“The sage speaks of what he sees”: War Games and the New Spirit of Capitalism


Technological Ideologues

“At the end of the twentieth century, the long predicted convergence of the media, computing and telecommunications into hypermedia is finally happening,” wrote Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in 1995. “Once again, capitalism’s relentless drive to diversify and intensify the creative powers of human labour is on the verge of qualitatively transforming the way in which we work, play and live together. By integrating different technologies around common protocols, something is being created which is more than the sum of its parts.”i What is this something? For Barbrook and Cameron, it is nothing less than a new, postmodern orthodoxy for the information age: the fusion of the endless and internal imperialism of the invisible hand, colliding with the long-since passed countercultural longings of the 1960s. This faith, snaking out from within the technological laboratories of Silicon Valley and the endless wires of the global information infrastructure, is something that they identify as “The California Ideology.”

The California Ideology is a hippie ideology. It is infatuated with open systems, taking things not as individual parts but variations of a greater whole. It eschews the traditions of hierarchy and centralized command; it dresses down. It might experiment with acid and other psychotropic substances. It challenges the supremacy of the state. The California Ideology is also a yuppie ideology. It believes in markets and sees how the fluctuations of labor, production, and exchange connects every person in a symbiotic system. It bucks the trends of previous capitalist formations by asserting the role of the individual as an entrepreneur, thus resurrecting the tenets of the American Dream, the self-made man. It is cool, new, and full of energy. It too challenges the supremacy of the state, at least in its liberal-corporatist form, typified by the Fordist-Keynesian modes of production.

The California Ideology is technological in nature. It is indistinguishable from the internet – all the historical systems that rendered its creation as well as the actual nuances of its operations. Its subject is knowledge, information, data in its raw forms and as a produced commodity. It is factory automation, fluid exchange, the spirit of openness, principles of self-organization; its adherents speak of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman’s conception of free-markets as the highest form of social organization just as easily as they throw around elements of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s rhizomatic thought. Resonances of it can be found in Bill Gates’ visualization of smooth exchange systems as well as in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s discourse on the relationship between the “Empire” and the “Multitude.” It short-circuits the antagonism between the hacker and the start-up company. In short, the California Ideology is a highly machinic order, and is the utopian face of the system that is commonly referred to as globalization.

Barbrook and Cameron see the California Ideology’s placement as the capitalism of the Information Age as a process that has ushered into existence a “Virtual Class,” “…the techno-intelligentsia of cognitive scientists, engineers, computer scientists, video-game developers, and all the other communications specialists…”ii The roster of this Virtual Class is practically endless and is instantly recognizable: the aforementioned Bill Gates, of course download (2)(Microsoft), the late Steve Jobs (Apple), Steve Wozniak (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Larry Page (Google), so on an so forth. While these may be a few of the most recognizable figureheads of this class, it is essential to keep in mind that for each of them, there are innumerable others working in these industries, either for these firms or all their competitors, suppliers, manufacturers, and adjacent industries, who accrue vast sums of wealth, power, and property. Outside the millionaires and billionaires’ mansions, illustrious neighborhoods form, spectacles of opulence and excess gesticulating as poverty proliferates in de-industrialized urban areas. It would not make a mistake to consider the virtual class an oligarchy, a few who command the many.

Consider this problem of de-industrialization: in the time since communication networks have become global, information technologies have accelerated the pace in which production can move off-shore and continue unabated despite its geographical distance from the firm itself. With the ability to monitor every step of the production process and the subsequent transportation of the goods, combined with the exceptionally lower costs involved in working in undeveloped or underdeveloped countries, there has been a flight of production itself. This trend is coupled with the tendencies toward factory automation, the replacement of workers by machines, resulting in a crisis of employment that blights not only the subaltern classes of developed countries, but also the middle classes who were insulated and protected by the regulatory regimes of liberal corporatism and the large union structures that were allowed to flourish in earlier times. The paradox is this: the pursuit of capital and material accumulation, particularly on the part of the middle class, means that they have undercut their own methods of subsistence; the means to do so have been supplied largely by the innovations of the virtual class, and they are in a position to not fill the void, but to situate themselves above it. Regardless of how many dot-com bubbles burst or financial crises (attributable in part to the uncertainty found in financial markets thanks to capabilities generated by high-speed, electronic trading) are weathered, the California Ideology has, if anything, only gained traction.

Where did this particular ideology come from? As with all historical occasion, linear genealogies collapse under close scrutiny: the vectors are too innumerable, the roles of chance too high, the variables too grand and the catalyzing agents of events too disparate. We can form chains and sequences of events, that much is true, but unlike the dialectical approach to history, we can claim to hone in on isolated, stable factors. Globalization, and the California Ideology by liminal extension, is not an event – it is a situation that encapsulates the whole of the world, an environment. Unlike the start of a war, an assassination, or a protest for a certain cause, the reasons for the globalization of contemporary capitalism, or neoliberalism, as it is often described, is nothing less than the result of a massive worldshift that has completely undone – and continues to undo – the dynamics of previous world orders. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t aim for an understanding of our world. We absolutely should. What must be done, then, is to work on certain variables. Instead of building a genealogy of neoliberalism, we must build a cartography of the system – and to do so requires the selection of machines, deployed here in the broadest sense of the word, and build genealogies of those.

Sciences at the Edge

The time was World War II, a conflict that ushered in the importance of aerial combat as something as essential as ground or sea-based combat. Developments in aviation technology, such as the capability for flying at higher altitudes and more complex bomb and weapon systems, led to profound problems in fire-control: in high-speed warfare, it was necessary for gunners to be able to respond immediately to actions in the combat environment and to hit their targets with a greater degree of accuracy. In order to deal with this new machinic vision of warfare (which extends beyond the fire-control issue itself, as larger programs like the Manhattan Project indicate), militaries were quickly investing millions of dollars into scientific research in an effort to find mastery over combat theaters. Through science, the command structures of the military were seeking an orderly control over the environment.

