On Aerial Perspective, Socio-Technical Systems, and Interdisciplinarity:

By on February 16th, 2024 in Articles, Commentary, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

Reading Modernism Alongside Cybernetics


I recently had the pleasure of speaking about my work on the literary and cultural history of cybernetics during a workshop on “Sustainable and Scalable Self-Organization” (SaSSO) at the 4th IEEE International Conference on Autonomic Computing and Self-Organizing Systems (ACSOS 2023), in Toronto, Ontario [1]. Although the venue might seem an odd fit for an English professor who studies experimental early 20th-century (i.e., “modernist”) authors like Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, this workshop, in fact, represented an ideal opportunity. My research focuses on literature’s relationship to emerging technological developments; more specifically, I explore how modernist writers were developing strategies, in their literary texts, to help readers acknowledge and learn how to navigate their increasingly information-saturated world. As I frame it, these modernists aim to cultivate in readers the capacity to “think cybernetically”—that is, to develop strategies for responding in creative and generative ways to the 20th century’s complex sociocultural (and socio-technical) environment [2, p. 5]. These ideas and questions happened to align beautifully with the SaSSO workshop theme, given its emphasis on issues related to sustainability and scalability and its systems-level perspective on understanding the complex networks that shape humans’ relationships with one another, the world, and technological tools.1 I hope that they will also appeal to and resonate with readers of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

These modernists aim to cultivate in readers the capacity to “think cybernetically”—that is, to develop strategies for responding in creative and generative ways to the 20th century’s complex sociocultural (and socio-technical) environment.

The extended version of my argument about what we might call “Modernist Literary Cybernetics”2 appears in my new monograph, Cybernetic Aesthetics: Modernist Networks of Information and Data [2]. The book’s aspirations are twofold. On the one hand, it sets out to introduce modernist literature scholars to concepts and theories from cybernetics. These include things like Norbert Wiener’s experiments with feedback loops and prediction mechanisms during World War II, Claude Shannon’s mathematical definition of information with its interplay between pattern and randomness, W. Ross Ashby’s black-box construct as a tool of observation for psychologists, and Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s embrace of reflexivity during the shift to second-order cybernetics.3 By explaining the premises and applications of these ideas, and then presenting close analysis of examples from literary and other cultural examples, I make the case for cybernetics’ relevance to modernism and for modernist literature’s significance as a cultural precursor to cybernetics. On the other hand, I hope to engage engineers and technologists who are interested in the social and cultural networks that shape scientific developments; readers of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, I suspect, overwhelmingly would fit this description. I am, therefore, delighted to have the chance, in this short piece, to invite you to consider how the experimental world of modernist literature might provide valuable strategies and approaches for grappling with the daunting socio-technical questions we face today. Most broadly, then, to quote the Cybernetic Aesthetics “Introduction”: “I hope that this [research] will cultivate new interdisciplinary connections as it brings humanities scholarship into conversation with the science and technology communities, showcasing the potential for STEM fields to inform literary study and for literary analysis to alter STEM frameworks” [2, pp. 8–9].

What follows is a version of part of the argument that appears in the final chapter of Cybernetic Aesthetics, in which I present a triangulated comparative analysis of ideas and motifs that appear in work by three authors: Gertrude Stein, Margaret Mead, and Mary Catherine Bateson [2, pp. 106–140]. To provide a bit of background, Stein was a modernist avant-garde author and early 20th-century literary celebrity. She was known for her densely opaque and repetitive-sounding poetics, as well as for being the host of the famous Parisian artists’ salon that was frequented by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Mead was an anthropologist whose first monograph was focused on her time living with and studying Samoan culture in the 1920s [3]. In addition, she is usually the lone female figure we hear about in conjunction with the mid-century Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, and she is touted as inaugurating—along with her husband, Gregory Bateson—the turn to “second-order cybernetics” in the late 1960s [4]. Finally, we have Mary Catherine Bateson, a linguist and cultural anthropologist who grew up hobnobbing with the cybernetics big-wigs (Mead and G. Bateson were her parents). She published many books, and later in her career especially, she turned to deeply personal questions of women’s experience in modernity and considerations of ecological balance [5], [6], [7]. When considered in conversation with one another, Stein, Mead, and M. C. Bateson offer overlapping arguments about the extent to which we need to engage at the “micro level” (i.e., the individual) when we seek to achieve insights at the “macro level” of complex systems (i.e., society, ecosystems); they invite us to consider the new relationships, insights, and priorities that come into view when new technologies enable us to scale up our perspectives on ourselves, our societies, our environments; and they prompt us to consider carefully how questions of scale exist in productive tension as we attempt to navigate an ethical position with respect to the world we inhabit and the work we do within it.

