Red Cybernetics

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Johan Soderbergh:

"The revolutionary bravado of this paper reflects a long tradition of utopian thought in engineering, a tradition in which the progressive application of human reason to nature is projected to make the market obsolete. This promise comes in at least two versions. One tendency, epitomised by the ‘red cyberneticists’ in the Soviet Union, primarily objects to the irrationality of the price mechanism, and strives to replace the market with computers as a means of allocating resources (Dyer-Witheford, 2013). The second tendency, to which Rep-rap project arguably belongs, looks forward to the day when wealth is so abundant that scarcity will have been superseded, and markets with it. But the quote testifies to another constant also historically prevalent in engineering thought, namely an uneasiness about conflicts of values and interests that might erupt in violence. To avoid this scenario, emancipation must be derived from the manipulation of natural laws that evolve independently of human consciousness and deliberations. This corresponds to a vision in which the market society, or whatever part of it is held to be undesirable, is to be overcome through a (second, third…) industrial revolution. By contrast, the opposing understanding of revolution situates human freedom in a radical break with the past and with the chain of causality that rules in nature. Another way to understand the word “revolution” in both these cases, is as “politics”. What is at stake, then, is two different understandings of how to think and do politics. The first prescribes technological development as a means of promoting social change, while the second puts its faith in popular mobilisation and the articulation of conflict. It is not my intention to compare and contrast the two ideas of revolution/politics in order to show one of them (i.e. the engineer’s vision) to be wrong. Instead, this paper explores their common historical roots and interdependencies. There was a time when there was no clear separation between the politics of the engineer and the politics of the social reformer/militant (cf. Jamison, 2006). As we will see later, the parting of the ways had something to do with the rebellious weavers of Lyon, the world’s first computerised workers. If I choose to stress the commonalities rather than the divergences, it is partly because the two ways of thinking and doing revolution/politics seem about to converge again. Geeks and engineers are forced to engage in parliamentary politics in response to intellectual property laws and related enforcement regimes. Social activists, in turn, are compelled to become acquainted with natural science and engineering in order to make sense of the social conflicts characteristic of today’s world".