Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Forgetting / Cybernetics

Published onJun 20, 2024
Forgetting / Cybernetics


This article aims to trace epistemological connections between cybernetics and German media theory by emphasizing the notion of forgetting. This notion is presented as a central condition for problematizing, first, the human-machine coupling pointed out by cybernetics and, second, the rise of the machines that has concerned German media theory for decades. To this end, the article draws a line connecting an early text by Friedrich Kittler and Heinz von Foerster’s work on memory—a connection that will also be discussed in the light of findings and statements by Moritz Hiller and Jan Müggenburg. Finally, this article will outline a (still hypothetical) way to problematize the techno-epistemological scope of Project Cybersyn through the lens of such a notion.1

In 2013, a large group of scholars gathered at New York University’s Deutches Haus to commemorate the work and life of the late media theorist Friedrich Kittler. There, Bernhard Dotzler, who gave the only German-language presentation2 of what would later be translated as Idiocy, Forgetting, and Outdatedness,3 emphasized what he calls Kittler’s “avant-gardism.” Namely, the approach that the author of the Aufschreibesysteme unfolded—there, in the now distant days of the late-1970s—by declaring that it was already “time for other stories.”4 Accordingly, by moving beyond and somehow escaping from literary studies, Kittler would pave the way for what would later be known as German media theory—the field that would remain recursively connected to cybernetic thinking from its foundations.5 Thus, through an intervention that forced his audience to automatically switch languages for encoding and decoding on the fly, or simply invited them “to feel free to leave,”6 Dotzler reminds us of the structural centrality of the notion of forgetting in Kittler’s radical move.

In that spirit, this article will look back to a time before the publication of Kittler’s pivotal habilitation thesis, Discourse Networks [Aufschreibesysteme],7 and will pay particular attention to Dotzler’s remarks in order to trace the nodal point that would help us to witness, to understand, and ideally to problematize, the connection between cybernetics and German media theory. But this will also imply looking at Moritz Hiller’s research8 when he claims that, contrary to what Kittler later claimed,9 the founding discussion around the notion of Discourse Networks was neither influenced by Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication,10 nor was a “free application”11 of it. Rather, as Jan Müggenburg has pointed out,12 it was rather a development influenced by an early familiarity with the work of cyberneticians such as Heinz von Foerster.

Consequently, the central issue that this article seeks to address lies in the fact that, beyond any implicit emphasis on the transmission and processing functions of media technology that Friedrich Kittler had deployed by stressing, with Shannon, the role of statistics, probabilities, noise, and channel, the actual operation that activated the link between German media theory and cybernetics would be the problem of memory. In other words, given that “transfer and storage are two sides of one coin,”13 as Wolfgang Ernst has pointed out, what seems to define not only the link between cybernetics and German media theory, but perhaps the very essence of each of these fields, is the key ambivalence between transmission and storage that media technologies produce. Therefore, the human-machine coupling—insofar as it is understood here as a central object of research for both cybernetics and German media theory—will be considered in these pages as the actual manifestation of the aforementioned nodal point; i.e., as the true embodiment of the scope of cybernetics, and even more so, of its entangled existence around and within German media theory. Thus, the sentence “Media determine our situation,”14 one of Kittler’s most well-known statements and perhaps the (deceptive) starting point of his explicit analytical program on media technologies, can find its rationale a few hundred pages back.15 Paradoxically, despite the warning of the Berlin School of Media Archaeology and, of course, of Kittler himself, it is through the study of written texts that this article will address these questions. For this reason, what follows should not necessarily be seen as a media archaeology, but rather as a kind of genealogy.


In 1979, in a small anthology entitled Texthermeneutik: Aktualität, Geschichte, Kritik [Text-Hermeneutics: Present, History, Critique], the 36-year-old (still) literary scholar Friedrich Kittler presented an article succinctly titled Vergessen [Forgetting].16 Two years later, in 1981, an English translation appeared in the US journal Discourse.17 There, Kittler laid out an early set of arguments that, as the recursion of time now reveals, would not only outline a critique of the traditions that sustained the field that demarcated the scholar’s own position at the time, but would also constitute an act of radical departure that would, in turn, mark the attempt to draw a new field—a field whose boundaries would be as fragmented as to seek and promote the struggle between the old world of letters and the not-so-old realm of circuits. Such a task, however, begins by looking at Nietzsche. It is in the work of the (first) philosopher and (then) genealogist that Kittler finds the thread to begin weaving the notion of forgetting as a key element for understanding the media-conditioned scope of the processes of memory in contemporary cultures. Interestingly, this connection invoked an untimely—perhaps a too early one18—reflection on the then impossible systems of control and communication between the animal and the human being:

The human being might ask the animal: ‘Why do you just look at me like that instead of telling me about your happiness?’ The animal wanted to answer, ‘Because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say’—but it had already forgotten this answer and hence said nothing, so that the human being was left to wonder.19

Kittler thus embarks himself on a project, on a journey, that will lead him to analyze the techniques and technologies that would allow humans to distance themselves from other animals: speaking, reading, writing, and thus storage devices. “So,” Kittler argues, “it is only on paper that the ‘human being’ originates, this being, per definitionem distinct from the animal.”20 In other words, what preoccupies Kittler in the ante-penultimate decade of the 20th century, are the material processes that not only define the human condition, but even more so configure the transitions and transformations of such a condition. For if these material processes, these techniques and technologies, change, then it is not only not strange, but expected, that human beings will also change as a consequence.

However, the German scholar’s main concern is that these elements have historically been taken for granted, as if “memory [were] considered an attribute or even a peculiarity of the ‘human being.’”21 But on the contrary, precisely because we forget, and moreover because we have entrusted our memory and knowledge to what he calls “storage devices” and “mnemo-techniques,”22 Kittler initially sees in discourse analysis—not only Foucault’s, but also Nietzsche’s—the procedure for inquiring into these writing systems. But such an approach also implies a critique, and thus it is possible to argue that another mode of analysis must underlie the researcher’s general program:

Discourse analysis, by contrast, means to let the ‘human being’ be. I forget every day whether I forget or remember. But that is not the question. The question is where and how those memory systems function that philosophy ascribed to the ‘human being.’23

And later, literally announcing his departure, he continues:

Archives themselves provide plenty of material to archivize. Only imperial myths propagate the belief that sentences are eternal once they have been hewn into stone, once they have become lapidary. No storage device operates in isolation. Archives are hooked up with other archives, directly or via interfaces, and are themselves archivized in other archives. Archives require input and output stations (even if these be just sense organs and brains). Archives contain mechanisms that bring about and/or prevent the erasure of their data. The development of electronic computers has merely provided precise terms and circuit diagrams for factors which come into play in all cases of archivizing.24

For Kittler, therefore, no more simple discourse analyses—as if that had ever been the case—because even archives have to operate in networks in order to avoid forgetting, or rather to prevent us humans from doing so. Ironically, however, insightful Friedrich knows that not everything has been said or written. This is because Kittler’s main criticism of Foucauldian discourse analysis is precisely what the old-fashioned “archeologist simply forgot”25: that in the 20th century such networks went far beyond books and letters. Thus, in 1979, just as he would put it almost 15 years later26 in the midst of his media-analytical phase, Kittler refers to computer data storage devices as the actual material manifestation of the processes that regulate the circulation of information—at that time still mostly characterized as knowledge—in modern cultures. According to the fugitive literary scholar,27 programmable read-only memories (PROMs), on the one hand, and random-access memories (RAMs), on the other, become the key operational model and thus a critical media-epistemological way to characterize the flow, the circuit, the exchange of information between archives and human beings. Since PROMs are the set of deeper permanent instructions to initiate operations within the system, and RAMs are the devices to store only the necessary data to operate in the present, this new coupling between humans and archival (information) systems emerges as conditioned by the ambivalent nature of a programmable permanence and a permanent transition.28

People, once simply PROM’s who were programmed once and for all through baptism, village schools, and the order of estates, became RAM’s. In order to supply storage space for new books, new knowledge, new programs, information had to be made erasable—and according to Nietzsche understanding is the erasure of signifiers.29