A few overarching positions, premises, and ambitions unite these three thinkers and set the stage for the comparisons I will draw between some specific examples in their writing. To begin, Stein, Bateson, and Mead are all fundamentally interested in theorizing culture. That is probably not surprising for the two anthropologists, but it is also true of Stein. She may have left the United States for France in her 20s and returned only once (in 1934, for a celebrity tour after her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklass was a major hit with American markets [8]); however, she was intensely preoccupied with her home country’s culture to the point where many critics view her as a kind of autobiographical ethnographer who is perpetually trying to capture the essential American-ness of America in her descriptions of the country, its people, its spaces, and its systems [9, p. 66]. So, this shared identity links the three authors as theorists of culture—often, specifically of their own culture.

In this self-consciously reflexive focus, Stein’s work resonates with the discourse of second-order cybernetics, a movement within the broader disciplinary trajectory of cybernetics [4], [10], [11] with which both Margaret Mead and Mary Catherine Bateson are closely linked. All three authors share the common goal of finding ways in their writing to use this (self-)reflexive perspective to defamiliarize the quotidian so that we can better understand our own embedded positions with respect to the social, environmental, and political systems we inhabit. And, of particular relevance to the IEEE community, they each mobilize what they consider to be important new scales of reference that technology made available in the 20th century. They do so to help readers perceive the world differently. That is, they want us to adjust our perspectives to become attuned to the increasing urgency with which we need to confront the ethical implications and potential impacts of our actions in the world. Technological systems are incredibly important to Stein, Mead, and Bateson, and they hold a somewhat paradoxical status: technology, they all demonstrate, has the generative capacity to change our perspective and awaken us to new ways of seeing the world. But technology also raises the stakes of our actions—it places upon us new demands related to accountability and responsibility.

When considered in conversation with one another, Stein, Mead, and M. C. Bateson offer overlapping arguments about the extent to which we need to engage at the “micro level” (i.e., the individual) when we seek to achieve insights at the “macro level” of complex systems (i.e., society, ecosystems).

Methodologically, Stein, Bateson, and Mead frequently mobilize comparative analysis (as well as the related rhetorical strategies of metaphor and analogy) to illustrate their points. Following their lead, I would like to introduce you to the motif of air travel in their writing. This theme showcases the broader set of shared ideas I have just outlined, and it also attunes us to the specific insights each writer brings to the conversation. I will spend time with each author before offering some concluding thoughts about how their ideas complement and strengthen one another when we read them side by side, and also how we might transpose and apply their “lessons” when we think about present-day socio-technical contexts.