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One such scientist was the mathematician Norbert Wiener, a professor of cybernetics and, interestingly enough, a self-proclaimed pacifist. Wiener tackled the problem of fire-control from the perspective of information theory, as it had been formulated by Claude Shannon (Shannon, incidentally, had cultivated this science of communications through his work on fire-control and cryptography at Bell Labs). With the aid of an engineer named Julian Bigelow, Wiener reformulated the relationship between the enemy aircraft and the fire-control anti-aircraft guns as a succession of human and technological components. Therein they discerned a problem: “in order to obtain as complete a mathematical treatment as possible of the over-all control problem, it is necessary to assimilate the different parts of the system to a single basis either human or mechanical.”iii To rectify this issue, they opted for the mechanical view over the human, and chose the servomechanism, a device that uses methods of error-sensing to correct its functions and performances. The choice is fitting: like the servomechanism, the aircraft pilot and the anti-aircraft gunner design their combat behavior by looking to patterns of error in one another, and perpetually update accordingly. This is the process of feedback – the information based on past experience influences current action, forming itself into a looping system of cause-and-effect. The further implication here is that “human beings [are] at some level machines.”iv

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Cybernetics and communication

This new understanding of the human, aided by the study of feedback, allowed Wiener to transpose his work into areas beyond military application. This approach, most commonly referred to as cybernetics, propelled the study of systems of feedback loops into electrical theory, mechanical engineering, information theory, computational research, and neurology. Cybernetics, perhaps most importantly, quickly transformed itself not into a hard discipline, but a transdisciplinary approach; it was able to apply itself to a myriad of different scientific and engineering needs, and in doing so, provided them with a series of commonalities and points of mutual reference and connectability. Here, we should not pay as much attention to the nuances and multiple applications of cybernetics, though to do so is an essential act elsewhere. Instead, we must keep in mind several broader issues: 1) the transdisciplinary approach allows for a fluid mutability of concepts beyond their points of origins and thus a breakdown of traditional institutional structures; 2) cybernetics is first and foremost a machinic science that encompasses man, technology, and nature; and 3) at its early stages at least, cybernetics must be placed into the context of the military goals that drove its creation: the need for control over specific environments and territories.

As World War II ended in the flash of the atomic bomb and the Cold War with the Soviet Union came to dominate military concerns, the cybernetic-influenced game theory transformed the approaches strategists took. Developed by Wiener’s one-time colleague John von Neumann, game theory suggested the use of mathematical modelization of scenarios to best anticipate outcomes, especially in the context where the moves of players were visible and known to one another. Just as cybernetics had main itself a logic of control, game theory was grappling towards a method of anticipatory seeing through which an optimization of the decision-making process could be found. In both, the mechanism is the model, and the subjects of these models – in reality the complex relationships between humans and the machines that they command – are reduced to machinic metaphors, and are articulated in terms of information. As Bob Nichols wrote,

[cybernetic systems creates] a world of simulacra amenable to total control… Cybernetic simulation renders experience, and the real itself, ‘problematic’. It draws us into a realm, a design for living, that fosters a fetishised relationship with the simulation as a new reality all its own, based on the capacity to control, within the domain of the simulation, what had once eluded control beyond it.v

In his “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Gilles Deleuze had begun an analysis of organizations of power in an age dominated by information technology. He contrasted the utilization of machines in previous eras, specifying first “simple machines” – levers, pulleys, and the like – and then later machines driven by energy. The Information Age, depicted as a “Control Society,” requires a “machine of third type, computers…”vi Indeed, for the machine that quickly became associated with the human being in the wake of Wiener’s work on ballistics and the subsequent cybernetic developments in neurology was the computer. This is furthermore reflected in the military application of these sciences: when looking for effective means of control, the computer operates as the ideal model. The computer does what it is told, it is routine, programmable, and directed to specifically work towards its ends. The machine that I would like to conduct a simple genealogy of, as indicated by the dialogue at the outset of this essay, is the computer, but in the torrents of history we must be more specific. Keeping with an issue already discussed, we should look to a mechanism designed specifically for air defense.

Bombs, Tickets, War and the World Wide Web

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In years following World War II, aviation technology accelerated. Jet propulsion, stemming from research and development for missile technology, decreased the ability to detect and thwart bombers that could potentially be carrying nuclear payloads. Thus was the birth of the the Semi-Automated Ground Environment (SAGE), a direct result of the fire-control work done in World War II that Wiener had contributed to. Developed at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, SAGE followed basic cybernetic principles: information from radars and other real-time processing systems worked through feedback with anti-aircraft batteries. Unlike the earlier systems which required higher levels of human interaction, the SAGE system removed the human element from direction action in a combat scenario. The problem, however, arose from the fact that the system still required human input on the flows of information moving through the machine. Work on SAGE was long and tedious; it also required massive public investment in private sector research – namely through IBM, which acted as one of the key contractors on the project. This was typical of the early foundations of the California Ideology: the new sciences and technologies, particularly those revolving around computers, were marshaled into a framework of national defense, yet the work that was being done required the input and activities workers, intellectuals, and companies that operate outside the spheres of government and the armed forces proper.

aviationWork on SAGE propelled IBM, already a corporation with significant power, into higher and higher positions in the technological industries. SAGE continued on to its military ends, but portions of its infrastructure were reworked; throughout the 1950s, IBM drew on its possibilities to develop a “ Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment,” or SABRE, as it is more commonly known. Without the full might of public expenditure funding the project, IBM turned instead to American Airlines, which filled the company’s coffers to the staggering tune of $30 million for the project.vii Despite a series of setbacks, similar to the problems facing the SAGE project, SABRE would result in a watershed for American Airlines – the technology had suddenly streamlined the processes of ticket reservation systems, which would soon account for 50% of the corporation’s total revenue, and by 1987, it would operate as the largest “private real-time data-processing system” in the world.viii Beyond this, the advent of SABRE reverberated through the entirety of the airline industry, having “triggered an industry-wide effort to automate reservation systems.”ix

