[SIGCIS-Members] Book Announcement: Lebhafte Artefakte. Heinz von Foerster und die Maschinen des Biological Computer Laboratory

Jan Müggenburg jan.mueggenburg at leuphana.de
Mon Apr 9 06:14:19 PDT 2018

I am very happy to announce that Konstanz University Press (an imprint of Wallstein Verlag) has published my book „Lebhafte Artefakte. Heinz von Foerster und die Maschinen des Biological Computer Laboratory“ <http://www.wallstein-verlag.de/9783835391031-jan-klaus-mueggenburg-lebhafte-artefakte.html>.  The book is in German, but an English translation is already in planning (for more information on the book, please find an English abstract below). I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone from sigcis who has helped me with their contribution over the years!

With best regards from Lüneburg
Jan Müggenburg

Dr. Jan Müggenburg
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media
http://www.leuphana.de/jan-mueggenburg.html <http://www.leuphana.de/jan-mueggenburg.html>


Lively Artifacts. Heinz von Foerster and the Machines of the Biological Computer Laboratory

The title »Lively Artifacts« sounds paradox, since we are still used to reserve the concept of »life« to objects from nature. However, my work on the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) shows how during the 1960s it became possible to stage the »liveliness« of machines as an effect of institutional and research political contexts. In this way, the director of the laboratory, the Austrian physicist Heinz von Foerster, pioneered a research program that is unparalleled in the history of science of the 20th century. While in the early stages of cybernetics the ›computer‹ only served as a metaphor and model, research with actual machines was conducted at the BCL. This book portrays this development en detail, but contextualizes it with an eye on culture, philosophy, and politics.
            The BCL was housed at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign from 1958 to 1976. Its research focus was the construction of »biological computers« that were supposed to be modeled after examples from nature. This resulted in »artificial sensory organs«, »neuronal networks«, and »self-organizing automata«; remarkable prefigurations of contemporary robots and computer programs from the realm of artificial intelligence. The book at hand presents an integral examination of the research conducted at Foerster’s laboratory. For this purpose, large parts of the literary remains of the BCL at the University of Illinois Archives were exploited. In addition to this, further archival material was consulted; especially from the Heinz von Foerster Archive, which is located at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte at the University of Vienna. Not least, oral history interviews were conducted, complementing the existing oral history of the laboratory where necessary.

            Methodologically, this work combines the approach of Historical Epistemology from the area of the history of science and the approaches of Media Archeology from the area of media studies. By means of these approaches, this book not only researches the historical conditions under which the BCL-machines would be recognized as »biological computers« but also their function as scientific media of the production of knowledge. Hereby, this work first arrives at the conclusion that the perception of the BCL-machines as »biological computers« was mainly dependent upon their institutional and research political contexts. Secondly, the impression of »liveliness« as the result of subjective interpretations is being critically examined. The »lively artifacts« of the BCL were constructed, in order to be received, observed, and interpreted in a particular way; they were supposed to appear »lively« in the eye of the beholder. In this spectator-dependency of the BCL-machines, this book recognizes one motive for the further development of Foerster’s laboratory of the late 1960s: from cybernetics to a »second-order cybernetics«.

Dr. Jan Müggenburg

Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter
Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Institut für Kultur und Ästhetik Digitaler Medien
Universitätsallee 1, C5.320
21335 Lüneburg
Fon: 04131 6771647
E-Mail:  <>mueggenburg at leuphana.de <mailto:mueggenburg at leuphana.de>
http://www.leuphana.de/jan-mueggenburg.html <http://www.leuphana.de/jan-mueggenburg.html>

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