Have you ever wondered what the connection is between Diogenes of Sinope, Anarcho-Primitivism, the Unabomber, and Science Fiction? Me either!
Suzanne Treister’s HEXEN 2.0 is a compendious project that brings together technology, philosophy, politics and literature to discover dystopic and utopic futures for humanity.
There are five vast charts that visually map connections along the following themes:
These five histories are presented as a big historical picture partly intended educationally, to illustrate Treister’s research into histories, movements and ideas that people might not be aware of, or might have been less aware of during its gestation (2009-11). It began with her interest in cybernetics or “feedback loops of control” in society and how Web 2.0 feeds back into that.
The term “cybernetics” was introduced by Norbert Wiener in 1948. Cybernetics isn’t just about cyber- stuff like in sci-fi or “Captain Cyborg” Kevin Warwick’s imagination. The American Society of Cybernetics gives about 200 definitions but it is centrally about feedback loops. Feedback is simply defined as something that is led back to modify a process of production.
A thermostat is cybernetic in that it measures temperature and uses this measurement to change the temperature. This is surprising to the newcomer to cybernetics who might think feedback relies on “understanding” in a human goal-oriented sense. It doesn’t. The thermostat “senses” the temperature via a thermometer and adjusts accordingly. That’s all. But it’s hard to get away from the metaphor: a system can be said to be cybernetic if it has an “understanding” of something else (including itself), which it modifies and reacts to. Scientific method is cybernetic in that it aims to model the universe, but it then pokes the real universe to test these models and updates them accordingly. Science is constantly updating according to the outcomes of its latest pokings.
In 1943 Julian Bigelow, Norbert Wiener and Arturo Rosenbleuth published Behavior, Purpose, and teleology, which developed a theory of “circular causality” via feedback in which cause and effect are mutually referrent. The paper described ways in which mechanical, biological and electronic systems could communicate and interact. So called First Order Cybernetics is still largely intact in its use in our understanding of impossibly complex more recent systems of the world internet, economics and the brain at a neurological level.
Excitement about the new field of cybernetics led to the establishment of the Macy Conferences (1946-53) whose primary goal was to “set the foundations for a general science of the workings of the human mind” by developing cybernetic theories in order to prevent such circumstances as might lead to another World War or atrocities such as Nazism. With a core of thirty, its members came from a wide range of disciplines from hard to soft sciences – anthropologists, computer engineers, psychologists, physicists.
It was a dynamic moment. Macy alumni went on to do some astonishing things that changed the world. anthropologist Margaret Mead founded the World Federation for Mental Health, mathematician John von Neumann worked on the Manhattan Project, invented game theory and developed the idea of neural nets, the conceptual forerunner to the internet, and he influenced US scientific and military policy.
HEXEN 2.0 documents the Macy Conferences using phototexts and crudely photoshopped images of ‘cybernetic séances’. From Science to Séance… damn, I wasn’t gonna say that. The original conferences were not minuted so these form a kind of alternative imaginary proceedings. The séance brings us to another element of HEXEN 2.0 that blurs ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ elements, including the paranormal. Science, of course, begins as magic.
The next part of HEXEN 2.0 is its tarot deck. The 78 card deck takes aspects of the five historical diagrams and presents them in an interactive, that is, cybernetic, form as an analytical tool. It’s not a fortune-telling exercise, but neither is tarot. In modern practice, away from the husky voices and mysterious caravans of movie tarot, a tarot reading is closer to psychoanalytic practice. It’s a way of structuring the narratives of your life and re-presenting them to gain another perspective on your past and possible futures. The HEXEN 2.0 tarot deck playfully broadens this into an analytical tool to understand our entire world metasystem.
HEXEN 2.0 presents an obsessive interest in the cybernetic feedback loops of the internet and how they manifest themselves in terms of social control — Card XV The Devil is “the Control Society — in essence dramatising the ongoing struggle over ‘who owns the internet’ (and by extension our minds). There are cards for the dread forces of US CYBERCOMMAND, ARPANET and DARWARS, Google, and Intelligence Agencies, as well as countercultural examples of CLODO, Grass Roots Internet Communities, Hackers, and Networked Revolution. This struggle is informed by disparate ideas including Anarcho-Primitivism, Transhumanism, Ethics, Leary’s 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness, and voiced by a super-influential cast including Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, the Macy participants, Thoreau, Rousseau, Lewis Mumford, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Bob Black, Heidegger and William Blake.
The Five of Chalices, H. P. Lovecraft, could contain a comment on the purpose of HEXEN 2.0 and cybernetics more broadly, and their relation toward futures of epistemology, futures which are deeply ambivalent: the battle over who controls the internet, the intellectual burnout of information saturation allied to its ecstatic availability: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”
A great example of how HEXEN 2.0 projects backwards and forwards simultaneously is the ternary computer, as depicted on the Eight of Pentacles card. Ternary computing calculates using -1, 0, and 1 and is said to be more efficient than binary. The Soviets were developing it in 1958 but by ternary was so over. The Betamax to binary’s VHS, ternary became a fascinating what if because mass-produced binary components dominated the global market. It has been speculated that it could be important in the future, though this might have been profoundly overtaken by the bright future-present of quantum computing (though these calculations are encoded into binary digits, so ternary could conceivably be substituted). Greater understanding of the brain is also influencing how we think about design computer systems and computers.