There are plenty of other ways to assess the global impact of SABRE. For example, American Airline’s subsidiary, Sabre Holdings, launched Travelocity in 1996. Through a partnership with AOL, the online ticket company quickly gained prominence; to this day it remains an industry giant. In another instance, Dollar Rent A Car Systems Inc. and Thrifty Inc. outsource the bulk of their logistical work to SABRE. Beyond the simple family tree of SABRE applications, we could consider the case of Robert Head, who had served as a systems engineer on the project; in 1968 he would draw on his experience and founded the Society for the Management of Information Systems. Existing now in most states of the U.S., this organization draws together thousands of IT industry leaders, consultants, and corporate executives to promote the integration of information technology into the day-to-day activities of business. While all these things may seem like rather mundane developments, providing ease of work in our day to day lives, we should reflect on how they have contributed to a fundamental reorientation of society, particularly in the way that they gel with the current in which capitalism has manifested itself. Consider the following words:

It was the early ’90s, at San Francisco International, while awaiting a flight back to Paris. I stepped out to the sidewalk for a breath of not-so-fresh air, and watching an ascending jet as it executed a perfect, computer-controlled turn above the bay. Suddenly I realized that this huge flying object was just a small part of an integrated transnational processing system that had reorganized my existence. It was as though the weight of the airliner had vaporized into a communicational pulse. My own body and the entire surround – the airport, the jet, and the continents it interlinked – were caught in a seamless mesh of continuously modulated data.x

Modulation: this is a key word that arises multiple times in Deleuze’s comments on the Control Society. He contrasts modulation with molds, or the forms enacted upon the individual through the enclosures that dotted previous social organizations, be it the factory, the barracks, the prison, or the family. Modulations are not molds; they change, they shift – consider the vapor-like quality of the corporation, Deleuze tells us, as opposed to the monolithic immediacy of the factory. IT work instead of labor on the assembly line. Existing as data instead of instantly realizable physical form. This is not to say, however, that we lack form, simply that our representation of ourselves has shifted. When one planning a trip through Travelocity, or renting a car through Thrifty, or sending an email through a work-related network, it is the digital signature left by the person that assumes supreme importance – and what is done with this data, known more than ever now after the revelations of Edward Snowden, is a matter of surveillance. Under the eye of the government, compiling data flows is a method for monitoring the habits of the population for deviations from power; in the private sector, it is building an optimized means of targeting the individual – as opposed to the mass market – for consumptive purposes. Just as the military turned to cybernetics for a methodology of control, the logic at play differs very little.

The machine that we are ultimately considering at this turn is, of course, the internet, which is certainly beyond the scope of the current discourse. As a global means of informatically-enhanced communicability, it is the medium through which we transform into data. On one hand, it promotes ease throughout everyday life, and on another, it has been an invaluable tool for dissent and the opening up of autocratic regimes (such as the case of Arab Spring) and revealing withheld knowledge to the public (WikiLeaks). Yet it has also generated the global glass house we live in, through the NSA’s own technics and strategic partnerships with technology firms.

Without going too deep into this realm, let us consider this strand: as the technicians on the SAGE project faced mounting problems, the Air Force brought in the prominent scientist and intellectual J.C.R. Licklider in a consulting capacity. A colleague of Norbert Wiener,xi Licklider immediately addressed the problems with the program: “The numerous human operators have been into SAGE to mainly handle tasks that turned out not to be practicable for the computer. It is therefore too much a matter of man aiding the machine, and not enough a matter of true man-computer symbiosis, to give us a preview of the Air Force information-processing and control systems that we hope will exist in the future.”xii Licklider would develop these ideas further in a paper titled “Man-Machine Symbiosis,” urging the cultivation of technologies that would not so much require the human being to input information and draw conclusions from the processes, but would “think” alongside the human, assisting intimately in the decision-making process. This vision included included what he called the “Intergalactic Computer Network,” a open-ended system of information commons and communication platform that would allow for the transmission of data and human interactivity across vast geographical territories. At the same Licklider was working at ARPA, which was designing just that in the form of the ARPAnet. Licklider’s “Intergalactic Computer Network” can be understood as one of the earliest depictions of the internet as we know it today. To bring us full circle here, IBM in the 1970s would draw on both the logistics of SABRE and infrastructure of the ARPAnet to create their Systems Network Architecture (SNA), a communications system that allowed for computers to interconnect through networks and share information – another step towards the world wide web as we currently know it.


Despite the initial problems to be found in the SAGE program, its developed continued as its counterparts made waves in the private sector. It blossomed into the World Wide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS). WWMCCS, utilized on a mass scale for the first time in Vietnam, “allowed for centralized global command-and-control of American troops through a broad spectrum of telecommunication systems including military satellites, marking the extension of command-and-control structures across the globe and establishing total cybernetic system closure over the world.”xiii As a system for ‘global conflict management,’ the system allowed for warfare strategies and battlefield on the other side of the world, in the power corridors of Washington, D.C. Another similar program operating through this cyberneticization of war was Operation Igloo White, where sensors designed “designed to record sound, heat,vibrations, and even the smell of urine” were deployed across the geography. The mass amounts of data generated would flow into a control center, located in Thailand, and was then reworked and be fed back as targeting information for jet aircrafts patrolling the skies above the jungles. Again, like SAGE, both WWMCCS and Operation Igloo White were failures. Informatic saturation, misinformation – reams of raw data coalescing into a digital fog of war.

Eventually, WWMCCS would be reformulated in the 1980s and was applied in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. While this second-order would trend far closer to the total control envisioned by military strategists, the program was scraped, with aspects incorporated into the Global Command and Control System (GCCS) – a fully updated, streamlined and ongoing process that provides real-time input and output of military action, both in wartime and in peace.

