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Cybernetic Environment

Dissertation Defense
April 2020

Full Dissertation

Abstract
This research constructs a field of inquiry – the cybernetic environment – between sciences, engineering, arts, and design. It interrogates and investigates the underlying mode of thought in emerging environmental practices revolving around cybernetic technologies – that is, environmental sensing, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics – in light of contemporary posthumanism cognition and more-than-human ontological concerns across disciplines. Emerging cybernetic practices across fields pose challenges which have been largely understudied, and may transform the ways in which we understand cybernetics, a 70-year-old concept.

In his book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), Norbert Wiener first publicly used the term “cybernetics” to refer to recursive and self-regulating mechanisms across biological and mechanical systems. Cybernetics positions communication – the exchange of information – at the center of control. This study offers an alternative interpretation of cybernetics – recursive and self-regulating mechanisms – in a non-communicative framework suggested by contemporary posthumanist thought.

This research argues that many concepts in contemporary environmental discourse, such as adaptive management, responsive landscapes, and smart cities, operate within the paradigm of the cybernetic system, but not in the paradigm of the cybernetic environment. They imagine the environment as systems and apply cybernetic thinking to optimize and control them. In contrast, the cybernetic environment paradigm emphasizes that the environment outside a system is not a homogeneous space, but a mesh of objects, assemblages, and mental processes that are withdrawn and reserved from human access. In this framework, which emphasizes the inability to communicate and wield control between objects, cybernetic thinking is no longer about control, but is instead a logic of coexistence with and attuning to more-than-human objects around us. In addition, cybernetic environments become reserves of great open-endedness and futures we cannot now imagine.

Public presentation


© 2021 Zihao Zhang