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Since its first introduction, the concept of cybernetics spread widely through many branches of academy and percolated into the everyday life soon after. Even now, it continues to affect our social and cultural life greatly. Here, we will trace the impact of cybernetics on electronic art, and how this impact resonates with 21st centuries’ social online networks and metaverses in the idea of participation, co-creation, and constant flux.


In 1968, the time was finally ripe for an exhibition where robots chased the audience and changed the lightning according to environmental sounds like clapping hands, where one had the chance to encounter computers writing poems, and machines drawing interesting geometric figures that played magical tricks with your visual system. Today, after 60 years, it has acquired the status of a myth among the cognoscenti of computer arts. In this paper, we will trace the links between the metaverse and electronic art to those first years, and to the impact of cybernetics.

From cybernetics to the fundamentals of electronic art:
The term ‘cybernetics’ was first used by Norbert Wiener in the title of his famous book “Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine”. Cybernetics grew partly out of Shannon’s information theory, and its etymology goes back to the ancient Greek word kybernetes, meaning steersman or governor. The title of Wiener’s book includes an appropriate definition of the concept, which is effectively a theory of control, i.e. of the principles that govern the behavior of adaptive systems (e.g. animals and machines) in dynamic environments.
Two concepts were particularly important to cybernetics. The first one is teleology, by which Wiener denoted the ‘purpose’ that guided the behavior of an adaptive system. This concept relates to planning and autonomy, issues that are still important aspects of robotics. The second important concept was self-replication, which is a natural property of living systems. In short, cybernetics sought the principles behind mechanisms of replication and reproduction that were equally applicable to artificial and conceptual systems. Katherine Hayles charts the transformations of the concept as it diffuses into the cultural space, by examining the equally influential information theory in broadest sense, and taking into consideration a bidirectional flow between the cultural/social circumstances of the times and the scientific agenda. [1] Here we would like to focus on the initial activities that transferred ideas from cybernetics into arts.
Abraham Moles and Max Bense were the first to apply information theory to arts at a theoretical level, when they tried to capture the essentials of aesthetics with the use of cybernetic thinking. [2] [3] However, on the level of applications, we should name the British artist Roy Ascott as the pioneer. Already in 1961, Ascott was teaching at Ealing School of Art a curriculum that fused cybernetic thinking with art education. In 1964, he displayed pieces based on these ideas in an exhibition entitled Diagram Boxes and Analogue Structures. Later on, he published the philosophical aspects of his work in the journal Cybernetica in a two-part article, “Behaviorist Art and the Cybernetic Vision.” [4] In this paper, Ascott describes a cybernetically driven art theory called Cybernetic Art Matrix, CAM for short. CAM’s prerequisite is an environment that calls for user participation in creating an art object. This environment is set up in a way to force the audience, or in Ascott’s terminology, the participant, to give feedback, through which the participant engages in a decision making activity concerning the art object. The end result is the joint creation of the object by the artist and the participant. Ideally, this object would be an open project, in constant flow and never ceasing to take on new aspects. With every new participant, the creation process would re-start or expand, and this circulation would continue until some physical limit (e.g. end of the exhibition) brings the process to a halt.
Apter notes that Ascott’s idea of ‘art as a process’ had a great appeal for artists, as it formulated art as a dynamic system that comes into existence only through the feedback loop between the artist and the audience. [5] As Ascott details in his papers, this line of thinking is in continuity with the modern art’s “behaviorist” tendencies. In contrast to the traditional understanding of an art object with a well-defined body, ways of construction (such as painting and sculpture), and a specific space for dissemination (i.e. museums, galleries, fairs), cybernetic art opened the doors to a new way of making, experiencing, sharing and displaying art. Franke sums up the aesthetics of this new type of art object as: “The conditions of optimum aesthetic communication can be obtained from a determination of the reactivity of viewers of works of art. Art then is a part of a process of regulation (in a cybernetic sense) in which an artist seeks to achieve the maximum of receptivity.” [6] The actual impact of cybernetics on arts clearly manifested itself in the form new meanings attached to arts and in the understanding of what makes an art object, as well as in the ways of how art production has changed. The concepts of feedback, interaction, information sharing and ‘art as a process’ led first to Telematic Art, then to Telepresence Art, both of which eventually falling under the heading of New Media Art, as Electronic Art is called today. [7]

From interaction to open-ended play
In their “Book for the Electronic Arts,” Mulder and Post subdivide the modern art practice in stable and unstable art. [8] With stable art they denote the culture of “high art”, driven by the materiality and of secularity of art objects. Unstable Art, in contrast, is more volatile, as it is participatory, performative and in constant flux, and is based on (shared) experience. Stable art is serious, unstable art is playful. In modern games and playful interaction the principles of unstable art are more alive then ever.

