Cybernetica Mesopotamica

A Balzan Foundation Research Project

I. The Project

Cybernetica”   “Mesopotamica
The project’s title

Giorgio Buccellati – November 2022

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A civilizational model

If there is a mold to the modern conception of the world, to rules of social living, to the expression of thoughts in writing, its first explicit traces will be found in the “Fertile Crescent,” the ancient Near East, along the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates. In Mesopotamia.

As more and more fragments of homes and temples, pottery and tablets are freed from the grip of the earth, we begin to decode the patterns of our cultural imprinting. We come to a better understanding of our civilizational make-up, of – ourselves.

This grandiose vision of history depends on an incalculable amount of data, all of which have come out of the ground over the last two centuries. Which presents us with two equally immense problems: (1) how do we account for the quantity of data retrieved, and (2) how do we make sense of them so as to recover the inner meaning of a culture that had disappeared under its own collapse.

The goal of Cybernetica Mesopotamica is to broach these problems with a view towards creating a methodological model that may develop to the fullest the potential of the website as a proper epistemic system.

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From cybernetics to AI and IT

The term “cybernetics” was introduced in 1948 by Norbert Wiener. As the author relates (p. 18), much thought went into the choice of the word, the full meaning of which is brought out in the subtitle of his book: “or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.”

The act of control refers to the process through which knowledge is communicated, and one can focus on either the controller or the controlled.

(1) Who or what exercises control? There are levels of control that can be delegated to the “machine”, i.e., interactions among aspects of knowledge that can be initiated and followed in their autonomous feedback. The trend has been to privilege more and more the machine, and in this regard cybernetics has morphed into Artificial Intelligence (AI).

(2) What is being controlled? Here, too, the trend has been to steer us away from the human: knowledge as a dynamic way to confront reality has come to be seen as information, as a static and self-standing piece of reality, a thing that is more suited for the machine to control. In this regard, cybernetics has morphed into Information Technology (IT).

It appears that in current use AI and IT have overtaken cybernetics, which has receded into the background as an operational term.

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In our title, we go back to the term “cybernetics” advisedly, with the specific intent of maintaining the proper balance between the spheres of the human (or “animal,” as Wiener would have it) and of the machine. A central goal of our project is in fact the development and application of a website theory that is meant to point to a proper place for what is ultimately the human dimension of this relationship.

Ultimately, Wiener’s “kybernētēs or steersman” has to be human. And this not only because the initial design is human, but also because digitality necessitates a changed human mental template in the confrontation with digitality and in particular with the website as a new epistemic system. See also below.

The second part of our title indicates that “cybernetics” is here concerned with Mesopotamia. In this regard, the aspect of control and communication varies depending on whether we take the adjective “Mesopotamica” to refer to the object or the subject of cybernetics.

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“Mesopotamia” as the object

In the first case, cybernetics is applied to Mesopotamian material as the object of study. It is what the phrase first brings to mind: using digital tools in dealing with archaeological data, with ancient texts, with the modern scholarship about Mesopotamia. This we do, in our project, in two ways.

The first is to use digitality as a technique, and the second is to show how one must develop a new mental template in dealing with digitality. The latter has a broader import because it applies, beyond Mesopotamian material, to any kind of knowledge: we look then at “knowledge” as something that is deeper than the data and the information we can gather about them. Something that is so human that it ultimately (and happily) escapes both AI and IT. And yet, something we must still deal with digitally – i.e., “cybernetically.” It is the notion of digital discourse.

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“Mesopotamia” as the subject

Ironically perhaps, the notion of “digital discourse” can be better understood by considering a deeper valence to our title, one that is hidden and has unexpected consequences. We look now at Mesopotamian culture as the subject of the cybernetic effort.

At face value, this may be taken to imply that we attribute digitality to that culture – which is obviously impossible if we restrict “cybernetics” to its electronic incarnation. Rather, we take the term “cybernetics” in its original sense, referring to the intellectual effort at controlling communication by establishing new formal patterns through which the articulation and communication of knowledge can happen.

The introduction of writing in Mesopotamia is a fundamental benchmark in this intellectual itinerary of our species. Writing, we may claim, was a form of digitality, in that it broke down the perception of reality into segments external to our mind, segments that were reified as signs imprinted on clay.

The process of going from cybernetics to artificial intelligence and to information technology is similar to what happened with the beginning of writing – a useful lesson for us to learn. There is a reductionist trend at work, one that emphasizes one side of the equation to exclusion of the other. At that point, the “thing” perceived is reduced truly to a “thing,” i.e., something extracted from its living context and no longer seen as a referential sign – the “thing” no longer entails meaning.

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A “civilizational model”

It appears then that Mesopotamia is a “civilizational model” in a more subtle way than we may imagine. The immense scribal effort that characterized it is an anticipation of what we are facing with digitality. And the websites included in the Cybernetica Mesopotamica cluster aim to bring this out in both theory and practice.

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