In other words, what Kittler is able to discern at this early stage of his career is that when, in the mid-1900s, archives become technological information systems, the only thing that remains permanent is not knowledge but the commands to access it—the entry barriers or protocols—and then knowledge itself becomes information that is constantly erasable and rewritable—that is, forgettable. What is more, by being plugged into these systems, our very being as humans becomes not only a product, but the embodiment of such a technological forgetting. Whereas in earlier epochs, in many cultures, people were encouraged, if not forced, to learn by heart the knowledge they could acquire from the archives and storage devices to which they had access—i.e., libraries and books—in modern times, not only the ever-increasing amount of information, but also the very techno-logical structures that sustained it, would have turned people into RAM modules. From then on, the very act of searching for the desired information implied running the protocols that would make this procedure possible, and looking for the requested data points one address at a time. But since all the many addresses and data points that would have to be consulted before a successful search could be carried out would occupy valuable and limited memory capacity, such at a time would always imply forgetting the previously registered data, and then it would also literally mean operating in one and only one time—as in a random-access memory, in a present that unfolds as presence.

Then, people learn to learn by technologically forgetting. Here seems to lie the cybernetic core of Friedrich Kittler’s media theoretical program.

In this regard, there are two paths that might show that the emergence of this program may also respond to concrete connections between the fields in question—literary studies and cybernetics. Thus, following what Jan Müggenburg has shown,30 this article argues that both of these paths, as the conjecture has it, lead to Heinz von Foerster’s work on memory.

On the one hand, and even beyond the particularly precise conceptual coincidence, Kittler’s “Forgetting” offers a specific indication that allows this article to strongly suggest that Kittler might have indirectly referred to von Foerster’s lecture Quantum Mechanical Theory of Memory31 in his arguments. Comparing the library system with computational memories and procedures, and further referring to a “cunning reader” or user of such a library, who in the scholar’s view “is an address selector of the sort that is hooked up to the latest generations of IBM computers,” Kittler adds that when this search system overcomes “harmless books” and libraries, “the [computational] address selector equipped with a randomness generator sends the incoming data to free positions, the exact address of which does not appear at any of the many output stations.”32 It is precisely this techno-logical explanation—the one with randomness generators and free positions—that gives this article the space to unfold its conjecture.

What Heinz von Foerster, the Austrian-American cybernetician, presented in the aforementioned lecture at the Macy Conferences in 1949, was the outline of a theory of memory in three steps: the phenomenological (explained by quantum mechanical means), the psychological, and the biophysical.33 The second step—which may have been of particular interest to Kittler given his ongoing attention to poststructuralism and psychoanalysis34—explains diagrammatically how the mental procedure by which a human being memorizes a series of nonsense syllables would work. Such a procedure is defined by this nonsense information being “fixed on a certain carrier, many of which may be in the brain ready to be impregnated by such an elementary impression.”35 Von Foerster calls these ready-to-be-impregnated elements “free carriers,”36 and goes on to point out that it is possible to “assume that such a carrier is not able to carry forever its impregnation but only during a certain time and decays after time τ to a free carrier.”37 In other words, if nonsense syllables are tantamount to random data, which is sent to free positions or carriers, then Kittler’s early media theory of forgetting could have found its origin right at the dawn of cybernetics. And, of course, this correlation, this conjecture, does not simply obey the interpretation of meanings, or even the equivalence of syntactic structures, but the exact matching of characters. Says von Foerster:

Some time ago I was trying to work out a relation between the physical and the psychological time. Certainly, both these times would be proportional to each other if our memory would work like a tape-recorder: any incoming information would be stored indefinitely. Recall of a certain event would give exactly the same time structure as previously observed. We know, however, that isn’t so. As time elapses we lose a certain amount of information by forgetting. Hence I tried to start with a simple theory of forgetting.38

What is more, in his lecture the cybernetician argues that in order to develop such a theory, he needs “a psychological process which deals with impressions of which the elements are as independent as possible of each other.”39 Interestingly, von Foerster finds his case study—and this point takes this article already to the second path of its argument—in the work on memory developed by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.40

As Moritz Hiller points out, while the first part of Friedrich Kittler’s seminal work Aufschreibesysteme [Discourse Networks] was practically finished by 1976, the second part, on “the language of technical communication,” would be written “between the end of 1979 and May 1982.”41 In other words, the article Vergessen, published around July 1979,42 could be read as the epistemic hinge that draws the radical turn that characterizes Kittler’s work, and perhaps the new field of German media theory as a whole. For, once again in the case of the Aufschreibesysteme, one can observe that Kittler devotes an entire section of the second part of this book to Ebbinghaus’s psychophysics:

