The Cybernetic Brain Sketches of Another Future
by Andrew Pickering
University of Chicago Press, 2010
Cloth: 978-0-226-66789-8 | Paper: 978-0-226-66790-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-66792-8


Cybernetics is often thought of as a grim military or industrial science of control. But as Andrew Pickering reveals in this beguiling book, a much more lively and experimental strain of cybernetics can be traced from the 1940s to the present.

The Cybernetic Brain explores a largely forgotten group of British thinkers, including Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, R. D. Laing, Stafford Beer, and Gordon Pask, and their singular work in a dazzling array of fields. Psychiatry, engineering, management, politics, music, architecture, education, tantric yoga, the Beats, and the sixties counterculture all come into play as Pickering follows the history of cybernetics’ impact on the world, from contemporary robotics and complexity theory to the Chilean economy under Salvador Allende. What underpins this fascinating history, Pickering contends, is a shared but unconventional vision of the world as ultimately unknowable, a place where genuine novelty is always emerging. And thus, Pickering avers, the history of cybernetics provides us with an imaginative model of open-ended experimentation in stark opposition to the modern urge to achieve domination over nature and each other.


Andrew Pickering is professor and chair of sociology at the University of Exeter. He is the author of several books, including Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics and The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science, both published by the University of Chicago Press.


"The Cybernetic Brain is a rich, ambitious, and highly original work—and a gently hopeful one. Pickering has really written two books in one. The first is a history of the work of several key British cyberneticians and its impact on subsequent scientific and cultural debates. The second is a quietly passionate critique of modernist ways of knowing and being and a plea for the reintroduction of the sorts of practice-based, adaptable, techno-social modes common to cybernetic inquiry. Pickering weaves the analysis and the advocacy together across the book, and his vision of what a non-modern world might look like—or in fact, has looked like—is novel and compelling and will substantially extend our understanding of contemporary technoculture."

— Fred Turner, Stanford University

"What a lovely book this is—it tells a great story from the history of cybernetics and at the same time examines in innovative ways the complex ontological work they were doing. Pickering shows how 'ontology' is integrally about machines, materiality and philosophy—developing what I would call a theory of exploratory ontology."

— Geoffrey C. Bowker, University of Pittsburgh

"By focusing on the developments in Britain, Andrew Pickering's The Cybernetic Brain opens wide new vistas for exploring cybernetic practice and its legacy. For Pickering . . . cybernetics was primarily a science of the brain. As a protean science with connections to psychiatry, theater, music, politics, and counterculture, it was a lot more glamorous and fun than previous accounts of the field would have us believe."
— Science

"Entertaining. . . . The Cybernetic Brain is the first book-length account of UK cybernetics pioneers."—Nature
— Nature

"A significant contribution to the field."
— Choice



1. The Adaptive Brain

2. Ontological Theater

Part 1: Psychiatry to Cybernetics

3. Grey Walter: From Electroshock to the Psychedelic Sixties

4. Ross Ashby: Psychiatry, Synthetic Brains, and Cybernetics

5. Gregory Bateson and R. D. Laing: Symmetry, Psychiatry, and the Sixties

Part 2: Beyond the Brain

6. Stafford Beer: From the Cybernetic Factory to Tantric Yoga

7. Gordon Pask: From Chemical Computers to Adaptive Archictecture

8. Sketches of Another Future