In the last decade digital games introduced new concepts in the context of playing: a virtual game space containing interaction space allows gamers to communicate, decide and create. These actions are all in line with the ideas expressed in the previous section, namely that the idea of being a part of the process inherently follows the principles of cybernetics, and opens up a performative space. In this sense, some artworks resemble games, and vice versa. A famous example of this is the computer artwork Daisies, by Theodore Watson. In this interactive installation, daisies are projected on a floor, creating an immersive game experience, in which the user is central. You walk over the daisies and the daisies die under your feet, only to quickly grow back a few seconds later.
In the 90’s, based on these concepts, designers and artists created interactive environments, mainly supported by video images and interactive sound. In this context, Marinka Copier’s definition of play becomes crucial. She describes games as a system of communication and continuous negotiation of (role) players with socio-cultural network of human and inhuman actors. [9] Copier formulates a comprehensive description of (role) play that does not focus on actors like rules, goals, objects, or environments, but instead investigates the relations between all actors. Role-players actively negotiate with the game mechanics, socio-cultural mechanics, as well as individual-personal ones. From these negotiations a play experience emerges. The play experience and the activities related to these experiences are in a constant state of flux. It is in this continuous change that the characteristic of play can be found, and is often defined as open-ended play.
Instead of designing for goal-directed behavior, as is assumed by, for example, Norman’s action cycle the definition of open-ended play assumes that players do not structure their activity beforehand, but that activity grows as the interaction in the context of use occurs. People are opportunistic as they interact with the world. These ideas are inspired by theories about situated action [10] [11] [12] and above all on emergent behavior in decentralized systems, [13] which relates to the aspect of cybernetics as regulatory systems. According to Resnick, nature provides us with various examples where local behavior leads to global patterns. For example, individual birds in a flock use only simple local rules related to nearby birds, which lead to organized flock patterns. Programs in his parallel programming environment StarLogo have shown that by giving objects or agents local rules overall patterns can occur in simulated environments (or micro-worlds). But most importantly, local rules are shaped by players’ participations and actions, and the patterns of the overall game emerges through these interactions, or in other words, through the wisdom of the crowd.

Play & Fun in Metaverse & Social Networks
Games in social networks like Facebook become more and more popular as they can be played everywhere and anytime. They enable expression through role-play, interactive attributes, measures and other (nonverbal) communications. In modern identity construction, (instant) meaningfulness is of increased significance. [14] This (instant) meaningfulness can, for example, be established in playing the same games in social networks (MafiaWars (Zynga 2008), PetSociety (Playfish 2009), or RestaurantCity (Electronic Arts 2009)) other activities like chat, msn (Microsoft 1999), Skype (Heinla, Kasesalu, en Tallinn 2003) etc., or belonging to the same interest groups. In Social Games like Farmville (Zynga 2009), identities are reshaped through collaborations around certain thematic activities. Within these online games a friend’s value corresponds to his or her instant meaningfulness in the game. To be a friend in FarmVille, means to be of value. A friend transforms in a sort of commodity since friends are assets to play the game. This directly ties-in with the social rules on social networks, in which someone’s popularity, and ‘value’ is qualified by his/her number of friends.
Here for us the most important thing is that the boundaries between ‘play time’ and other activities cease to exist: accessing the social sphere of the virtual games can be done via handheld devices, mobile phones and computers while working, eating, and even playing other games. The second factor we would like to emphasize is the erasure of the roles/identities: a dear friend becomes a commodity during the play experience, but with a switch for example from the play window of FarmVille back to Facebook home window, the everyday ‘identity/role’ of the friend is restored.
In modern play-design games and playful interaction are situated in real life as part of everyday activity; a playful approach in which games can be called upon when necessary as part of existing applications in learning, social networks, etc. [15] This requires a social intelligence in game design and will lead to games that are embedded in systems of social meaning, fluid and negotiated between us and other people around us. In this way game design focuses on interactive products as creators, facilitators and mediators of experiences as well as the creation of opportunities.
Damer makes a distinction about the ‘game-play virtual worlds’ and ‘social virtual worlds’, emphasizing that the latter differs from the former primarily because it is based on the freedom given to the players for building both the virtual world, as well as the social atmosphere and the game space in it. [16] In contrast the game-play worlds come with predefined rules, and scenarios. We can state that social virtual worlds resemble the idea of open-ended play.
An interesting thing to note here is about the artistic dimension of these worlds, and the question of creativity & artistic expressions experienced by its users. The general impression is that most of the artistic practices in these spaces are still confined to the existing forms of art creation and dissemination (Lester et. al. 2009). It is expected that with time, when virtual reality loses its novelty of offering a new experience, the potential it generates will be explored thoroughly, and new forms of arts will be born out of these explorations. There are already many fruitful virtual exhibitions hinting for this next step.
However, we believe that these virtual worlds and social networks will have a much bigger impact on the understanding of art. A simple google search for the most popular virtual worlds like World of War Craft and Second Life shows that their popularity extends to the social network sites as well. Here, for us, the most interesting social sites are the ones devoted to art (deviantArt, Flickr), and media (Youtube, MySpace). For instance, in deviantArt, there are ample groups around these cult-spaces, and many users not only uploads screenshot of their experiences, or their avatars, but also share tutorials and textures to help other members in educating how to create in virtual worlds. In other words, some players, first experiment themselves how to create ‘art’, and then share their knowledge with other members for them to join the experience.