Nietzsche and Ebbinghaus presupposed forgetfulness, rather than memory and its capacity, in order to place the medium of the soul against a background of emptiness or erosion. A zero value is required before acts of memory can be quantified. Ebbinghaus banned introspection and thus restored the primacy of forgetting on a theoretical level. On the one hand, there was Nietzsche’s delirious joy at forgetting even his forgetfulness; on the other, there was a psychologist who forgot all of psychology in order to forge its algebraic formula.43

As Heinz von Foerster pointed out in his 1949 Macy Conference lecture, he would “use results observed by Ebbinghaus during his study of the forgetting process” where “the experimenter teaches a group of subjects 100 nonsense syllables until everyone knows these syllables by heart.”44 According to von Foerster, the experimenter would have examined the subjects daily, plotting the number of syllables remembered on a graph whose baseline would be a function of time. Thus, if “any observed event leaves an impression which can be divided into a lot of elementary impressions,” where “any event leads initially to number N0 of elementary impressions,” then it would be possible to state that “[a]fter a certain time t the number of existing elementary impressions may be called N.” What the cybernetician is looking for, then, “is a function which connects the number N with number N0 and the time t,” that is to say, the “forgetting-coefficient.”45

The human being forgets, and such a process can be scientifically quantified in order to know exactly both the amount of information that can be humanly memorized—either consciously, unconsciously, or hallucinatorily,46 and the time it takes for this information to disappear from our being. And what Friedrich Kittler knew in his all-too-contemporary journey was that, ironically, in order to control the forgetting-coefficient, the only resource left to humans was to be permanently coupled to machines whose internal operations were based precisely on processes of forgetting—“[t]his is how electronic memories forget the ‘human being.’”47


Therein lies the paradox that runs through cybernetics and German media theory—a paradox that prevents us from answering in a single movement whether such a coupling would respond to a case of negative or rather positive feedback. And just as Norbert Wiener—one of the founding fathers of cybernetics—acknowledged J. Clerk Maxwell’s paper on governors as a cornerstone in the prehistory of this interdisciplinary field,48 perhaps this article will benefit from a brief digression to try to prove how rooted the idea of forgetting might be in cybernetics.

Although Maxwell’s work on governors—the mechanical devices used in the 18th and 19th centuries as “regulators of machinery”49—is more clearly related to the realm of physics and mechanical engineering, its conceptual scope can shed some light on the issue of feedback in the way it is discussed here. Accordingly, this work will prove essential in the long run for measuring the extent of cybernetics50 and, more importantly here, the human-machine coupling in which forgetting operates. Maxwell offers a conceptual distinction between moderators and governors. In the former, the “the corrective action […] is directly proportional to [the] overspeed”51 to be regulated in a given machine, this process of regulation thus being prone to receive the internal malfunctions of the machine in question. The latter, on the other hand, the actual object of Maxwell’s interest, would be those devices constituted by an “additional [and independent] mechanism that translates any output error into a corrective action that increases steadily until the output error has entirely disappeared.”52 This description offers us an interesting point of reflection, because if such independent devices are conceptually equivalent, or at least similar, to the carriers that are “not able to carry forever its impregnation but only during a certain time,” which then decay and become “a free carrier,”53 ready to be impregnated by the immediately following amount of information—as if the previous one had never existed—it would be fair to argue that the essential structure of the notion of forgetting can already be found in the early rise of machines, whose increasing autonomy cybernetics described and helped to improve. If this is the case, then perhaps it would be possible to say that what cyberneticians like von Foerster did was to identify a kind of autonomy whose operational nature was already present in human biological behavior—an operational nature that scholars like Kittler would later place at the center of an enterprise aimed at updating the humanities, by redescribing the human condition itself.

