It has been a hot minute since I actually sat down and wrote a book review for my blog, rather than for one of the academic journals that I have done numerous reviews for over the past eighteen months. In truth, it has actually been some time since I sat down and finished an entire book that wasn’t specifically for thesis research and/or specific sections, chapters, or journal articles.
Rise of the Machines: the lost history of cybernetics by Thomas Rid is still sort of thesis research for me, given my focus on cyberspace. However, as I am not using cybernetic theory as a foundation of my research, this was sort of just fun reading for me as well. I’m not sure how other scholars feel about their research, but I find that the more time I spend in academia, the closer my personal interests align with my professional ones.
Cybernetics is sort of a pet interest of mine; my mentor, a former professor of mine, did some work on how cybernetic theory relates to the counterintelligence discipline some years ago, and I would actually like to follow him down that path one day; one day! It would be a little too much to take on right now, but he has given me permission to run with his fledgling ideas and move them forward one day. That’s a heavy weight to bear from a senior academic, but it is one I will bear with pride. That was one of the overriding reasons for me to pick up this book, though now that I have finished reading it I am really glad that I did.
Thomas Rid is an excellent writer, and an amazing researcher. Seriously, I can only hope to one day reach the sort of focus, determination, and sheer quantity of quality research that goes into his publications (he also wrote Cyber War Will Not Take Place). This book is no different. It is history presented by era, notable ideas or events, and notable figures in those times periods. More impressively is the way all of this has been woven together, later sections referencing earlier ones and building the foundation for subsequent chapters.
My initial understanding of cybernetics (from my mentor, years ago), was based on the Greek root term which meant ‘to steer’. Rid talks about the origins of the term ‘cyber’ throughout the books, and the many ways in which it has been used throughout the last seven or so decades. Cybernetics, essentially, is the science (or philosophy) of feedback; in terms of intelligence or counterintelligence, where I first came across the term, feedback is an utterly essential part of the process. Indeed, feedback is essential to getting anywhere in life. Feedback is ubiquitous, and ubiquitously utilized: feedback on what you see affects the instructions your brain gives your body about how to move around; what to pick up; if there is anything in your way. Cybernetic feedback is about (mechanical) systems, and more recently of course in inextricably entwined with the idea of cyberspace, or that virtual spaces that exists within, between, and among computing systems and networks.
I really recommend picking this book up. Obviously, if you’re a tech or security nerd, this is the book for you. Beyond that, though, this is just a generally good read and does a brilliant job of bringing occasionally complex ideas to a level everybody can understand: de-academia-ing, if you will, ideas that have and do affect pretty much everybody.
5 star read, people.
Featured image: my own, with my copy of the book, and my post-it notes.
Inserted image: my own, with my copy of the book and my cup of coffee.
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