Dynamics of the Whirlwind

The creation of SAGE, and all the divergent strands emanating from that moment, would not have been possible without the development of Whirlwind, a vacuum tube computer – and the first of its kind! – built by MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory at the behest of the U.S. Naval. The brain behind Whirlwind was Jay Wright Forrester, a faculty member of the school’s electrical engineering school, and a veteran of Gordon S. Brown’s work on feedback technologies – research that, once again, points back to the issues of fire-control.xiv Cybernetics framed the entirety of Forrester’s output as head of the Whirlwind Project, not only in terms of the object (the object and the information-sharing system) or the subject (means of battlefield control), but also in the institutional structure itself. He modeled the program on MIT’s Radiation Laboratory – Forrester “created separate ‘divisions’ to deal with the areodynamics, mathematics, electronics, mechanical systems, high-speed storage, and other aspects…”xv Just as cybernetics deconstructed academic discipline, the Rad Lab (as it was commonly known), crossed these boundaries, irrespective of the university’s bureaucracy. To deepen the ties, it contributed directly to elements of cybernetics, and pointed the way to the metastructures of the California Ideology:

…the Rad Lab was… a collection of interlinked research projects housed together at MIT. Along with work on the radar, the Lab developed technologies for long-range navigation, the aiming of anti-aircraft guns, and fire control. It brought together scientists and mathematicians from MIT and elsewhere, engineers and designers from industry, and many different military and government planners. Among these various professionals, and particularly among the engineers and designers, entrepreneurship and collaboration were the norm, and independence of the mind was strongly encouraged… scientists and engineers had to become entrepreneurs, assembling networks of technologists, funders, and administrators to see their projects through.xvi

The contributions that Whirlwind made, in addition to its role as the architecture of the SAGE system, to the evolution of computing are innumerable. The cathode tubes, used to help track aircraft data, pointed towards graphic display technology, while the ferrite core memory system underscores the development of RAM.xvii Statistical analysis, information sharing via networks, communication platforms – in short, the components developed for the application of SAGE form the base for all computational technology sense, be it the large-scale systems deployed by the military in combat situations, or the everyday usage of personal computers.

There are other developments to consider, however. By the time that Whirlwind was up and running, Forrester left the realm of the military-industrial-intellectual complex and went to work at MIT’s Sloan School and Management, a move that was surprising given his pedigree in the world of engineering. It was not without reason: taking the earlier lessons of cybernetics and the insights into electrical systems derived from Whirlwind, Forrester developed what he dubbed “System Dynamics,” a bid that, like earlier control efforts, aspired to create a compressive approaches to modeling complex systems. His primary interest for System Dynamics (in the beginning at least) was real-world productive processes – the hard-to-grasp relationships between production and labor, consumer markets, management style, price regimes, and quantity of goods.

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Stocks and flows

The System Dynamics model consisted of two key elements: stocks, the variables in the system, and flows, the changing nature of these stocks through the passage of time. Thus, like the earlier application of cybernetics and game theory, the concern here is the application of simulations that reflect as closely to possible the actual conditions of the given environment. Working with General Electric, Forrester and his students in the Sloan School of Management at MIT applied this methodology at the company’s manufacturing plants in Kentucky. This earlier research would coalesce in his classic book, published in 1961, titled simply Industrial Dynamics. Escalating management of capitalist firms to an objective science, the arguments of Industrial Dynamics rapidly became the vernacular of business at large, and the stocks and flows models of feedback quickly transitioned into other areas of study, be it urbanism, historical studies, or behavioral psychology. One area that was completely revolutionized by system dynamics has been the management of supply chains, the network systems composed of organizations, individuals, shipping means, and information that links together the supplier to the consumer.




Where does Systems Dynamics take us? For one, it brings to mind (and is possibly intentionally subverted by) certain strands of post-structuralist Continental philosophy that challenged the solidity of the liberal corporatist state by conceiving of the world composed of endless flows. But with the eyes of time passed, can we not look backwards and see that this too may have just been a symptom of a moment in history when the forces of technology were withering away those classical structures? At the same time, the visualization of a world of flows allows us to grasp two important facts: 1) that all things in this world are interconnected in extremely profound ways, opening up new spaces for the cultivation of ethics and dissident practices for our times, and 2) that this interconnection is the motor through which capitalism, without the regulatory apparatuses of the state, is able to proliferate and reproduce itself. This is not to say that the so-called “free-market dream” of Hayek and Friedman (who indeed spent much of their time pouring over the texts of the cyberneticians and game theorists) is a control-free environment. The organizing powers of capitalism has shifted from the state, which once held technocracy on its side, to the networks of oligarchies intersped across the globe, and the new technocracy that monitors, directs, and seeks to accumulate as much wealth as possible from the acceleration of the flows.

From this angle, Systems Dynamics is exactly what Forrester hoped for it to be: a science of management. At the same, as it revolutionized the organization of corporations and gave aid to the burgeoning process of outsourcing labor and production (through its streamlining of supply-chain management) into regions that might otherwise be considered antithetical to capitalism – or at least the old organizations of capital. Forrester and his students had created a computer program to assist in the methodology, dubbed DYNAMO, which was soon adapted by another student of cybernetics, Stanford Beer. Beer, in turn, utilized DYNAMO in Chile’s Cybersyn project, which had been initiated by the socialist government of Salvador Allende as means to manage the whole of the economy through computer systems.xviii In another instance, DYNAMO would be used by the Club of Rome in their 1972 report The Limit to Growth, which promoted concern with the issue of population and economic growth in a world of finite natural resources. Finally, a descendent of the DYNAMO, Stella, finally found its way into the planning group for Royal Dutch Shell, which brings us back to the hegemony of what we opened this essay with: the California Ideology.

Order to Disorder

A key figure in these evolving circles was Jerome Wiesner, a longtime member of the Rad Lab, and scientific adviser to President Eisenhower. Eventually rising to the office of the presidency of MIT, Wiesner’s credentials included work on radar technology, Whirlwind and SAGE; following his biography leads him to interaction with most of the figures we’ve discussed up to this point. Most importantly for this juncture, however, is to consider his innovations in the institutional structure of this field. As World War II came to a close, he reformatted the Rad Lab into its second incarnation, the Research Laboratory on Electronics (RLE). In this new mode, the focus would shift away from machines of war, and instead would work on the technologies that this research had engendered. With the belief that the human mind and computers could be modeled after one another, the RLE was dedicated to work on artificial intelligence, robots, and general computer technology; as its project roster increased exponentially, the RLE would soon split into two different, yet interrelated institutions: the AI Lab and and the Architecture Machine Group.