When Norbert Wiener, the Mexican physician Arturo Rosenblueth, and Wiener’s research assistant Julian Bigelow wrote Behavior, Purpose and Teleology54 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1943—more than 70 years after Maxwell’s paper on governors—an early yet inevitable problematization and categorization of the human and machine (co-)existence was set in motion. Through a conceptual analysis of behavior, the authors sought to emphasize the role of purpose and the importance of negative feedback—teleology in their terminology—in constructing a transversal understanding of the modes in which both organisms and machines respond to their environment, and pursue goals in such a context.55 Thus, cybernetics begins to emerge as an analytical way of thinking that focuses on the becoming of the entities that populate this world, in which biological and machine structures not only merge, but also recursively explain each other.56 Moreover, the contribution of Maxwell’s study of governors to science in general drew a thin but strong line that allowed these 1940s researchers to argue that every purposeful behavior in the world is driven by negative feedback; i.e., by “the margin of error at which [an] object [or organism] stands at a given time with reference to a relatively specific goal,”57 where such an error is informed by the output of the object-organism, and the margin is then fed back to it in the form of input. Consequently, even if these researchers would state that, unlike human organisms, “[l]earning and memory” in machines would remain “quite rudimentary” for a while, what Heinz von Foerster proposed six years later with his “forgetting-coefficient” should be seen here as a substantial escalation of the Massachusetts team’s argument.

The question remains, however, whether von Foerster’s and Kittler’s forgetting would obey purposeful behavior in the long run. For both the cybernetician and the media theorist would assert that such a process, forgetting, prevails even in unconscious behavior. On the one hand, von Foerster argued that in the human organism “sensory receptors” can also be seen as “short-term” carriers “which transmit consciously or unconsciously their impregnation immediately to the carriers”58 of the memory; an argument that, from the point of view of this analysis, renders unclear the existence of a control mechanism that regulates the margin of error between the output of the human body and its eventual goal, if it does not simply declare its absence—all this, of course, with the understanding that the cybernetician did not really discuss the human-machine coupling in his lecture at the Macy Conference, but only human memory by cybernetic means. On the other hand, Kittler would explicitly “attach” machines to the human body in order to develop his approach to forgetting. In this line, he will insist on that such a process requires acknowledging that “consciousness is only the imaginary interior view of media standards.”59 In other words, Kittler’s media theoretical program even radicalizes cybernetics by not only suggesting but stating that humans have delegated the control mechanisms that regulate the difference between their outputs and purposes—voluntarily or not, consciously or not—to machines. “Le monde symbolique, c’est le monde de la machine,”60 Kittler wrote in Vergessen, because, as he well knew, by the 1970s Ebbinghaus’s nonsense syllables had already been replaced, through the materialization of “presence and absence,”61 by ASCII series of seven or eight bits. Nevertheless, the question remains: How is it that such an apparently unconscious technological delegation—given that it operates as a continuous feedback—avoids the emergence of “clumsy behavior” derived from the feedback, which becomes “positive instead of negative for certain frequencies of oscillation”?62

Thus, the human might have asked the machine: Why are you just reading my output like that instead of telling me about your presence? But the human, unconsciously, had already forgotten about awareness and such presence, and so said nothing—leaving themself to wonder.

Cybernetic Synergy

Turing tests aside,63 it is worth insisting on and recalling that the problem of memory, both in “the animal and the machine,” has concerned cybernetics since its nominal foundation: “A very important function of the nervous system, and, as we have said, a function equally in demand for computing machines, is that of memory, the ability to preserve the results of past operations for use in the future.”64 But as Norbert Wiener also knew—in the wake of Alan Turing’s work65—on the radical threshold of this machine-driven era that he so eloquently analyzed and described, a correlation between past and future could only be activated through the mediation of a memory that could “record quickly, be read quickly, and be erased quickly.”66 In other words, already in the 1940s, if not even in the previous decade,67 the forerunners of cybernetics understood that any “permanent record” that was to constitute an analytical source for “future behavior,”68 had to be processed through technologies of erasure. Even more, Wiener argued that just as a “short-time memory” could be implemented in electrical circuits by using devices such as “telegraph-type repeaters,”69 there was already sufficient evidence at that time “to believe that [something similar] happens in our brains during the retention of impulses.”70

However, despite any possible implicit connection between the developments unfolded in Princeton, (any) Cambridge, or Manchester, the explicit articulation and inclusion of the notion of forgetting as a key element of the field of cybernetics is done only by Heinz von Foerster.

The Austrian-American cybernetician reaffirmed this premise during his later days in Pescadero, California, in the preface to his book Understanding Understanding (2003). Given that it is only through learning and understanding that it is possible to discover that “one forgets an amount of data proportional to the amount of data one has in store at any one time,” a truly mathematical mind would conclude very early, even as a schoolboy, that such a proportion “corresponded to some sort of logarithmic decay of memory.”71 Moreover, since it is only by browsing through bookshelves72 that one arrives at the material proof of the fact that the operations of the human mind can be interrogated by algebraic analyses, and thus that it responds to them—such as in “a graph showing a decaying line labeled ‘Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve’”73—the epistemological core of cybernetics cannot be disassociated from a genealogy of knowledge and its apparatuses.

