Cybernetics emerged during World War II as the science of communication and control systems used to build automatic antiaircraft systems, but gradually became a vehicle through which scientists, engineers, humanists, and social scientists studied the complexities of communication and self-organizing systems. Cybernetics is generally regarded as one of the most influential scientific movements of the 20th century. At a time when postwar science had become highly compartmentalized, cybernetics epitomized the interdisciplinarity that has become emblematic of innovative research in the modern era. This project will provide greater access to the archival materials that document the rich and complex history of the “thought collective”—the scientific community of individuals exchanging thoughts and ideas about cybernetics, including scientists and researchers affiliated with the University of Illinois’ Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL).

In an effort to unite the people and concepts that constituted cybernetics, this NEH Humanities Collections and References Resources Foundations project seeks to build collaborative relationships between the four participating institutions (the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, American Philosophical Society, British Library, and MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections), to digitize and provide basic access to a select portion of cybernetics materials, and to assess the potential of advanced machine learning methods to enhance their access and use.

These institutions will embark on a one-year collaborative pilot project to digitize select archival material that documents the cybernetics thought collective and develop a plan to make discoverable the connections and relationships between topics in this material. The project will initially unite the papers of Heinz von Foerster (University of Illinois Archives), Warren S. McCulloch (American Philosophical Society), W. Ross Ashby (British Library), and Norbert Wiener (MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections)—four founding members of cybernetics, whose mutual influences were profound and whose lives intersected in many ways.

Specific work undertaken will include (1) selective digitization of archival material that exposes social research networks of communication, thought, and idea exchange; (2) creation and remediation of metadata about these materials; (3) preservation and basic access through established systems; and (4) initial testing and assessment of annotation, entity extraction, and network analysis tools in a prototype “thought collective” platform. Our ultimate goal is to enable users to explore the cybernetics movement in ways that would be impossible with traditional systems, via new interfaces that use machine learning techniques to expose previously hidden relationships between people, topics, and locations. Ultimately, we believe these approaches can enhance access not only to cybernetics materials, but any large corpus of unstructured textual documents, and we are grateful to the NEH for its support to explore these nascent possibilities.