The AI Lab would soon be drawing in government funding from DARPA, arranged by none other that J.C.R. Licklider; today, it is known as the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). The impact of CSAIL in the architecture of the current world system is massive, contributing not only to the cultivation of cutting-edge technology but also the exportation of the post-Fordist production platforms to third world countries through extensive outreach plans. In another instance, CSAIL hosts the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the transnational organization dedicated to maintaining standards on the internet. W3C’s membership is the usual roll-call of multinational corporations invested in the harnessing of digital information technology towards capitalized end: AT & T, Boeing, Facebook, Google, Oracle, IBM, and some three hundred and eighty others.xix

The Architecture Machine Group moved in these same waters. Led by Nicholas Negroponte, it was “formed with the specific purpose of harnessing computer power to create a new man-machine dialogue.”xx The idea explicit in the Machine Group’s numerous projects, running from rudimentary robotics to the visual design of user interfaces, was that the machine could learn from man, and that man could learn from the machine – feedback loops of learning and knowledge emanating directly from the core of Wiener and Bigelow’s view of man and machine as a common system. The experiments and trandisciplinary work carried out by Negroponte and his teams multiplied quickly, and the Architecture Machine Group was rebranded as the MIT Media Lab to better focus on “the possibility of reciprocal connections between the body, architecture, and information.”xxi

MIT Media Lab

MIT Media Lab

Stewart Brand described Media Lab as sitting at “the hub of a wide corporate and academic network… the Lab employed a wide variety of specialists, including scientists, musicians, visual artists, and software engineers. Together they developed projects ranging from electronic newspapers to wearable computers and large scale holograms.”xxii While the intent of the Media was not the wholesale production of commodities for the consumer marketplace, it still moved itself into these waters – the Lab would produce ‘demos,’ intricate multi-media presentations that would be shown to corporate sponsors to aid their research and development imperatives. At the same time, Brand’s writings on the Media Lab center it directly into the context of globalization:

Art Kleiner told me in a letter ‘The economic effect of the distribution of resources worldwide is going to be immense. I started to understand this when Don Simpson of Pacific Bell told me how you would be able to use the central office phone-switching computer as your computer with a special high-speed data line between your PC and their central computer. Through your terminal in Kenya you might access a program in Australia that drives a manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania.’

The grand design keeps getting grander. A global computer is taking shape, and we’re all connected to it. How we’re connected to it is the Media Lab’s prime interest.”xxiii

Brand had a personal stake in the promotion of the Media Lab: after all, Negroponte had brought him into the fold after a TED conference describing the formation of the institution. A former icon of the 60s counterculture through his famous publication, The Whole Earth Catalog, Brand saw the Media Lab as embodying both the radical spirit of that decade, with its focus on open, nonhierarchical systems, and the cybernetic/engineer culture that had been engender by the collision of academia and the military.

At the same time that he was participating in the Media Lab, Brand had also begun meeting with members of Royal Dutch Shell’s planning group, which had been drenched into the cybernetic modeling systems of Forrester and the future-forecasting techniques developed by Herman Kahn (himself a veteran of the RAND Corporation’s work on game theory and a colleague of John von Neumann). Peter Schwartz, who was heading the department as mentioned at the close of the previous section, also had a military pedigree: following a stint in the Students for a Democratic Society, he had gone to work at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), a key defense contractor that had helped craft the ARPAnet. Now, Schwartz and his colleagues were looking to complex systems for signposts on reorganizing business structures; they promptly hired Brand to put together a series of “Learning Conferences,” introducing cybernetics and system dynamics – and many of the theorists working in the field, such as Mary Catherine Bateson and Francisco Varela – to executives from large Fortune 500 conferences.xxiv

maxresdefaultThe Learning Conferences expanded rapidly, and evolved into the Global Business Network (GBN). The GBN was, for all intents and purposes, a corporate consulting firms whose long lists of clients included IBM, BellSouth, AT & T, Shell, and countless others. The goal, however, wasn’t consulting in the traditional system: it was the impart upon the hierarchical system that the corporate inevitably trends towards a sense of what the coming information-age economy would look like – namely, a network structure interlinking successions of complex systems. But this was one goal. The other was to help build this network, by bringing together individuals who might not otherwise have encountered one another. Again, the sciences of cybernetics and the sciences of capitalism were colliding. To quote Fred Turner,

GBN itself became both a model and a source of symbolic and rhetorical resources for corporate executives and government officials looking to understand post-Fordist forms of economic activity. In its meetings, publications, and its presentations, GBN offered those individuals a vision of the New Economy as a networked entity, open to management by elite social groups and charismatic leaders and linked by interpersonal and information networks, an entity whose laws could be made visible through a mix of systems theory, collaborative social practice, and mystical insight.xxv

This developments were matched by others, emerging from within military structures. Former Los Alamos scientists had formed the Sante Fe Institute, an interdiscplinary think-tank dedicated to the utilization of computers to study complex systems. By the 1980s the Institute was giving presentations on artificial intelligence; one participant in these series had been Kevin Kelly, the longtime editor of Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. For Kelly the symposiums were nothing less than divine revelation: the entirety of cosmological processes, encompassing the natural, the social, and the artificial, were a singular environment rendered and understand in terms of information. The old machinic metaphor had now given way to totalizing paradigm, and Kelly picked up these strands and wove them into his famed book, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World.