Thus, apart from the experiments of the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, when it comes to cybernetic apparatuses as such, it might seem that there are not many applied cases that can help us to genealogically and archaeologically investigate how the operational constitution of the human-machine coupling—perhaps the main condition of contemporary media cultures—is based on the cybernetic operation of forgetting. There is, however, at least one case that is useful.

In 1971, an epistolary exchange between technologists in Chile and England activated a plan to design a system that would apply the principles of management cybernetics to the Chilean economy.74 This country had just undergone unprecedented socialist political reforms that included the nationalization of several companies. This process required the implementation of truly sophisticated management techniques if the government was to effectively keep pace with the increasing complexity of the state-run economy. Thus, this correspondence began with the technological director of the Chilean Development Agency, Fernando Flores, who asked the management cybernetics expert Stafford Beer to guide the implementation of his own work in the Chilean context. The exchange continued with the British cybernetician typing his response to Flores’s call, which was not only positive, but enthusiastic.75 Thus, the project later known as Cybersyn was configured as an enterprise consisting of four parts: 1) a network of teletypewriters called Cybernet, which would place an input/output node in each nationalized company participating in the system; 2) a central processing node called Cyberstride, which would statistically analyze the data sent by the companies; 3) a simulation suite called CHECO, which would model possible scenarios for the local economy, based on relations between the processed information and international economic flows; and 4) an operations room called the Opsroom, where seven senior government officials and experts would discuss and make data-driven decisions, which would then be fed back to the nodes in the companies, always through the system’s infrastructure.76 And while important scholarship has been written about the socio-technical and political aspects that surrounded the case and would have defined its scope,77 this article argues that not enough has yet been said about the actual cybernetic human-machine coupling that Cybersyn could have set in motion.

Hence the importance of forgetting as a (first) conceptual apparatus linking cybernetics and German media theory. And for the same reason, there is the importance of Project Cybersyn as perhaps one of the few applied cases of cybernetics that could help us to witness whether such a theoretical apparatus transcends its symbolic status and proves to be as real as it is imaginary78—that is, truly technological.

In each input/output node of the Cybernet, a human being would type a series of information according to the protocols implemented by the system, by the project. Thus, through the persistent severity of the Q-W-E-R-T-Y keyboards, through the implacable grids drawn by the punched paper tapes of the teletypewriter, this procedure would silently eradicate any space for semantics and interpretation. The bodies of the typists would then become, perforation by perforation, a surface of inscription—an always erasable surface of inscription. Attached to the machine by a procedure that divided every meaning into individual symbols, and thus, into a code of presence and absence that could only be read by other machines, “humans change their position.”79 This is why random access memory seems to have been a key and distributed cybernetic component of Project Cybersyn.80 But again, this is still a conjecture. More research is needed to determine the exact nature of the protocols mentioned above, and thus, the exact structure of the series of information that the typists typed into their teletypewriters. In the same way, a media archaeological work on such a device is also necessary. This is so, because we must be able to structurally define the input/output operations of the teletypewriter with precision if we want to technologically understand the data-driven human-machine coupling that this device could have activated. However, what we already know—e.g., that Cybersyn’s telex network proved to be reliable and strong,81 that a specific protocol was designed for each industrial sector and company, and that every day a typist sat in front of a teletypewriter device to serially enter the company’s daily operations82—allows this article to outline a preliminary hypothesis, suggesting that such a network would have constituted an always erasable, an always rewritable, network of information and telecommunications where device and human being were part of a single but interconnected random access node, where the technological operation of forgetting was sovereign.83

Similarly, the central processing node, an IBM 360/50 mainframe computer connected to a teletype machine that served as an input peripheral, received the data coming from the Cybernet nodes in the form of punched paper tapes.84 There, a software suite programmed in Assembler and PL360—plus some routines written in Cobol and Fortran where punched paper cards were also fundamental—allowed the daily statistical analysis of the data.85 In other words, the permanent procedures of the system, its ROM, either written in the machine itself or stored on perforated pieces of paper that the machine could handle and decode, would ensure that forgetting would not be forgotten.

