Beyond the Binary: Postcolonial Cybernetics and Scottish Identity


This post examines the issue of Scottish national identity using a theoretical framework drawn from Cybernetics and Postcolonial theories. Specifically it focuses on the construction of the historical relationship between Scotland and England through the process of manufacturing myth. By examining the parallels between Cybernetics theory and Postcolonial theory as it is applied to Scottish national identity, this study will assess the suitability of using Cybernetics as a methodology, and also ask to what extent the relationship with England has played a role in authoring past models of Scottish identity.

The study began with an interest in Cybernetics theory applied to art making systems. This interest in Cybernetics theory diminished in preference for investigations of identity and cultural memory; particularly the influence film and media have on Scottish cultural memory. A studio based practice, which reflected and informed the research allowed the study of Cybernetics theory to re-emerge, and to coalesce with an analysis of Scottish identity. After being introduced to Postcolonial theory, it became apparent that some discourses resonated with the Cybernetics theories of control and communication and with a reading of the history and manufacture of Scottish identity.


The main methodologies of Cybernetics and Postcolonialism will now be explained demonstrating how this study is theoretically informed. The parallels between both theories will be made clear, making visible the alignment of the two systems. The limits of Cybernetic and Postcolonial theories when used to examine Scottish identity will also be considered.

Norbert Weiner’s book Cybernetics: Communication in the Animal and Machine (1948), described Cybernetics as an ‘analysis of society in terms of messages, in which the faculty of communication between man and machine allows us to understand the universe as a probabilistic, organic information system’ (Weiner, 1954). As an American mathematician and scientist, Weiner was concerned with formulating a theoretical framework for mathematically modelling and predicting human behaviour. When applied to the study of human societies, Cybernetics theory examines social systems, which function in terms of input, assimilation and output. There are clear links between Cybernetics theory and theories of Functionalism which predominated American sociology during the 1950s and 1960s. The American sociologist Talcott Parsons based his theory of the A.G.I.L. paradigm on Cybernetics theory.[1] Cybernetics theory rests on the assumption that humans and machines process information about the world in a similar way, using a system of messages and feedback. The diagram below illustrates the main Cybernetics theory of information processing as a system of message input, assimilation and feedback, followed by message output:

Because Cybernetics is relevant to the study of systems, its use spread across a broad range of disciplines within the natural and social sciences. W. Ross Ashby, a prominent British psychiatrist, Stafford Beer, a business and management specialist and Edward Goldsmith, an ecologist are among many notable scholars in the field of Cybernetics. Attracted to Cybernetics as a study of control and communication, and as a science of predicting future actions, scholars such as Ashby et al. saw the theory as a system of prediction, regulation and control through the sending and receiving of messages. However, when applied to the study of social systems, Cybernetics differs from Functionalist theories, which have been criticised for their inability to effectively explain human agency and conflict.[2] Cybernetics theory is able to explain social systems as composed of differential parts in ‘dynamic interrelationship with each other’ (Goldsmith, 1978, p6). In terms of examining Scottish identity, the constructing order of Cybernetics offers a useful perspective for analysing the messages that contributed to the manufacture of myth, as does the use of Postcolonial theory.

Benedict Anderson argues that nations, and national identities are ‘imagined political communities, and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’ (Anderson, 1991 [1983], p.6).

‘It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm’ (Anderson, 1991 [1983], p.60

Anderson claims that nations and nationalism are deliberately constructed using messages presented as national myths to explain the origin of national communities. Connected to the rise and dissemination of printed literature, it is claimed that national memory is born through fiction and inaccurate or valorized historiography (Anderson, 1991 [1983], p. 33). Anderson’s theory of ‘print-capitalism’ argues that common language and discourse used to share notions of identity were derived from the use of the printing press in a capitalist market place. As the uniformity of a shared language emerged, local dialects and vernaculars fell away to become supplanted by national print languages (Anderson, 1991 [1983], p.36).

‘… the search was on … for a new way of linking fraternity, power and time meaningfully together. Nothing perhaps more precipitated this search, nor made it more fruitful, than print-capitalism, which made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways’ (Anderson, 1991 [1983], p.36).

