The future is built every day in the present, and what we do today is informed by multiple histories. For all of us here in the School of Cybernetics at the Australian National University, this insight shapes everything we do in observing and intervening in new technologies.
The School of Cybernetics is the first new school to be created at the Australian National University in several decades. As we keep saying to ourselves – no pressure! The School aims to re/animate cybernetics for the 21st century—a time when evolving disruptions like the pandemic present new opportunities for holistic system redesigns. Whilst there are early versions, the twentieth–century instantiation of cybernetics first found form in the 1940s and 1950s as a response to the rapid expansion in computing technology following World War II. As a field, cybernetics fused maths, engineering, and philosophy with biology, psychology, anthropology, and many others. It was robustly interdisciplinary before that term was in common currency. It theorised an approach to next-generation computational systems that encompassed technology, culture, and the environment. For those wanting to explore cybernetics further, there are a couple of helpful starting points: Thomas Rid’s The Rise of the Machines, Norbert Weiner’s Cybernetics, and for a different way in: Jasia Reichardt’s catalogue for the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition. Oh, and if you suddenly had 30 minutes free – here’s me talking about it, too.
For me at least, Cybernetics feels like a generative intellectual wellspring; it has helped shape everything from AI to critical systems theory, computer-driven art and music, design thinking, and the internet. The idea of cybernetics—of steering a technological object, and of the idea of humans in the loop, and of the environment in that same loop—feels hopeful and, just as importantly, actionable. To my mind, complex dynamic systems require new models of leadership, new kinds of critical thinking and critical doing, and new sorts of training.
Today, our team here at the School believes there is an imperative to reappraise and refit cybernetics for the 21st century and to design, drive, and sustain a program of strategic activities around a new cybernetics. Doing this will also require telling new stories about the future; and, at this moment in time, there are few stories of the future that are as intriguing as the current metaverse narrative.
Obviously, the idea of the metaverse has at least one clear history. As a term, it was coined by American novelist Neal Stephenson and first appeared in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. It is a story that has its own politic and moment in time, and one that has shaped many conversations since. For Stephenson, the metaverse was a collective virtual space made possible by computational power, online gaming and commerce, virtual and augmented reality, and high-speed connectivity. It was, in 1992, a vision, albeit an intensely complicated one, about the future of computing. Or as Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggests, the metaverse is a story about the future of the internet: “It’s an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”
The metaverse, as imagined by Stephenson and indeed Zuckerberg, is also a story about the worlds we build and the ways in which we chose to occupy them. This story is about world-building, as other deeper histories, which are instructive. Elsewhere I have written about the pre-history of the metaverse and its relationship to World’s Fairs, starting with the Great Exhibition of 1851.
In that context, I wrote:
There is an easy seductiveness to stories that cast a technology as brand-new, or at the very least that don’t belabor long, complicated histories. Seen this way, the future is a space of reinvention and possibility, rather than something intimately connected to our present and our past. But histories are more than just backstories. They are backbones and blueprints and maps to territories that have already been traversed. Knowing the history of a technology, or the ideas it embodies, can provide better questions, reveal potential pitfalls and lessons already learned, and open a window onto the lives of those who learned them.
Unfolding some of the pre-histories of the metaverse feels like a timely exercise; similarly, focusing on the metaverse as a cybernetic system, where the interplay of the technical, social, cultural, regulatory, and environmental is explored. What is compelling and intriguing is the idea of applying cybernetic principles to the metaverse—to the process of designing the entirety of this open, complex adaptive system comprising the virtual and material, whose form and limits are fluid, whose creation is profoundly human and would most probably reflect the triumphs and failures of human values, politics, power, and our shared accountability for one another and for this planet, without which the metaverse cannot exist.
Building the metaverse is creating the future, and that task demands systems thinking. The future of computing technologies cannot be interrogated and imagined in isolation from the human and ecological aspects and the dynamic causal relationships between them all.
Through our graduate and research programs, professional education experiences, and industry engagements, the School has been working hard to make this new way of thinking about the future accessible to everyone. We are delighted that Meta is committed to supporting our approach.
Stay tuned for more updates and follow us on our social media pages for announcements.
In 2020, Meta announced the XR Programs and Research Fund, a two-year USD $50 million (approx AU$65 million) investment into a number of research programs to build the metaverse responsibly. We’re pleased to announce our first Australian partner, the Australian National University (ANU) School of Cybernetics who will receive a research gift as part of this fund to continue their work focussed on cybernetic systems, including the metaverse.