Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

From Cybernetics to Cyber Networks: Norbert Wiener, the Soviet Internet, and the Cold War Dawn of Information Universalism
by Peters, Benjamin, Ph.D., Columbia University, 2010, 342; 3447976
Abstract (Summary)

A critical study of cybernetics and its contradictions, From Cybernetics to Cyber Networks traces fault lines in the mid-century construction and imagination of digital communication. The main memory of American communication research holds that digital media research began with the proliferation of networked personal computers and social media devices in the 1990s. According to this storybook telling, digital media are understood as powerfully new and transformative communication tools for transcending space, time, and difference —a doctrine I call information universalism . By information univeralism I mean to capture a computational turn in the history of communication thought—a turn in which communication became understood as a decontextualizcd and supposedly value-neutral computational activity of information exchange independent of the rich environments of social interaction (gestures, inflections, grammar, setting, etc.) that conventionally give meaning to the coordination of symbols. The foundation of mathematics, according to many information univcrsalists, provides a platform for believing that information and communication technology somehow gives rise to a natural and spontaneous social order as well as a neutral politics independent of human intervention and bias. This dissertation examines and challenges such a belief through a critical history and analysis of cybernetics—a postwar meta-discipline of communication and control concerning computer-compatible analogies linking organic, technical, and social systems.

Central to this history and analysis are two case studies. First, the life and work of Norbert Wiener, the only founder of cybernetics widely recognized by both American and Soviet commentators, provide an account of the embedded and material origins for the very cybernetic thinking about digital communication as a disembodied activity. Contrary to this line of thinking, the extraordinary story of Wiener, thus, supports a classic understanding of communication as embedded in specific material conditions. Second, the previously almost unexamined case study of why the Soviets, despite repeated attempts, failed to develop a large-scale civilian-use network contributes scholarly understanding of the Cold War development of the Internet. Adding to the well-known framing of the ARPANET as, in part, the product of Cold War defense research, I reframe the development of these early nationwide computer network projects within the context of internal sources of institutional competition, while also noting the role played by cybernetics in inspiring, for better and for worse, the design of early Cold War networks. These two case studies combine to challenge the staying power of the narrative currently advanced about contemporary digital media and communication as the product of an ostensibly liberal and often overwhelmingly American-centric information society. Instead, this history and analysis of Cold War cybernetics helps recover, elongate, and internationalize a usable and teachable view of the intellectual roots connecting the past to the increasingly digital present.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Schudson, Michael
School: Columbia University
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 72/05, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Science history, Mass communications, Information science, Russian history
Keywords: Cold War, Communications, Cybernetics, Digital communications, Information universalism, Internet, Soviet Union, Wiener, Norbert
Publication Number: 3447976
ISBN: 9781124533100
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