Gertrude Stein: Aerial Perspective and Aesthetic Defamiliarization

In Stein’s writing, aerial perspective becomes a stand-in for the perceptual disruptiveness of new technology and also an exemplar for the notion that unexpected aesthetic experiences can be a source of generative defamiliarization, that is, they can make familiar experiences, observations, practices, objects, and so on, feel strange. The following two passages come from her second autobiography, published in 1937, which is titled—rather paradoxically— Everybody’s Autobiography [12]. I encourage you to try reading the passages aloud, to get a flavor of her writing (with its characteristically looping style and disavowal of most common practices of punctuation):

One of the things in flying over America is the lot of water, there is a lot of land of course there is a lot of land but there is a lot of water. Everywhere of course where there is land there is a lot of water, in France in motoring you are always crossing bridges but then the water is a small lot of water but in America particularly when later we flew over the valley of the Mississippi there was a great deal of water[.]  Of course really the most impressive water to fly over is where there is no water and that is over the region before Salt Lake City, there it is the bottom of the ocean and when you have once seen the bottom of the ocean without any water as one sees it there it is a little foolish that the ocean should have water, it would be so much more interesting to look at if it had no water. Rivers are different, rivers are more interesting with water than without water. Well anyway [12, pp. 222–223].

In this passage, we witness how Stein’s encounter with a new twentieth-century technological possibility—commercial flight—has profound implications for her perspective on the world and her ability to move through it. She can cover distance more quickly than she could via ground travel; understand the landscape by comparing flying across America to driving through France; and adopt a perspective that assumes an enlarged geological and global scale, thanks to the insight that the Salt Lake region’s appearance offers into the contours and likely aesthetic beauty of hidden oceanic topography.

In this next passage, the emphasis shifts to a commentary about art and its relationship to modernity. Here, Stein’s vantage point within the airplane, looking down on the landscape, serves as the source for her ability to make unexpected connections and generate what she considers to be some significant insights about perception within modernity.

It was then in a kind of way that I really began to know what the ground looked like. Quarter sections make a picture and going over America like that made anyone know why the post-cubist painting was what it was. The wandering line of Masson was there the mixed line of Picasso coming and coming again and following itself into a beginning was there, the simple solution of Braque was there and I suppose Léger might be there but I did not see it not over there. Particularly the track of a wagon making a perfect circle and then going back to the corner from where they had come and later in the South as finally, we went everywhere by air and always wanted the front seat so I could look down and what is the use, the earth does look like that and even if none of them had seen it and they had not very likely had not but since everyone was going to see it they had to see it like that [12, p. 197].

In this admittedly meandering description, a significant connection emerges, for Stein, between the look of the American landscape as seen from the air and the stylistic characteristics of post-cubist painting. Despite the apparent anachronism of the claim, she proposes that, even though the artists she mentions probably had not seen the ground from the air, the fact that what they ended up painting did look like what the Earth looks like from the air makes it not only reasonable, but also somehow necessary to those two perspectives as connected to one another. In this particular case, an arresting aesthetic juxtaposition is enabled by flight technology; it provides a source of defamiliarization that allows Stein to enhance her perception of a national category (America) and an aesthetic movement (post-cubist painting), both of which she cares deeply about. Throughout her work, this type of unexpected recognition of equivalence happens all the time, as Stein asks us to acknowledge repeating patterns across vastly separate technological, artistic, interpersonal, and geographic fields.4

Mary Catherine Bateson: Planetary Perspective, Improvised Action

I will turn now to part two of this three-part comparative air-travel-based snapshot. And following Stein’s utter disregard for logical chronology, I am going to skip ahead to Mary Catherine Bateson. The passage below comes from Bateson’s monograph, Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way, which is an autobiographical reflection on the experiences she has had living in and studying various cultures around the world [5]. In this text, Bateson echoes Stein’s argument about the ways in which technological developments in aerial mobility (now into outer space) enable new, larger-scale strategies of observation and modes of perception, and she also introduces a startling aesthetic comparison:

We [now] have the possibility of borrowing the stained-glass mandala to refer to the living planet of which we are part, setting it beside the actual photograph of the earth [sic] taken from space, making the medieval fascination with circularity a symbol of ecology. No other being that we know of, no generation in our history, is capable of juxtaposing these images or imagining that analogy. We live today with multiple representations, some we call science and some we call art, precise, abstract, vivid, and evocative, each one proposing new connections [5, p. 52].

