The Biological Computer Laboratory

The BCL and the Cybernetics Moment


The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) was a major second order cybernetics lab. To its founder, Heinz von Foerster, second-order cybernetics constitutes a “cybernetics of cybernetics,” one necessary to see how observers set out their own purpose in their observation of systems and approach questions of social responsibility critically. Put more simply, second order cybernetics considers how one as an observer impacts a system - how perception itself (both biologically and subjectively) factors into how one understands a system. 

This was a radical turn for its time, one that remains at the periphery in thinking about science and technology. Andrew Pickering presents the emphasis on biological computing within cybernetics during the 1950s and 1960s as a productive alternative to modern technoscience. He focuses on British cyberneticians like W. Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, and Gordon Pask. Rather than further the modernist project of gathering knowledge and applying it to control nature, biological computing does not seek to “understand” nature, but to experiment with inputs and outputs, acknowledging the very impossibility of knowing nature. While BCL innovations engaged in a very similar mode of experimentation, Pickering’s discussion of biological computing – the very namesake of the BCL – ignores the BCL’s work. This reflects to a significant extent the omission of von Foerster's and the BCL’s work within cybernetics literature.

von Foerster was an important figure in the famous Macy Conferences on cybernetics, and kept the lab going from 1958 to the mid-1970s in large part due to how savvy he was at accruing military funding for its projects. This, perhaps ironically, was also a dependence that would lead to its downfall. Military funding of campus projects fell under more and more scrutiny due to the anti-war campus outcry of the era.

The BCL, with little to no university support for its highly interdisciplinary work, was unable to sustain itself without this funding, lacking the clear military applications that arose to secure said funding. The lab often had to contend with grand visions of artificial intelligence in similar lab spaces that were incongruous with BCL designs and philosophies. Given the particulars of the historical moment, these visions grew more popular than the BCL's diverse and pioneering efforts. BCL students covered in this book – Murray Babcock, Paul Weston, JK Russell, John Day, Stuart Umpleby, Paul Schroeder, Valerie Lamont, and Steve Sloan – cover the range of technical and activist strains inherent in the BCL’s output.

At its peak, the BCL was interdisciplinary in scope and drew in a range of prominent intellectuals to campus, from John Cage to Margaret Mead. Unlike other recognizable cybernetics labs at the time at Stanford and MIT that were located on the coasts, the BCL's Midwestern location enabled a certain level of innovation without grant figures breathing down its neck constantly. This, in part, made the BCL stand out from comparable centers; it was far more experimental in its research and pedagogy.

The lab was a tight-knit and highly social space that cross-pollinated in often unexpected and contentious ways with other interdisciplinary deign efforts hosted on campus at the time. This book highlights these often forgotten efforts in the history of technology. Further, it imbricates BCL innovations as both social and technical, being reflective of the lab's countercultural context as well as being student-centered and grassroots in scope.

The book's sections thus overview the BCL's alternative approach to both social and technical design. The book concludes with a set of three timelines on the BCL that present it more fully in terms of its national and countercultural context to show how its work resists easy definition and clearly predates various related innovations by several decades that would receive more acclaim than its early experiments in such areas. To start, it outlines BCL innovations that cybernetics scholars have largely discussed solely as technological artifacts before detailing BCL initiatives as grassroots, social, and pedagogical innovations.

*Note: This book is part of the work of the Humanities Without Walls Innovation in the Global Midwest research cluster. This Mellon-funded research collaboration brings together scholars from UIUC, Purdue University, and the University of Minnesota. It adopts a distinct approach to innovation studies by looking to shed light on interdisciplinary digital developments in the Midwest – from educational and public computing, to precision agriculture and rural big data processing, to electro-acoustic design – that necessarily bridged expertise from social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, and humanities; and that have frequently been overlooked, even as they have played roles in reshaping global disciplinary imaginaries, markets, and ecologies. We propose a strategy to develop a means to extend research and pedagogical resources – both existing and proposed, and both physical and digital – to expand greater visibility of such local, multi-disciplinary histories around collaborative regional innovation.

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