If “it is only on paper that the ‘human being’ originates,” it may be that, as a reborn or renewed species, “humans change their position” through it as well. Thus, it seems that German media theory and cybernetics—as an essential composite—can help us understand how and why media cultures have moved from storing to remembering to erasing to forgetting; and, perhaps more importantly, how this technological process came to determine our relationship to the past, the present, and the future—our condition as historical or, rather, more-than-historical beings. A case like Cybersyn provides the facts; Kittler’s and von Foerster’s theories of forgetting provides the methods.

In summary, this article has first attempted to genealogically trace the emergence and relevance of the notion of forgetting in both German media theory and in cybernetics. To this end, connections were drawn between the early works of Friedrich Kittler and Heinz von Foerster. This was done in the wake of Jan Müggenburg’s article “Bats in the Belfry,” in which he points out that von Foerster’s thinking could have reached Kittler indirectly through Siegfried J. Schmidt, for example.86 Alternatively, however, this text has re-read and examined Kittler’s “Forgetting” and von Foerster’s Quantum Mechanical Theory of Memory to suggest a more direct influence, the ramifications of which can also be seen in Kittler’s Discourse Networks, as well as in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, and The World of the Symbolic – A World of the Machine. Second, this article has also studied Moritz Hiller’s Unter Aufschreibesystemen in order to insist with him that just as Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication is not a founding element of German media theory, the problem of memory, and more precisely the question of forgetting, signals such a founding root. Accordingly, the fact that this question—as a thin, sometimes hard to see, but nevertheless strong, matted thread—crosses German media theory and cybernetics weaving a web of relations, can ultimately be seen as a unique fabric that constitutes the common core of both fields. Finally, this article has attempted to outline a preliminary re-examination of Project Cybersyn through the question of forgetting, in order to not only point out the centrality that this transversal fabric would play in the analysis of media cultures and their antecedents, but also to suggest that such a project could prove critical in assessing the scope of the notion of forgetting, and, similarly, the performance of German media theories and cybernetics when it comes to the analysis of modern knowledge and its technologies.

As a result, some questions are only sketched here, not in search of immediate answers, but in an attempt to delineate future areas of investigation. For example, only two of Cybersyn’s subprojects—Cybernet and Cyberstride—have been preliminarily discussed in these pages, deliberately avoiding the spectacular Opsroom, the part of the project that has received, unfairly, all the attention in the past. And while I have stated in previous articles that the Opsroom must be forgotten in order to grasp the true cybernetic scope of Project Cybersyn,87 a more nuanced approach will make it possible to understand that only by focusing our attention and archaeological gaze on efforts like Cybernet and Cyberstride will we be able to fully comprehend the role that spaces and devices such as the Opsroom would have played in the configuration of technologies of forgetting, as well as in the transitional state of the archive, and even more so in the permanent but somehow always forgotten presence of cybernetics in our cultures.

“Black out.”88 In times of cybernetics, when presence equals present in a constant feedback loop, “memory is literally permanently in transition.”89


Dotzler, Bernhard. “The Sirens Go Silent - Friedrich Kittler Part 11: Bernhard Dotzler.” Filmed March 2013 at Deutsches Haus at NYU, New York, NY, video, 48:34.

Dotzler, Bernhard. “Idiocy, Forgetting, and Outdatedness: Friedrich Kittler’s Avant-Gardism and the ‘Time for Other Stories’.” In The Technological Introject: Friedrich Kittler between Implementation and the Incalculable, edited by Jeffrey Champlin et al, 35–45. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.

Armitage, John. “From Discourse Networks to Cultural Mathematics: An Interview with Friedrich A. Kittler.” Theory, Culture & Society 23, no. 7–8 (2006): 17–38.

Ernst, Wolfgang. “Archives in Transition: Dynamic Media Memories.” In Digital Memory and the Archive, edited by Jussi Parikka, 95–101. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Gómez-Venegas, Diego. “Forgetting / Cybernetics. History of Media Studies.” CAC/CAFAcat Editorial 1, no. 1 (2020).

Gómez-Venegas, Diego. “Encoding from/to the Real: On Cybersyn’s Symbolic Politics of Transmission.” In Frictions: Inquiries into Cybernetic Thinking and Its Attempts towards Mate[real]ization, edited by Diego Gómez-Venegas, 91–117. Lüneburg: meson press, 2023.

