[Humanist] 23.211 figures of the cybernetic

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Aug 2 09:44:33 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 211.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 1 Aug 2009 20:26:11 -0400 (EDT)
        From: Francois Lachance <lachance at chass.utoronto.ca>
        Subject: Figures of the Cybernetic


I was wondering if your explorations of the discourse of cybernetics and
machine-human comparisons could benefit from the consideration of three
figures: homeostasis, encoding and the supermarket. Below are some very
sketchy notes.

You might be able to trace the evidence for how the feedback mechanism as a
pattern for describing human interaction with artefacts becomes deployed in
more and more domains. How does it lead to a theory of reading? How does it
influence the teaching of rhetoric and composition?

Encoding and decoding are of course the beginning and end points of a
communication chain as envisioned in information theory. But what I have in
mind here is the Cold War fascination with the transmission of secrets. (*)

The supermarket is a distribution machine concerned with the shelf life of
products. By analogy it can become a figure for the evaluation of cultural

There is likely a relation of interdependence between these figures. A
feedback mechanism usually involves the transmission of information from one
modality to another, i.e. it relies on transcoding. If feedback required
coding, coding requires standardization for which the supermarket is a
suitable emblem.

What I am attempting to suggest is that the man-machine discourse can be
sifted by using three figures  -- standardization, coding, feedback. I am
willing to venture that the three are also associated with a range of values
along a human-machine continuum (i.e. that standardization is construed as
machinic and feedback as close to the human). 

(*) What got me thinking along these lines was an interesting example from
World War II Vdiscs. The King Sisters produced a novelty item by recording a
message at 33 1/2 and splicing it into a song to be played at 78 rpm thus
supplying a "secret message".  [source CBC radio November 1998 featuring the
collection of Dr. Stephen Bedwell]

-- Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-largehttp://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~lachance

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