Knowledge and media history of control

Project leader Prof. Dr. Erich Hörl

Most of the discussions about sustainability are still dominated by a paradigm of control. The modern idea of control has emerged during the 20th century at the intersection of biology, ecology, economics and technology. It represents the rise of what can be called cybernetic rationality after the Second World War. Its iconic representation is the feedback loop and the associated ideal of achieving a desired state through technological intervention continues to influence an ever-increasing number of domains, including a large part of the current discourse on sustainability. This idea of control tracing back to theology, astronomy, medicine, sociology and the practice of governing has spread into most areas of our daily life, so that despite a growing skepticism about our ability to control complex phenomena the regulatory ideal still dominates most societal discussions.

Over the last decades ideas about control within cybernetics have, of courses, changed. We can distinguish at least three phases of the control imperative: (1) an expansion of the simple control paradigm; (2) the recognition of self-regulation and autopoiesis, and finally (3) the implementation of what has been called an environmental culture of control. It is precisely because of these transformations that the ideal of control became a dominating figure of our era’s imagination, even of its imaginary, one that could affect not only knowledge production and technological applications, but also the way people have come to see their own life. In short the control imaginary, as we want to designate it, is one of the key aspects of the cybernetic age that is characterized by the pervasive cyberneticization of all modes of existence and life forms.

Today we are still under the spell of this imaginary: we value being in control and lack of control. In the context of sustainability the idea of control not only guides practical interventions but also often the way sustainability science is conceptualized. Finally, the notion of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch characterized by the predominate influence of one species—Homo sapiens—further contributes to the need “to take control.” It is exactly this unreflected ideal of control we want to problematize in this project.

The imaginary qualities of the control ideal and the role of the cybernetic imperative have up to now only played a minor role in scholarly contributions to media and science history. What has not been studied at all, is the detailed history of those ideas, their internal transformations and the role they played in the conceptualization as well as the hopes and illusions connected to the idea of the Anthropocene and the goal of achieving a sustainable future. The (big data) historical analysis of scientific and popular ideas and discourses connected to regulation and control that is part of this project addresses this gap in scientific and media history. This is all the more important, as we also need to understand the origins of the growing dissatisfaction with the ideal of control and the emergence of possible alternatives.