Out of Control was multiple things. It became a fixture of the shelves of corporate executives worldwide, and it was a text of philosophy that concerned itself with creation itself. Referencing Forrester’s innovations in Systems Dynamics, he wrote “A theory abstracts the complicated pattern of real things into the facsimile pattern — a model, or a simulation. If done well, the miniature captures some integrity of the larger whole. Einstein, working at the peak of human talent, reduced the complexity of the cosmos to five symbols. His theory, or simulation, works. If done well, an abstraction becomes a creation.”xxvi At this center of this vision was the swarm: the mob, the school of fish, the download (7)flock of herds, the mass movements of bees. Disparate elements, swirling through the cosmos, yet coalescing, self-organizing – the multiple becoming one. A paradigm shift was underway, and at the tip of it emerged a singular media force, Wired magazine.

Wired, like the vision of the swarm, brings together all these multiplicitous factions, already tangently woven together through historical links, into a singularity. The visionaries behind Wired were Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe; Kevin Kelly took up a position as the magazine’s editor. The first investor and author of a monthly columnist was the Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte. Large investments also flowed in from the Global Business Network, yet this was only a small fraction of the relationship the magazine had with the organization: the bulk of Wired‘s masthead sit on the GBN’s advisory committee. GBN members frequented the cover of the magazine. And perhaps predictably, Wired engaged in lengthy promotions of post-Fordist production modes that reflected the priorities of the GBN. The ties have run deep enough that media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has charged that “Wired is effectively like a newsletter for the GBN and they’ve never really disclosed that..”xxvii

This is only one of Rushkoff’s concerns about Wired, noting that despite their relationship with former countercultural figures (Stewart Brand, and numerous luminaries affiliated with the Whole Earth Catalog), the magazine is really “a front for a right wing libertarian social reformers.” Indeed, in 1995 Wired featured conservative politician Newt Gengrich on the cover. Prior to this, Kelly had interviewed George Gilder, a libertarian pundit, for the magazine; in the article, published in the magazine’s fourth issue, Gilder had proclaimed the internet as synonymous with free market and “a sign of that system’s inevitability.”xxviii This was clearly symptomatic of the times: in the areas of government, the Democrat president Bill Clinton was initiating a series of pro-big business and corporate policies, fueling the deregulatory craze that was rapidly ushering in globalization. Thing were changing in the military too. Theorists at the RAND Corporation, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, were turning to the work of Santa Fe Institute and Kelly’s Out of Control for new models of warfare built upon the complex dynamics of swarms. “Swarming,” they wrote, “could become the catalyst for the creation of a newly energized military doctrine: ‘BattleSwarm’… Swarming, and the nonlinear battlespace it envisions, will also require the development of a new logistical paradigm.”xxix



If you want to liberate society to liberate society, just give them the internet.”xxx -Wael Ghonim, leader in the Egyptian Revolutionized of2011, former head of marketing of Google’s Middle East and North Africa division

We’ve moved far from the genealogy of the machine that we’ve been lightly tracing here, the SAGE computer, by several elements still persist. We can see how the transinstitutional infrastructure like the MIT’s Rad Lab has persisted to today, opening itself up from its war-time endeavors to being a powerful force in generating the technics defining our age. Second, the System Dynamics theories of Jay Wright Forrester, derived in part from his work on Whirlwind, forms a large part of the base into the theories of complexity that have been latched onto by those that operate in the murky world in between the corporate arena and the sciences. Another thing to consider, however, is the failures of the SAGE system and derivatives – namely the WWMCCS – and that these have propelled us forward.

Although cybernetics perpetually looks towards the outside by rendering systems in terms of feedback loops, the military application of these theories operated by rendering them inside a closed environment. The reason for this was twofold. First, warfare was seen, despite the escalation of randomness and chaos in combat through technological advancements, as something that could rationalized through the maximization of information. Second, this was indicative of the hegemony of older power formations that still prioritized hierarchy and centralization, despite the fact that the advancements they were making were cutting deeply at this root. WWMCCS and Operation Igloo White were without a doubt centralizations of the highest order, collecting data down to the minute of details and processing it all into a decision-making process that was far removed from direct engagement with the environment. With this these systems in mind, RAND’s Arquilla and Ronfeldt wrote that

The new technology tends to produce a deluge of information that must be taken in, filtered, and integrated in real-time. Informational overload and bottlenecking has long been a vulnerability of centralized, hierarchical structures for command and control… The traditional reliance on hierarchical designs may have to be adapted to network-oriented models to allow greater flexibility, lateral connectivity, and teamwork across institutional boundaries.xxxi

The swarm is a direct attack on this hierarchical order. We noted before that cybernetics and game theory conducted modelizations of the environment based on information gained on its participants; we’ve also seen how, particularly though Forrester’s analysis of System Dynamics, these models came closer and closer to reflecting reality in all of its complexities, towards a point where, perhaps, the differentiation of the model and what is being modeled has become near impossible to discern – in another word, Deleuze’s modulation. By the time that Kelly began posing the large-scale symbioses moored to complexity and Arquilla and Ronfeldt analyzed the possibilities for swarm tactics, it was not enough to build representations of the environment. For proper control, one had to become the environment. Swarm tacticians and strategists spend much time studying the dynamics of swarming in nature, be it bees, fish, or ants. Gilder’s insistence that the internet points to the inevitability of free markets is another angle of this perspective: the network of man and machine, interlaced through unabated and fluid exchange systems, is not only something deterministic, but wholly in tune with a natural order. Let us also consider the flip side of the futurism of Herman Kahn and Schwartz’s unit at Shell, the “anticipatory seeing” looked for by the defense departments. WWMMCS’s successor, the Global Command and Control System, is indicative of this second-order of cybernetic technologies. It manages the data-input without the bottleneck, relying on the constant interplay of satellites, mobile forces on the ground, chatter, drone imagery, internet monitoring, phone-taps – aggregates of complex systems subjected to high-speed analysis and the rapid decision-making of largely autonomous units. GCCS is the counterpart of other programs like the scuttled Total Information Awareness program of the Bush administration and the NSA’s perpetual surveillance system. The heart of the network economy – the internet – is the mechanism for the ‘freedoms’ of new capitalism, yet it is simultaneously the mechanism for control systems unparallelled in human history.


