As a newer member of the Cybernetics Society, my personal mission is to learn much more about cybernetics, especially from my fellow members, how to apply it in my work, and how to teach those unfamiliar with cybernetics about the thinking behind it, to the extent that I can. So, I challenged myself to write briefly about a basic cybernetic concept, in this case feedback. Given my musical background, some of it loud, Hendrix immediately came to mind. I would like to present the music of Jimi Hendrix as an example of cybernetics that may not be so obvious.
There is a story told by guitarist Carlos Santana which is, as far as I know, unverified. Jimi Hendrix was playing a gig in Germany, early in his career. At one point the stage was rushed by some bikers. Hendrix quickly took his guitar off and threw it down on the stage, perhaps fearing that he might have to make a run for it. The guitar landed in front of the amplifier and started generating feedback.
The frequencies emitted by the amplifier began to resonate the strings of the guitar that was plugged into it. This generated a mechanical feedback loop. Given sufficient data it might be possible to predict the tones, frequencies and amplitudes that would be generated in these and other circumstances. The feedback loop might stabilize. It might also exceed the thresholds of the amplifier and overload it to the point of breakdown. Other environmental features might interfere with the loop. In all cases, this loop behaves according to the laws of physics without intervention. I like to call this mechanical feedback.
What Hendrix did in the above incident was not music, however. It was not cybernetics, either. Regardless of the truth behind this colorful story, what is quite clear is that Hendrix realized at some point that amplifier feedback could become part of his musical expression.
Music is performance. In this case, a human being, a guitar and an amplifier. (For those out there who are musicians of one form or another, especially Hendrix fans, you will argue that pedals should be included, and boy did Hendrix love them, but they aren’t strictly necessary for our purposes).
When Hendrix performed, he executed the ‘science of control and communication in man and machine’. In this “musical” science you come across the use of perception and response to a degree where what might have appeared as mechanical is converted into intentional expression. Hendrix became well known for as the pioneer of feedback as part of musical expression. It has become second nature to us to hear electric guitarists use feedback when they play now but there was a time when the mere thought was heretical or crazy. Hendrix cybernetically broke that barrier, controlling and communicating with the amplifier (machine) through the guitar.
A characteristic that distinguishes mechanical feedback from cybernetics is the capacity to perceive interactions as a whole, not the result of a simple mathematical operation on the components. In Hendrix’ feedback, the music being created not unlike perhaps a micro weather system. For those who have not experienced Hendrix’ use of feedback I offer the following snippet. Warning, this is meant to be loud.
Through such performances Hendrix was interacting, variably and artistically, with mechanical devices that were designed to respond linearly, an active response to otherwise mechanical outputs. How beautiful is that?
What other unexpected examples of cybernetic feedback can you think of?