On the other hand, some electronic systems are becoming more wild and inhuman, and dominating the world. Everyone thinks economics is about numbers, but it is in fact a branch of semantics. What human agency remains is reactive, based on subjective readings of numbers that are generated electronically. The majority of the trading in most major stock markets is carried on via machine algorithm without human involvement: cybernetic feedback is automated and detached from traditional physical economies and from ‘real life’. To Treister this is “one of the evil outcomes of cybernetic theory” creating a hallucinatory unreality. Economic Cybernetics is represented in the HEXEN 2.0 deck by the King of Pentacles, which seems ironic; Gardner has this: “An earthly easy going type of man, or when supported by suitable cards in the spread, a man of wealth. When involved in the world of finance he becomes dull, hard and unimaginative.”
HEXEN 2.0 presents all of this knowledge as a cybernetic world model. It is clearly meant as a warning about the dangers and possibilities of cybernetic interconnectedness on a world level as it manifests in changing power dynamics. The capacity for information gathering by governments is unprecedented. The UK government is pushing ahead with its ‘Snooper’s Charter’ and the US is debating Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Who owns the internet? HEXEN 2.0 has the curious status of being a seemingly post-Snowden work created pre-Snowden. It wasn’t really until his revelations in 2013 that we realised just how fucked the NSA (in the US) and GCHQ (in the UK) are. Thanks to Google they can even now mechanically transcribe phone calls. This is a story of the triumph of technology being perverted that Treister’s work curiously prefigured.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, whom she spurned romantically and so who cursed her so her warnings would never be believed. She would know the future, but never be able to change anything or convince anyone. Maybe this is how conspiracy theorists feel. HEXEN 2.0 contains a lot of material familiar from conspiracy theory, though this doesn’t mean it necessarily creates conspiracy theories, despite its cards about drones, the NSA, electronic surveillance.
The Knight of Chalices card quotes Lawrence Jarach (post-left anarchist, Berkeley, b. 1961)
“‘Conspiracy theory’ acts as a derisive dismissal which serves to characterise counter-narratives as falsehoods or fantasy. Conspiracy is the normal functioning mode of government and other hierarchies”
HEXEN 2.0 has proven to be prescient, but is she a Cassandra whose curse was unbroken? How good is she at predicting the future? Or even predicting the past? The final element in Suzanne Treister presentation of fig-2 at the ICA studio was a kind of ‘world tarot reading’ aiming to reconfigure history and project possible futures of humankind in terms of technology and society, so directly cybernetically applying HEXEN 2.0’s method to itself.
Mark Pilkington led the reading on a Wednesday evening, asking the audience participants to “Think of nothing. Shuffle with a clear mind. Think about what came before the void.” The significance of each card that was drawn was explained in terms of both tarot and HEXEN 2.0. The significance of the connections between the cards was treated discursively and cybernetically with a pleasing level of engaged discussion about politics, technology and culture.
The Hanged Man, Stewart Brand, kept coming up. He was both the first and last card. Spooky! Brand and cybernetics forms a link between counterculture and technology. Brand is a futurist, but one obsessed with the past, a method familiar from HEXEN 2.0. The plot randoming, one audience member happened to know Stewart Brand, and was about to go visit him. Brand’s card has a mammoth on it, because he is investigating reverse-engineering mammoths, like real life Jurassic Park. These mammoths used to get discovered but then rot, but now the hunters have mobiles, and they helicopter the specimens out. What they do with them, I can only imagine.
After several ‘group tarot’ readings we had a cheeky little consult of the HEXEN 2.0 Tarot drawing a single card each for the UK and US elections. This was a month before the UK election. This is the card that came up:
The Emperor (tarot) = Diogenes of Sinope (HEXEN 2.0)
“The Tarot Speaks” describes The Emperor card thus: “The Emperor represents consolidation of manhood. A man of being or power, promotion, honour, worldly knowledge. Father or father figure, one in authority. Negatively an egotistical power hungry intolerant man.”
The HEXEN 2.0 card overviews Diogenes of Sinope thus: “Greek philosopher — Civilisation is regressive — Artificial growths of society are incompatible with happiness — Morality implies a return to the simplicity of nature — Wisdom and happiness belong to the man who is independent of society”
It feels so long ago. History is now what happened this morning is the future. By lunchtime I’m already bored of all the tweets about whatever, and the evening news is sheer torture. Perhaps that’s what Fatos meant when she tweeted me “what is more fearsome is the meta-condition of cybernetics that we are in – and we dont know what it really means!” — but I don’t know what it really means.
With thanks to Andrew Wyld, Mike Freedman, Alix Mortimer, Donald Newholm, Mark Pilkington, and Fatos Ustek.
HEXEN 2.0 is published as a book. This is totally essential. BUY YOURSELF.
Ernest von Glaserfeld’s “Cybernetics and the Theory of Knowledge” is a great overview of cybernetics. TREAT YOURSELF.
Adam Curtis’s three-part documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is recommended:
Part one’s about Ayn Rand’s influence and Alan Greenspan and money etc https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799353
Part two’s about ecology and mathematical modelling https://vimeo.com/groups/96331/videos/80799352
Part three’s about the selfish gene and the monkey in the machine http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2eku4s_all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace-3-3-the-monkey-in-the-machine-2011_animals