Swarm dynamics and network order have a flip side: antithetical to hierarchy and centralization, they oppose notions of sovereignty. Hence the importance of swarming for the Zapatista’s struggles against neoliberalism in Chiapas, or for the protestors against the World Trade Organization in 1999. After the events of September 11th, much was made of the network structure of Al-Qaeda; loose cells spread far beyond territorial centers, symbioses between conflicting ideologies, and the utilization of the internet rendered the sudden terrorist metaorganizations as a contagion, spreading not only through the cables of the digital globe, but transmitting and replicating itself across the physical spaces of the globe. Al-Qaeda has no territory, no sovereignty. We can visualize SAGE and its descendents (at least the ones deployed by the military) as a model of cybernetic sovereignty – open, complex system managed through informatic enclosures. But soon Arquilla, Ronfeldt, and others at RAND were picking up on the utilization of swarming and network organization by the Zapatistas and the activists in the Battle of Seattle; the coming war would approach its opposition on its terms – without sovereignty, a strange reflection of the very processes of globalization. In fact, it would be prudent to eliminate the distinction between globalization and postmodern wars without borders. We should be careful not overstate aspects of these transformations, however; it is clear that sovereignty as a notion, and the disciplinary practice of enclosure has not been wholly eliminate and continues to persist, perhaps as a necessary underlying base for floating systems. In their study of the network as a philosophical concept, Eugene Thacker and Alexander Galloway drive this point home:

…networks and sovereignty are not incompatible. In fact, quite the opposite: networks create the conditions of existence for a new mode of sovereignty. America is merely the contemporary figurehead of sovereignty-in-networks… What the United States accomplished in the years after 1989 was

to derive its own sovereignty from within the “ultrarapid” and “free- floating” networks. This results in the curious dual rhetoric of the “international presence” in peacekeeping operations combined with an “American – led” force, an equivocation held together only by the most flimsy political fantasy. This flimsy assimilation is precisely the model for sovereignty in networks.xxxii

Most importantly, they strive to remind us that “the mere existence of networks does not imply democracy or equality.”xxxiii riting in 2007, this has become even more clear in the seven years that have passed. We’ve seen networked, information-technology enhanced revolutions redirected to ends equitable for American geopolitical interest and neoliberal trade; we’ve seen the reassertion of sovereign, disciplinary power against those who attempted to organize alternative structures alongside the system. We’ve witnessed the dangerous unpredictability and vertical flows of money from the high-speed fluctuations of data-ized finance capital. We’ve seen that organizations of power can see all. Most importantly, we have observed the strengths and weaknesses of the network form. On one hand, its rhizomatic dynamics have allowed power to operate beyond any territorial center, to move, liquid-like, through the contours of geography of the social. On the other hand, it can become fragile, capable of being eliminated through brute force.

“…smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory,” wrote Deleuze and Guattari near the close of A Thousand Plateaus. “Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us.”xxxiv The smoothness they speak of is this new sense of flexibility, the capacity for swarming, that emerged from the elimination of past enclosures on behalf of both power organizations and the multitude. We could easily retreat in neo-Luddism, but to do so is to forsake the immediacy of the crises that are mounting all around – and within – us. Its essential to realize that the current crisis-and-control is a machinic order organized through advanced technology, but the deployment and utilization of technology is predicated upon the conditions of the social. There is a piece of the enclosure in every free-floating machine; there is disciplinary power radiating through the fiber cables of the Ether. To change the conditions of the social is not at this stage game of reform through the entrenched political systems. The question then becomes this: what are our options in a world where every wall has collapsed, every door opened, and every action modeled and anticipated?

iRichard Barbrook and Andrew Cameron “The California Ideology” August, 1995 http://www.alamut.com/subj/ideologies/pessimism/califIdeo_I.html


iiiNorbert Wiener I Am a Mathematician: The Later Life of a Prodigy Doubleday, 1956 pg. 251

ivFred Turner From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism University of Chicago Press, 2006, pg. 21

vQuoted in Antoine Bousquet “Cybernetizing the American War Machine: Science and Computers in the Cold War” Cold War History Vol. 8, No. 1, February 2008, pgs. 77-102

viGilles Deleuze “Postscript on the Societies of Control” October, Vol. 59, Winter, 1992, pg. 6

viiRebecca Slayton Arguments That Count: Physics, Computing, and Missile Defense, 1949-2012 MIT Press, 2013, pg. 69

viiiMedhi Khosrowpour (ed.) Annals of Cases on Information Technology Idea Group Publishing, pgs. 236-237

ixSlayton Arguments That Count pg. 69

xBrian Holmes “Crisis Theory for Complex Societies”

xiFlo Conway and Jim Siegelman Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics Basic Books 2006, , pg. 320

xiiSlayton Arguments That Count pg. 75

xiiiBousquet “Cybernetizing the American War Machine” pg. 87

xivRobert A. Meyers (ed.) Complex Systems in Finance and Econometrics Springer Science + Business Media, 2011, pg. 675

xvAtsushi Akera Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers, and Computers During the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research MIT Press, 2008, pg. 191

xviTurner From Counterculture to Cyberculture, pg. 19

xviiKenneth Flamm Creating the Computer: Government, Industry, and High Technology The Brookings Institution, 1988, pgs. 56-57

xviiiAndrew Pickering The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future University of Chicgo Press, 2011, pg. 258-259

xix“Current members” World Wide Web Consortium website, http://www.w3.org/Consortium/Member/List

xxChris Abel and Norman Foster Architecture and Identity Routledge, 2012, pg. 50

xxiMaria Lusia Palumbo New Wombs: Electric Bodies and Architectural Disorder Birkhauser, 2000, pg. 66

xxiiTurner From Counterculture to Cyberculture pg. 178

xxiiiStewart Brand The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. Penguin Books, 1988, pgs. 32-33

xxivTurner From Counterculture to Cyberculture pg. 182

xxvIbid, pg. 184

xxviKevin Kelly Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World Basic Books, 1995 http://kk.org/outofcontrol/ch13-b.html

