miller in
connection to the de
sign practices of prominent American Modernist designers,
George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames, I make a case for the radical
reformulation of the very tactics by which bodies, territories, and networks are
governed through measurement and attention.

sking whether these aesthetic strategies encompass what we now label “bio
politics” the book ends in interrogating the ethical and political implications of
making data beautiful and affective. In the final epilogue we find ourselves
simultaneously inside
the gardens of IBM’s corporate headquarters in suburban New
York, and standing on hilltops in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum’s sculpture garden,
contemplating the wo
rk of another prominent mid
century artist
, Isamu Noguchi,
and considering the implications

of a new information aesthetics that links the inside
of corporations to the reformulation of territories. Like the leaps of porpoises the
turn to visualization and performance can be the site of both emergence and suicide;
the ethical question is how to
encourage the difference that will make the difference.

In response, following Wiener, I ask what the techniques of every age might
be, while posing the possibility that the past, genealogy, still has a force to disrupt
our technologies and methods in t
he present. Taking seriously the reflexive and
mimetic aesthetics and methods of cybernetics, each chapter is an effort to find
patterns between fields that have rarely been thought together, in order to ask about
the moral and ethical implications of such

forms of thought might be. Each chapter
is also an experiment in feedback; holding together a series of objects related by way
of discourse and method in the interest of unearthing their commonalities while
insisting on the irreducible differences and sim
ultaneous heterogeneities between
them might be.

And if vision has place in this story it is not as a realized fact. The forms of
knowing and perceiving the world are not merely about transparency, speed, or any
other singular element. This is not a hist
ory of what digital media is, or what
cybernetics was, but rather an experiment in potentialities. I trace the very troubled
utterances of its cybernetic subjects, angsting between a world of beautiful and
bountiful data and longing for a world of nature a
nd form. These tensions, between
the archive and the screen, between the interface, memory, and storage haunt our
present, shape our modes of vision and knowledge, and infect our dreams for the




Beautiful Data

will appeal to a wide r
eadership. While primarily catering to 20

century and contemporary histories of science, science studies, and media studies, the book’s
interventions in methodology and philosophy should appeal to readers in literary studies,
history, philosophy, anthro
pology, architecture, art history, and design.

Recently, there has been much study of transformations in scientific
epistemology and ontology. Bruno Latour, Peter Galison, Timothy Lenoir, and Joseph
Dumit (to name a few), have all tracked the transforma
tions in ontology, and the nature of
scientific practice in relationship to the social. In literary studies, Katherine Hayles did
groundbreaking work on cybernetics and the Macy Conferences, showing how cybernetics
reconstituted representation and materia

By taking seriously the cybernetic reformulation of ontology and
Beautiful Data

offers a critical historical compliment to this aforementioned
work. I also extend the scope and range of work already done on cybernetics. The book
ides rich documentation about the computational and cognitive sciences in relationship
to broader histories of representation, and to modern histories of psychology, anthropology,
computation, design, and philosophy.

There has also been a great expansion o
f interest in histories of perception and
representation within history of science and art.
Beautiful Data

critically expands the work
done by figures such as Jonathan Crary, Otniel Dror, Jonathan Stern, Giuliana Bruno, and
Jimena Canales on the historical

production of sentiment, attention, and distraction as
modes of subjectivity and scientific training. The book will offer these readers a later 20

century extension of these 19

century engagements with histories of visuality and


broadly, there has been great interest in the heritage of cybernetics in
architecture (for example the work of Rheinhold Martin, Keller Easterling, and Beatriz
Colomina) and in visual culture (for example in the work of Pamela Lee).
Beautiful Data


engages these fields and offers a more in depth examination of the relationship
between art, design, and science in the post
war period.

In media studies there has also been increased attention, particularly in the work of
figures such as Lisa Gitelman,
Thomas Elsaesser, Sigfrid Zilinski, Mary Ann Doane, and
Tom Gunning, to media archeology and genealogy; a trend that this work expands upon and
pushes into the digital age. The specific content of the chapters offers rich content for
readers interested in
the historical and epistemological relations between psychology,
cognitive science, and media practice particularly in design, cinema, and post
war art.
Beautiful Data
, critically expands on the idea, forwarded by work such as

on computing and cultural logic, that computation is not isolatable to computers
or any one technology but is part of broader cultural and discursive networks.

Methodologically, this text also speaks to trends in cultural studies and sociology.
The adven
t of digital media has spawned a search for new methodologies to address
sociological conditions in a post
cybernetic world. This search includes considering forms of
analysis that can account for the non
representational, affective, and computational natu
re of
contemporary media societies. In reflexive methodology, and serious treatment of
communication, performance, figuration, and affect this book engages with work coming
from figures such as Brian Massumi, Patricia Clough, David Rodowick, and Mark Hans


Finally, both temporality and the archive have emerged as central topics for historical
and anthropological study since the 1980’s . From Pierre Nora’s work on the death of
memory, to contemporary post
colonial criticism, such as Ann Laura Stoler’s wo
rk on the
archive and coloniality, critical historiography has long contemplated what the archive is and
how it effects the writing of history. This is the first book to put these critical questions in
the broader social and human sciences in contact with

a history of digital media. In its
philosophical examination of the fate of the archive after cybernetics, and in its material
examination of how memory and storage are organized in computing and cognitive sciences,
Beautiful Data

provides a compliment to

these discourses; allowing a history of cybernetics to
begin engaging broader issues of history, globalization, power, and difference.

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