Bateson echoes Stein’s argument about the ways in which technological developments in aerial mobility (now into outer space) enable new, larger-scale strategies of observation and modes of perception.

In mobilizing the aesthetic possibilities of space travel and the vision of Earth it affords, Bateson offers a late-20th-century update to the vision of interconnected North American river networks and landscape-to-art comparisons that Stein can conjure, thanks to the aerial perspective of her transcontinental flight. Bateson’s larger argument invokes some of the same comparative, cross-disciplinary frameworks for understanding the underlying patterns of contemporary culture and communication that Stein draws on, and I think they might be useful perspectives for interdisciplinary thinkers today. “With the instruments and findings of science,” Bateson proposes, “we can refine a given pattern of perception, but the mental imposition of a pattern of meaning is the only way to encounter the world. Without it, we are effectively blind. We move through metaphors and analogies, learning through mistakes” [5, p. 53]. The key point of connection here is that technology—and, more specifically, technology that enables access to a broader scale of perception than was previously available—serves, for both Bateson and Stein, as a generative source for new metaphors, analogies, and juxtapositions. Those comparative and accumulative individual insights enable us to construct larger-scale understandings of our sociocultural environments; in turn, they help us determine our best courses of action within them. As Bateson puts it, “often material objects turn out to be diagrams, cognitive maps, that share our space, teach our children, and argue for ways of organizing experience” [5, p. 24]. She and Stein are teaching their readers about a form of self-reflexive awareness connected to cybernetic principles of data processing, feedback, and adjustment. They invite us to pursue habits of mind and attitudes of perception that will equip us to effectively move through our present-day culture, to understand the patterns that surround us, and to strategically improvise our responses to them.

Margaret Mead: Airport Infrastructure, Technology’s Disruptive Potential

Margaret Mead adds a bit of a different angle to the comparative mix since in the text I will discuss, she is more directly speaking to technologists than either Stein or Bateson were. Mead delivered a keynote address titled “Cybernetics of Cybernetics” [16] at the inaugural meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC). The talk is cited as an important contribution to cybernetics’ second-order turn [4]; interestingly (at least for my comparative purposes), it returns us to the theme of technological developments in air travel and their implications for human observational and perceptual capacities. Situated midway between Stein’s [12] vision of America as seen from an airplane window and Bateson’s [5] meditation on the analogy-generating potential inherent in the image of Earth as seen from outer space, Mead’s cold-war-era keynote deploys the airport as a motif to provide critical commentary on cultural awareness—or, as Krippendorff summarizes the talk’s goal, on “how [cybernetic] systems are changing society in unprecedented ways” [4, p. 181]. She offers a detailed discussion of the implications of this relatively new infrastructural phenomenon, focusing most specifically on the fact that when you build a new airport, you need to get things right the first time. After all, the scale of influence and potential effect that an airport wields within a nationalized or globalized system of communication and transportation networks means that the consequences of any error in design, construction, and roll-out can be dire. Mead worries about—and invites fellow cyberneticians to grapple with—what she perceives as a decreasing “interest in the human components of complex automated and computerized systems,” especially since “we are living in a society where one mistake can dislocate the lives of thousands of people, wreck distribution systems, and distort life-history data, and subsequent career lines” [16, p. 7].

These observations foreground the ways in which the 20th-century’s expanding technological capabilities simultaneously fuel cybernetics work and raise the potential disruptions and damage that innovation can bring. Given this context, Mead proposes in closing that the cyberneticians who are part of the ASC urgently need to adopt self-reflexive, self-critical orientations to their own pursuits and discipline [16]. Krippendorff’s insightful analysis of the talk emphasizes how “the reflexive turn that Mead advocated  calls on cyberneticians to not only attend to how they contribute to the ongoing transformations of society but also be accountable for their effects”—in other words, she encourages “the discourse of cybernetics to embrace the context of its social consequences” [4, p. 181]. This call becomes all the more urgent within our own historical moment, as we confront the climate crisis, political polarization, and dramatic socioeconomic disparity at every scale from the most local to the global.

