For some time now, I have been working around what I call techno-diagrammatics. This notion is the product of my study of an old, unpublished manuscript Stafford Beer developed during his last visit to Chile in June-July 1973; a document in which he attempted to model the dynamics of contemporary capitalism, and that I had access to thanks to the generosity and support of project Cybersyn’s former operations director Raul Espejo. The manuscript has two parts, the central element being a hand-drawn diagram (I’m referring and presenting only a small portion of it here). Beer’s main argument there was that the most powerful way to counterbalance the dynamics of contemporary capitalism entailed updating Marxism via cybernetics. In that vein, he used the language of electric engineering to sketch a general model of contemporary societies, which at the same time criticizes and praises (other types of) Marxism.
As one may expect, the result is provocative. Very few people have had access to this document, and some of them have reacted either with skepticism or critically. In her book Cybernetic Revolutionaries scholar Eden Medina mentions the manuscript and the model stating that Beer’s use of the language of electric engineering “makes no sense” and that his discussion on Marxism may be “lacking” (2011, p. 199-200). Later, when I presented and explained the model in Berlin over a year ago, computer science researcher Stefan Höltgen became annoyed, contending that – I paraphrase from memory here – Beer had no idea how to build an electric circuit. I cannot but agree with them. At the same time, however, I think that those are not the issues at stake here. Alternatively, I argue that a document like this one invites to ask rather different questions; for example: why did Beer proclaim that cybernetics could update Marxism and thus operate as a platform to counterbalance contemporary capitalism? Why did Beer choose electric engineering symbology to diagrammatically unfold his proposal? And, perhaps more substantially, what would be both the media-archaeological and media-genealogical relevance of such an endeavor?
Convinced of the potentiality of these questions I decided to deploy an experimental and somewhat speculative media-archaeological analysis of Beer’s techno-diagram. Two inputs had a great influence on this decision. First, attending the online workshop “Diagram Diversity in the Light of Digital Humanities” organized by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Knowledge in November 2021, I remember consistently hearing the argument – I’m also recalling from memory here – that the history of diagrams, and of the knowledge they carry and activate, is one of repetition and correction; that is, that deciphering or clarifying the initial impulse of scientific diagrams has many times required subsequent amendments. Second, attending a seminar taught by Wolfgang Ernst in summer 2019 I became acquainted with the work of US-American ecologist H.T. Odum where, using “passive electrical analogs,” he modeled ecological systems. Therefore, my reasoning at this point was: could an approach similar to Odum’s, perhaps a more experimental one, be used to analyze, update, and thus assess the extent of Beer’s techno-diagram?
Thus, thanks to Sebastian Kawanami-Breu’s invitation, since last year I have been working on this once a week at Humboldt University’s Signal Lab. In the first phase I have focused my efforts on a portion of Beer’s diagram (layer one) where he models Marx’s general tenets on the operations that would have (in)formed modern societies under the influx of capitalism. At the same time, my initial goal was finding ways to activate this section of the diagram as an actual circuit; that is, that the electric flow could in effect circulate consistently and operate the actuators there placed. More importantly perhaps, were the questions about how the actors Beer includes in his techno-diagram could be represented using electric components. As the image above shows, Exploiters, the Exploited Class, and Commodity Production are represented with LEDs, where light and its brightness plays an important role. Similarly, the Class War between Exploiters and the Exploited Class is represented with a piezoelectric whose sound and volume also plays a key diagrammatic role. The image above also shows that I initially worked with a digital simulation. I tried a few programs for this and I finally arrived at TinkerCAD. This platform, due to its versatility and live simulation tool, is the one that best suits the needs of my experimental process.
Once I was able to make the circuit work properly, the next step was to implement it in the real. The image and video below give you an idea of the first material sketch (beware of the video’s audio which can be a little annoying). Consistently enough with another project I have been working on, there were many frictions in this transition. Some actuators didn’t work as consistently as the simulation showed, and the material used to implement the connections demanded of several iterations. After a couple of days, however, things started to work well and the material sketch operated as a proper techno-diagram, in the sense I conceive the notion.
In a couple of weeks I will update this post, probably through a separate entry. My aim is to show there that the very process of producing this sketch – first as a digital simulation, then as a material circuit – has offered me, although initial, very interesting insights to assess both the media-archaeological and media-genealogical relevance of Beer’s “Cybernetic Model of Contemporary Capitalism.” Similarly, I will explain how this experimental and speculative process also seems to suggest that the notion of techno-diagrammatics has a promising scope both as object of inquiry and research method. Before doing that, however, I’ll present these results in a couple of forums from which I expect to get insights that can help my process and these brief posts.
Before closing, I would like to add that in a recent article Raul Espejo (2022, p. 1175) has referred to Beer’s model and outlined its scope. Similarly, I have written a paper that explains the techno-diagram in detail (all its layers and interactions), which I hope can be finally published relatively soon. In the meantime, this post series aims to provide an initial introduction to the topic, the case, and the approach I’m developing.
[Update: you can now check the second part of this post here]
Berlin-Mitte, April 2023.