Controlling Environments Workshop

University of Oxford – 15. 10. 15

Controlling Environments is a one-day interdisciplinary workshop addressing the historical and contemporary significance of the cybernetic sciences as an array of related disciplines that have, and continue to, inform the environmental sciences and other disciplinary conceptualisations of human-environment relations.

In his 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings, mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) defined cybernetics, in a very general sense, as an environmental science. He suggested the sciences of information and control enabled ‘the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment’ (Wiener, 1950: 17). As environmental sciences emerged in the late 1960s, this principle of informational feedback as a means of environmental control provided a meta-epistemology that informed work in climatology, ecology, resource economics, and environmental engineering, amongst other fields.

Recent scholarship in the environmental humanities has provided an empirically rich account of the ways in which early cybernetic concepts such as homeostasis and feedback gained legitimacy in environmental science and governance (Deese, 2009; Edwards, 2011; Darwin-Hamblin, 2013). We propose that this wave of revisionist environmental history is, at least in part, a response to the contemporary resurgence of new sciences of environmental information and control.

Unparalleled computational power, some now argue, allows modelling, data collection, and technological interventions of a sophistication that finally matches the complexity of the environment (Morton, 2010). Economies are becoming ‘circular’ (Kama, 2015), cities ‘smart’ (Townsend, 2013), and conservation, an exercise in satellite surveillance (Benson, 2012). But perhaps more than any other innovation, the epochal categorisation of the ‘Anthropocene’, which collapses distinctions between human and natural processes, invites a new age of ‘experiments in control’ (Stilgoe, 2015).

What are the devices, practices and media with which environments are enacted as informational systems? How are cybernetic imaginaries inscribed into material infrastructures of environmental and spatial governance? What kinds of political subjectivity, forms of control, and agential possibilities emerge in such programmed environments? In reference to these questions, and others, the purpose of this workshop is to bring together scholars from a diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds studying the sciences of informational environmental control in order to create a productive discussion regarding the history and politics of cybernetic conceptualisations of the environment.

Controlling Environments will be held at the University of Oxford on the 15th October, 2015. Please see our current programme for details and register your interest to attend.


Benson, E. (2012) ‘One infrastructure, many global visions: the commercialisation and diversification of Argos, a satellite based surveillance system’, Social Studies of Science, Vol. 42, No. 6, pp. 843-868.

Darwin Hamblin, J. (2013) Arming Mother Nature: the birth of catastrophic environmentalism. Oxford University Press.

Deese, R. (2009) ‘The artifact of nature: ‘Spaceship Earth’ and the dawn of global environmentalism’, Endeavour, Vol. 33, Iss. 2, pp. 70-75.

Edwards, P. (2011) A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming. MIT Press.

Kama, K. (2015) ‘Circling the economy: resource-making and marketization in EU electronic waste policy’, Area, Vol. 47, Iss. 1, pp. 16-23.

MIT Architecture Machine Group (1971) ‘Seek’, exhibited at SOFTWARE, Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C.

Morton, T. (2010) The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press.

Stilgoe, J. (2015) Experiment Earth: responsible innovation in geo-engineering. Earthscan books.

Townsend, A. (2013) Smart Cities: Big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. Norton and Company.

Wiener, N. (1950[1989]) The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. Free Association Books, London.

Kindly Funded By

The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities (TORCH) Environmental Humanities Grant

Technological Natures Research Cluster at the School of Geography and the Environment

Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) Interdisciplinary Network Fund