Read: Chesher, Chris (2003). “Layers of Code, Layers of Subjectivity.” Culture Machine, vol. 5.

Further recommend sources

Watch: Tron (1982), Tron (2010), iRobot (2004)
Read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2014)

Screenshot 2016-02-20 21.10.23


As we discussed earlier in the session, the science and techniques of [Cybernetics] were developed following the great wars of the last century. Remember the key components of cybernetics are control, command and communication.

It was the work of [Norbert Wiener] who took inspiration from the [radar] operator and the relationship between the user, the screen, the technology and the region of space in which the these actants were operating in a network, to create a system in which feedback loops are used to bring everything into alignment and functioning together in a cybernetic assemblage.

Wiener helped to create the first designs for self-guiding rockets, which were able to respond to environmental conditions on their own, and be programmed to independently negotiate its trajectory through a series of feedback systems to reach its target.

We typically associated the Internet as the product of the military industrial complex and the think tank [DARPA] with the creation of the internet or its earliest form the [ARPAnet] but almost all our media and communications technologies today are dependent on cybernetics and the ‘science of self-steering’ and the systems of command, control and communication that were pioneered within the complex.

Remember that [Gregory Bateson]’s work in the 1940s helped to extend cybernetics to the social realm and the behavioral sciences.

“Arguably, Bateson’s evolution from an ethnographer working in a modern and colonial ethnographic climate to a postwar cybernetician is symptomatic of this broader shift in the social and human sciences from discourses of race, ethnicity, and territory to those of behavior, communication, and environment.” (Halpern 2012 )

Bateson was interested in human systems and the concept of ecological balance and the role of negative and positive feedback systems. Bateson framed the role of information in the network as a form of constraint, a crucial element in any ecology, but particular for the command over and control of the system that exists in the multiple layers of social, technical and cultural significance.


This idea of layering is useful way to think about the themes and concepts in Chris Chesher’s article to check out this week.

Cheser uses a poetic and metaphorical language and set of ideas to describe computation, networks and cybernetics. It’s not far from the ideas that we also raised earlier in the session about the connections between descriptions of magic and technology.


Invocations give us the power and the ability to print on demand, to connect to the Internet and to call up a reference in a database.

[Incantations] enable us to tweet a message, or point a mouse and click and copy and paste.

We can even translate these invocations into commands like [‘crtl+v’ and ‘ctrl+c’]

Think of invocators as specific cybernetic [systems]:

“In a magical and technological senses, the computer is the medium through which we call into presence new daemons: charmed dance floors, writing environments, databases, e-mails systems, electronic journals.

Each of these daemons that is invoked has a logic and an enormous economics of its own. Each offers the user some different kinds of power. As a new media from, it is not computation that makes devices distinctive, but invocation.

Computers should not be called computers, but invocators.” Chesher 2003.


Avocations are the result of invocational [assemblages], they are layers of invocations as cybernetic machines, both hardware and software, which prescribe the limits of the invocations that may be performed: for example your [phone], your tablet device, your laptop all do certain things and limit others. An avocation constructs, what Adrian Mackenzie calls a ‘margin of indeterminacy’ (2002: 26).The avocation constrains the domains of possibility, but remains open to be further informed: “The [keyboard] only offers a limited number of characters, but this still leaves open an enormous set of things that may be typed.” says Chris Chesher.

Twitter also works in this way: you can only have 140 characters but you can type whatever you want.

The haiku is another form of avocation.

The constraints of the system allow for a massive number of unique combinations.

[Avocations] provide the languages, or the operating systems, in which invocations are performed; the platforms on which they are made, and the vectors along which they are articulated. Avocations serve to generate the desires, imaginations and identities of users:

[Vocations] are sets of invocations in avocational layers which produce [vocational authority].

Think about how photoshop is linked with graphic design, credit card databases are linked with bankers, criminal databases are linked to police, employment databases are linked to social security,  secret files and records withs spies and surveillance, and even more locally systems used to administer student enrollment produce the vocation of the student.

Vocational authority can be most loudly heard in the institutional databases.

[Virtual Reality]

Virtual Reality or VR, and Augmented Reality or AR, are the products of layers upon layers of hardware and software systems, they are ‘avocational assemblage’, like the computer monitor and the mobile phone screen.

The next generation of VR is available in consumer level devices from Sony,  Valve and Oculus. Microsoft are focussing their efforts in AR:

VR and AR devices are cybernetic systems and avocational assemblages that extend Norbert Wiener’s vision of the relationship of the radar operator between screen, machine and place, but Virtual Reality is [not new].

Virtual optical interfaces can be traced to examples of 360-degree art in the panoramic murals that began to appear in the [1860s]

Even the notion of the 3D goggles has been around for a long time, and [Stanley G. Weinbaum] proposed a google glasses like system for virtual reality in the 1930s in his short fiction called the “Pygmalion’s Spectacles, which included his hypothetical design for goggles that would display holographic recordings of fictional experiences.

[Morton Heilig] was famous in the 1950s for his “Experience Theatre”, which was an attempted to include all the senses in the cinematic experience, by expanding the view to encompass the individual audience and attempted to include them in the onscreen activity.

Hellig built a working prototype of his virtual reality device, the [Sensorama] in 1962, as a large cabinet device that had to be sat inside. The prototype had five short films and stimulated the senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch..

In 1968 Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull, create the [augmented reality] (AR) and VR head-mounted display (HMD) system.  Rudimentary and exceptionally heavy, the HMD was supported from the ceiling. The device had a basic user interface and a fire-frame virtual environment, and was called The Sword of Damocles.

In 1990 Jonathan Waldern, a VR Ph.D, demonstrates “Virtuality” a Computer Graphics exhibition staged at London’s Alexandra Palace. His garage startup company would go on to produce the Virtuality as a line of virtual reality gaming machines found in video arcades and adventure parks and game stores in the early 1990s.

(I remember playing these multiplayer at about the same time that i first reader Neuromancer in 1992. The VR machines delivered almost real time (less than 50ms lag) gaming via a stereoscopic visor, joysticks, and networked units for multi-player gaming.)

Virtuality was the first mass-produced, networked, multiplayer VR location-based entertainment system. Costing up to $73,000 per multi-pod Virtuality system, they featured headsets and exoskeleton gloves that gave one of the first “immersive” VR experiences.

The famous, or infamous, [Virtual Boy] was created by Nintendo and was released in Japan and in North America in 1995.

In 2014 Facebook [invested] $2 billion into  Oculus VR, and Sony Announces Project Morpheus, a virtual reality headset for the PS4. Valve software and HTC have partnered for the VIVE.

Google in typical counter fashion announces Cardboard, a do-it-yourself stereoscopic viewer for Android smartphones, which is surprisingly effective.

[Palmer Luckey] created his first VR prototype at age 18 in his parents’ garage in 2011, which was a headset that included a 90-degree field of view.

The VR unit relies on a series of cybernetic feedback loops between the CPU, the Worn device, the user’s Body, and the graphic output and visual display which is also an input device for the on screen direction and movement. 

Putting the headpiece on is very much like putting on a mix of  Ned Kelly’s Helmet and Tony Stark’s Iron Man visor – it’s a mix of the primitive and the advanced.

Seminar Question: What are the vocations that are going to be transformed by AR and VR technologies?