Taken Together: Environmental Awareness + Attention To The Individual

Returning to the through-line that has linked my three examples, Mead’s decision to root her appeal in this image of the airport is significant in the way it highlights the role this emergent infrastructural phenomenon plays in suturing individual communities and urban centers to a vast global network in which people, goods, and information circulate. The technological transportation hub holds rich possibilities whether for Stein, contemplating the fact that a trans-Pacific flight is something she could actually do [12, pp. 302–303]; Bateson, pondering the wonder of a NASA photograph that was made possible by the Kennedy Space Center launch site; or Mead, asking us to recognize the culturally transformative power that air traffic controllers wield in their towers.

This comparison reveals what I see as a spatially—and, by extension, an environmentally —expansive impulse at the heart of all three authors’ perspectives; that is, they are committed to thinking through the big-picture questions and patterns that characterize their historical, cultural, social, and technological moments. But at the same time, they do not ever lose sight of the small-scale details. In other places of their writing, it is the minutiae of life that occupy the page: Stein writes about how her aunts sit around gossiping while performing mundane housework tasks, and in doing so, help her understand how seemingly repetitive acts always contain particular and distinct inflections [17, p. 169]; Bateson reflects on a collection of trinkets she has collected throughout her travels, labeling them “desk friends” and marveling at their power to evoke sensorily rich memories [5, pp. 15–16]; and Mead’s charged warnings are couched within the context of a talk she delivers to her colleagues and friends—people with whom she has collaborated for decades. As she summarizes during her keynote, anthropological work is an inherently inductive project, involving “the intensive analysis of very small, relatively isolated, and intimately known communities which serve as living models from which one can sometimes develop larger, more formal models” [16, p. 1]. Like the broader group of cybernetics theorists that I discuss in the Cybernetic Aesthetics book as a whole, these three writers are attuned to patterns in unexpected (or seemingly unpredictable) places (à la Wiener/Shannon); and to searching for ways to find meaning and direct action when the perception of the whole is impossible (à la Ashby).

Mead’s decision to root her appeal in the image of the airport is significant in the way it highlights the role this emergent infrastructural phenomenon plays in suturing individual communities and urban centers to a vast global network in which people, goods, and information circulate.

To my reading, these authors’ engagements with aerial perspective together generates a series of invitations that can be helpful within the type of interdisciplinary space that not only the 2023 SaSSO workshop in Toronto, but also the broader IEEE SSIT community represents. Inspired by Stein, we can try to welcome rather than resist the unexpected aesthetic jolts we encounter during moments of profound defamiliarization (even if they are puzzling, uncomfortable, and/or anachronistic, and if they come from outside of our typical disciplinary frameworks). Taking a cue from Bateson, we can value the rich particularity of individual experiences, and look for ways to connect those experiences to their broader socio-technical contexts. Bateson calls this “culture vision” [5, p. 120], and I think it is a provocative call for technologists. And on Mead’s cautionary note, we should take seriously the enormous capacity for disruption in the technical and technological systems we are developing; this should be true whether those systems are designed for micro- or macro-purposes, for the consolidating goals of centralization or the more fragmented, heterogeneous ambitions of decentralization. If you would like to read more about how modernist authors’ literary experiments interface with these technological and scientific discourses, I welcome you to check out Cybernetic Aesthetics. More broadly, though, I hope that you will seek out and explore sources of generative defamiliarization that challenge your current perspective on today’s socio-technical systems and awaken you to new ways of ethically relating to the world.

Author Information

Heather A. Love is an assistant professor of English with the University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1, Canada. Her research and teaching focus on interdisciplinary approaches to communication, literature, technology, and society.

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