cybernetic bias

The objectivity and integrity of contemporary science faces many threats. A cause of particular concern is the growing competition for research funding and academic positions, which, combined with an increasing use of bibliometric parameters to evaluate careers (e.g. number of publications and the impact factor of the journals they appeared in), pressures scientists into continuously producing “publishable” results. (Fanelli 2010: Introduction)

Such begins Daniele Fanelli his 2010 article on the negative consequences of the ‘publish or perish’ policy—since quite some decades running wild within academia. But since when exactly? My educated guess is: since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the universities and the ‘academic world system’ as a whole were restructured and shaped according to the principles of cybernetics. This now may well sound like my own bias for suspecting cybernetics to lurk behind every corner. Luckily in recent years historians of science and knowledge have taken up the issue of the history of cybernetics and its impact. For a comprehensive historical study, focussing on the case of the Federal Republic of Germany, see Philipp Aumann’s book ‘Mode und Methode’ [‘Fashion and method’] published 2009, and for a concrete study of cybernetics’ influence on the universities, their structures and management, see David Gugerli’s article ‘Die Kybernetisierung der Hochschule’ (2008) [‘The cybernetification of higher education’]. Aumann has brought the meaning of cybernetics wonderfully to the point—in my mind indispensable for historical and anthropological understanding:

Kybernetik war in der idealtypischen Annahme ihrer Ganzheit genauso wie in ihren historischen Manifestationen in der Wissenschaft und in der Öffentlichkeit zunächst eine Form des Denkens—und zwar des mathematisierenden Denkens und des Denkens in Systemen. (Aumann 2009: 449)

[Cybernetics in the ideal conception of its overarching entireness, as well as in its historical manifestations in the sciences, academia, and the public, first of all was a mode of thought—of mathematizing thought and of thinking in systems. (my translation—put the blame on me)]

Quite obviously the belief in bibliometrics, impact factor, and quantified evaluation in general is a manifestation of that very mode of thought. And matchingly the ‘Science Citation Index’ and with it the concept of the ‘impact factor’ was created in 1963 by Eugene Garfield, and the word ‘bibliometrics’ itself was introduced by Alan Pritchard in 1969—everything during the heyday of cybernetics, the ‘long 1960s.’ Of course there were forerunners to bibliometrics, at least dating back to 1913, but the long 1960s can be seen as a Foucaultian rupture in regard to the impact of cybernetics. During this decade cybernetics became a discursive formation, no more restricted to the confines of academia and scientific discourse, but permeating many dimensions of society, and for sure all aspects of the nation states’ ‘apparati’ on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

AUMANN, PHILIPP. 2009. Mode und Methode: Die Kybernetik in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Göttingen: Wallstein.
GUGERLI, DAVID. 2008. “Kybernetisierung der Hochschule: Zur Genese des universitären Managements,” in Die Transformation des Humanen: Beiträge zur Kulturgeschichte der Kybernetik edited by Michael Hagner and Erich Hörl, pp. 414-439. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
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