The ubiquity of virtual social platforms, and the effects of overabundance of media lead some critics to question the role of the artists in current society. For some, spaces like metaverse offers, and forces the artist to go beyond the traditional artistic goals like catching/questioning the reality, and to become a scientist/technician redefining/creating the reality. For others, art as such does not even have a role to play anymore. In this paper, we tried to contradict these extreme postulations about art in metaverse by pointing out the potential of social spheres of networks and metaverse have on the dissemination and (hence) the definition of art.
Mulder and Post trace the transition of electronic art from machine to media, from there to interface, and lastly to networks. [8] We would like to conclude our paper by asking the question: What is next? We hope that the next step in the evaluation of electronic art will be the realization that expertise has lost its importance. Only then, art will be detached from its high pedestal and materiality by becoming the toy of the layman. Everyone who uploads a picture, designs an avatar, creates a space in Second Life, comments at someone else’s pictures in Flickr or deviantArt will be entitled an ‘artist’ if they care to take on this title.

References and Notes: 

  1. N. Hayles, “Boundary Disputes,” in Configurations 2, no. 3 (1994): 441–467.
  2. A. Moles, Information Theory and Esthetic Perception (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1966).
  3. M. Bense, Aesthetica (Baden-Baden: Agis-Verlag, 1965).
  4. R. Ascott, “Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision,” in Cybernetica 9, no. 4 (1966): 247-264.
  5. M. J. Apter, “Cybernetics and Art,” in Leonardo 2, no. 3 (1969): 257-265.
  6. H. W. Franke, “Some Remarks on Visual Fine Arts in the Age of. Advanced Technology,” in Visual Art, Mathematics and Computers, ed. F. J. Malina, 3-5 (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1979).
  7. A. A. Akdag Salah, “Discontents of Computer Art: A Discourse Analysis on the Intersection of Arts, Sciences and Technology” (PhD diss., UCLA, 2008).
  8. A. Mulder and M. Post, Book for the Electronic Arts (Amsterdam: De Baille, 2000).
  9. M. Copier, “Beyond the Magic Circle: A Network Perspective on Role-Play in Online Games” (PhD diss., Utrecht University, 2007).
  10. J. Lave, Cognition in Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  11. B. Nardi, “Studying Context,” in Context and Consciousness, ed. B. Nardi, 35-52 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997).
  12. L. Suchman, Plans and Situated Actions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  13. M. Resnick, Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1997).
  14. B. A. M. Schouten, T. Bekker, and M. Deen, “Playful Identity in Game Design and Open-Ended Play,” in Playful Identities (Utrecht: Utrecht University Press, 2011).
  15. R. Tieben, T. Bekker, J. Sturm, and B. A. M. Schouten, “Eliciting Casual Activity through Playful Exploration, Communication, Personalisation and Expression” (conference, Chi Sparks, Arnhem, June 23, 2011).
  16. B. B. Damer, “Meeting in the Ether,” in Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1, no. 1 (2008): 1-17.