Witless slaves or lively artifacts? A debate of the 1960s

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During late modernism, the promise of, not only vaguely, but also precisely predicting the future had acquired enormous prestige. When evoked, this predictive project lent power, legitimacy, and a cohesive identity to endeavours in almost any realm of society and culture – including the discipline of architecture. In particular, in cybernetics, seen as a means of regulating and controlling complex systems, these optimistic ideas of ‘mastering the big picture’ flourished.

Under the heading of ‘Cybernetics: Circular Casual, and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems’, the umbrella organisation Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation hosted ten conferences on this very topic between 1946 and 1951. These events, known as the Macy Conferences, provided a forum for the collation and presentation of existing research, and in retrospect can be seen to have been the most important ‘get-together’ of their kind, judged in relation to subsequent crucial findings in the history of science after the Cold War. Based upon the theoretical framework of the terms of ‘information’, ‘feedback’, and ‘analog/digital’, they searched for that single universal theory of regulation and control – which they claimed might be applied to any species, machine, economic or psychological process, aesthetic or sociological phenomenon. As a consequence, cybernetics transformed into a tool to describe and explain methodologies not only in its own core knowledge/ research area, but became seen as a subject capable of giving answers to societal questions of any kind. In doing so, cybernetics linked new scientific-technical methods with all issues of social relevance.

Original languageEnglish
Journalarq: Architectural Research Quarterly
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)33–44
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 08.11.2017