Gómez-Venegas, Diego. “Cybersyn y la memoria simbólica del papel.” Artnodes, no. 23 (January 2019).

Hiller, Moritz. “Unter Aufschreibesystemen: ‘Eine Adresse im IC der Kultur’.” Metaphora 1 (2015): II/1–26.

Kittler, Friedrich. “Vergessen.” In Texthermeneutik: Aktualität, Geschichte, Kritik, edited by Ulrich Nassen, 195–221. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1979.

Kittler, Friedrich. “Forgetting.” Discourse 3 (1981[1979]): 88–121.

Kittler, Friedrich. Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900. München: Fink, 1985.

Kittler, Friedrich. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Kittler, Friedrich. “The World of The Symbolic – A World of The Machine.” In Literature, Media, Information Systems, edited by John Johnston, 130–46. Amsterdam: OPA Amsterdam B.V., 1997.

Kittler, Friedrich. “Die Welt des Symbolischen — eine Welt der Maschine.” In Draculas Vermächtnis. Technische Schriften, 58–80. Leipzig: Reclam, 1993.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Lacan, Jacques. Le séminaire II: Le moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse. Paris: Le Seuil, 1978. Quoted in Kittler, “Vergessen.”

Lacan, Jacques. “Psychoanalysis and cybernetics, or on the nature of language.” In The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II, The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Sylvana Tomaselli, 294–308. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Mayol, Alberto. “Cuando la utopía es el fórceps para alumbrar una nueva era.” In The Counterculture Room, ed. FabLab Santiago, 16–43. Barcelona: Polígrafa, 2017.

Mayr, Otto. “Maxwell and the Origins of Cybernetics.” Isis 62, no. 4 (Winter 1971): 424–44.

Maxwell, J. Clerk. “On Governors,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 16 (1867–1868): 270–83.

Medina, Eden. “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile.” Journal of Latin American Studies 38, no. 3 (2006): 571–606.

Medina, Eden. Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011.

Müggenburg, Jan. “Bats in the Belfry: On the Relationship of Cybernetics and German Media Theory.” Canadian Journal of Communication 42 (2017): 467–84.

Nassen, Ulrich. “Vorwort.” In Texthermeneutik: Aktualität, Geschichte, Kritik, edited by Ulrich Nassen, 7. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1979.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On the Utility and Liability of History for Life.” In Unfashionable Observations, 83–168. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Pias, Claus. “Unruhe und Steuerung. Zum utopischen Potential der Kybernetik.” In Die Unruhe der Kultur. Potentiale des Utopischen, edited by Jörn Rosen and Michael Fehr, 313–25. Weilerswist-Metternich: Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2004.

Pias, Claus. “Der Auftrag. Kybernetik und Revolution in Chile.” In Politiken der Medien, edited by Daniel Gethmann and Markus Stauff, 131–53. Zurich-Berlin: Diaphanes, 2005.

Rosenblueth, Arturo, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow. “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology.” Philosophy of Science 10, no. 1 (January 1943): 18–24.

Shannon, Claude E. and Warren Weaver. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998 [1949].

Turing, Alan M. “On Computable Numbers, With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem.” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society s2-42, no. 1 (January 1937): 230–65.

Turing, Alan M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Mind: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy 59, no. 236 (October 1950): 433–60.

Vehlken, Sebastian. “Environment for Decision – Die Medialität einer kybernetischen Staatsregierung. Eine medienwissenschaftliche Untersuchung des Projekts Cybersyn in Chile 1971–73.” Master’s thesis, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, 2004.

von Foerster, Heinz. “Quantum Mechanical Theory of Memory.” In Cybernetics | Kybernetik: The Macy-Conferences 1946-1953. Volume I / Band I. Transactions / Protokolle, edited by Claus Pias, 98–121. Zurich-Berlin: Diaphanes, 2003.

von Foerster, Heinz. “Preface.” In Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition, v-ix. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2003.

Wiener, Norbert. “Introduction.” In Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, 1–29. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985 [1948/1961].

Wiener, Norbert. “Computing Machines and the Nervous System.” In Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, 116–32. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985 [1948/1961].

Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey. “Introduction.” In Kittler and the Media, 1–7. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?