xxvii“Douglas Rushkoff: Children of Chaos (Playing the Future): Lost in Translation” Spike Magazine February 3rd, 1997, http://www.spikemagazine.com/0297rush.php

xxviiiTurner From Counterculture to Cyberculture pg. 224

xxixJohn Arquilla and David Ronfeldt Swarming and the Future of Conflict RAND Corporation, 2005, pg. viii

xxxQuoted in Metahaven “Captives of the Cloud: Part I” E-Flux, 2012 http://www.e-flux.com/journal/captives-of-the-cloud-part-i/

xxxiJohn Arquilla and David Ronfeldt Cyberwar is Coming! RAND Corporation, 1992, pg. 45

xxxiiAlexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker The Exploit: A Theory of Networks University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pg. 20-21

xxxiiiIbid, pg. 13

xxxivGilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Continuum, 2004 (reprint edition), pg. 551

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13 Responses to “The sage speaks of what he sees”: War Games and the New Spirit of Capitalism

  1. dmf says:

    I appreciate you tracing out these interactions (much preferable to yet another series of generalizations/abstractions from the usual suspects), my sense is that much of this kind of work really goes on behind the scenes and not that it doesn’t (even if indirectly/2ndhand) impact daily life but that there is much to the interests of those involved to not being directly engaging with the public, both in terms of avoiding scrutiny and in terms of their own focus/resources, not unlike say the US’ dirty wars in the southern Americas and elsewhere or all the DARPA activities, so much as crony-capitalists are skimming off talent and resources so are these kinds of groups/efforts often not really interested in the unruly/disposable masses, is there something to this (I know it gets more complicated with finance and all) impression of mine (to the degree that I have been able to articulate it) in terms of what you have been unearthing?

    • dmf says:

      I imagine that you have this but while it’s on my mind/computer:

    • edmundberger says:

      “….but that there is much to the interests of those involved to not being directly engaging with the public, both in terms of avoiding scrutiny and in terms of their own focus/resources… these kinds of groups/efforts often not really interested in the unruly/disposable masses…”

      I think there is an extremely high degree of complexity to this topic that makes sifting through it so hard: it entails a collision of both planned action and chance happening, determinate order and unintended consequences. I see the birth of what Mirowski calls the “cyborg sciences” (first order cybernetics, game theory, public choice theory, Chicago School economics, molecular biology, etc,) as tantamount to the generation of adaptable control systems that operate through modelizations of the environment and the interactions contained therein for the optimization of processes, be it warfare or the marketplace. This is not to say, of course, that there is no validity to these sciences – there is! – but I’m intrigued by the socio-political conditions from which these sciences emerge (dominated by the flows of power organizations, in a Foucauldian sense). I like to use Deleuze and Guattari’s discouse on Royal Sciences vs. Nomad sciences in parsing elements out. The institutional format of cyborg sciences, as looked at Mirowski, would fall under the category of Royal Sciences – it is an affair of the state, it is geared towards the reproduction of power dynamics, etc. Then we have the less institutional framework, the sort of ‘tinkering’ element to the sciences that propelled it into worlds that might be considered strange or divergent, and reflect deterritorializing “technologies of the self” (Andy Pickering’s “The Cybernetic Brain” is great for this angle). Of course, there is an intermingling of these territorializing and deterritorializing lines; much of the aura of the ‘technologies of the self’ are now deployed not in opposition to power, but as an aspect of power’s newfound flexibility.

      What I’ve taken away is that there is an indifference to the masses. Just look at some of the recent rhetoric barbs towards the underclasses thrown around by many leaders of the virtual class in Silicon Valley, and this much is clear! At the same time, the masses are exactly what are required for the continuation of the system – be it through labor, consumption, etc. The concern is less and less with the masses as subject (as they were rendered in previous capitalist formations, be it the liberal corporatism of Fordist-Keynesianim, or the populism of the Progressive Era that helped to drive this), and more so as an object, or more properly (in the first world at least) as a digital object quantifiable as data. This is not to say that previous formations particularly ‘cared’ for the masses; their inclusion in the functioning dynamics was much more in the capacity of being cogs in the productive machine, but current neoliberal order is organized through completely different way (while still retaining vital disciplinary elements, which have been shifted to the margins of the system) through the collision of sciences and technology with flexible techniques of public management. As Deleuze argues, the individual/mass paradigm was the mode of the previous social formation; the new one entails the individual understood as the “dividual,” or a data profile mathematically modeled. Likewise, the mass itself is treated as aggregates of data with higher and higher degrees of modelization required (hence the requirement of Systems Dynamics). Of course, we’re trending dangerously close to generalization here, but from what I can see is that through various controlling systems, be it surveillance on the part of the government, the bitter usurpation of liberal democracy by debt spirals, the increased complexity in marketing, and the role of speculative finance as an economic motor, there is a profound tension that oscillates between the focus on the needs, desires, and traits of the individual and a sweeping generalization of the population(s) at large.

      I hope this answers your question!

      • dmf says:

        yes thanks, I realize that these things are highly complex and include many variations, just have been struck/intrigued by things like how much of say China’s exploitation of Africa has very little to do with the local populace (unlike oldschool colonization) even to the point of importing labor such that they set up little walled in zones around say a mine and just do their thing (as once say atom bombs were built in little hidden town/bunkers), democracies like our federal govt. seem to be proving too unwieldy for the kinds of speedy and highly specialized operations that are more and more the order of the elites’ day and the rest of us are left gathering scraps…

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  7. S.C. Hickman says:

    Yea, I still keep coming back to your statement: “Instead of building a genealogy of neoliberalism, we must build a cartography of the system – and to do so requires the selection of machines, deployed here in the broadest sense of the word, and build genealogies of those.” I agree, that is the way it needs to be done. A productive history in the D&G sense that takes in the various war-machines, foundation-machines, think-tanks, university, et. al. – knowledge-machines, then the power-machines: government, financial, market, etc. A mixture of D&G and Foucault (but updated)

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