The homogenisation of disparate groups through the use of language has a direct link to Cybernetics which states that systems evolve by the absorption of smaller associated systems. Cybernetics exercises the power of the whole over component pieces and discards the parts of the system unnecessary to its development, subjecting additions to the system with sets of constraints to keep order and stability. In terms of Scottish national identity, ‘print-capitalism’ can be viewed as standardizing identity by marginalizing smaller, local sub-groups. By ignoring local vernaculars and languages, ‘print-capitalism’ has close ties with another Postcolonial discourse.

‘For ‘Orientalism’ was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”). This vision in a sense created and then served the two worlds thus conceived. Orientals lived in their world, “we” lived in ours. The vision and material reality propped each other up, kept each other going’ (Said, 1978, p.43-44).

The quote above is taken from Edwards Said’s book, Orientalism (1978), where he talks extensively of ‘othering’. Said describes a process of creating a dichotomy between the (Western) self, and an ‘other’, and then shows how and the use of myth facilitates false cultural representations. Building on Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, the false cultural construction and representation of ‘others’ can be used to exercise power by a dominant group. The representation of racial differences and their polarization has strong associations with Cybernetics theories of ‘transformation’ and ‘negentropy’ (see Glossary), which seek stability through the exercise of hierarchical control. Said specifically discusses the mythologised representation of the Orient by the Occident. Although Scotland is distinguished from other countries, which are more unambiguously recognised as colonies, Scotland’s high degree of political, administrative and economic integration with the rest of the UK, and its role as a global coloniser, renders the use of Postcolonialism as a methodology questionable, although there may be some parallels with settler colonies in Australia and Canada (Stroh, 2012, p.233).[3]

‘Connections, parallels and cross-fertilization’s between various ideological and cultural paradigms employed in Scotland and those employed in colonial and postcolonial societies have become striking … due to a general increase in international awareness and interaction … among the general population’ (Stroh, 2012, p.233)

As the quote above suggests, the critical theory of Postcolonialism can be applied beyond the physically colonised to become an intellectual framework emerging from it where a number of discourse patterns, which are commonly associated with overseas colonial and postcolonial frameworks, can also be identified in negotiations of Scottish national identity (Malzahn, 2011).

Table 1 below illustrates the key parallels between Cybernetics theory and Postcolonial theory. On the left are key Cybernetics theories that will be discussed in this dissertation. These theories correspond to parallel discourses from the broad framework of Postcolonialism.

Table 1: Model of Cybernetics theories that correspond to Postcolonial discourses used in this dissertation.

Parallels between Cybernetic and Postcolonial Theories



Connectivity Representation
Stability/ Homeostasis Polarity/ Binary Social Relation
Transformation Othering/ colonial identity/ subaltern
Negative Entropy Homogenisation
Networked Cultural convergence / divergence
Hierarchy Hegemony


The study was based upon quantitative, qualitative and practice-based research. Data was gathered using a questionnaire (see appendix) and a series of focus groups. The practice-based research involved programming machines to move within a delineated space in order to represent autonomy and cybernetic control. The machines were constructed to produce a drawing, make marks, or sounds, that made visible their movements within a specified space. [4] One machine moved within a metal drum. Covered and therefore unobservable, the machine made an audio signature of its movement as it hit and rebounded off the walls of the steel drum, suggesting an invisible, insidious, and perhaps even violent manipulation of the senses, in line with the assertions of Edward Said’s theory of ‘Orientalism’ (1978). Another machine was made to bounce within a box (see image 04). By rebounding off the sides, pencils attached to the machine made a drawing of its duration in the box. The machine was expected to move in random directions within the confines of its container. This cybernetic system ‘observed’ its environment, assimilated observed data, and adjusted in line with its parameters, thus demonstrating performative agency (see Glossary).

An analysis of social messages was derived from both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Qualitative data has been gathered by conducting a series of interviews, focus groups and questionnaires (see Appendices 1-6). The data is derived from an initial pilot study of 100 participants, where the data was crowd-sourced through social media networks, with the majority of the surveys filled on the evening of 4th May 2013. A quantitative analysis of the survey reveals that 67% of the total number of respondents considered themselves to be Scottish. Table 2 is a quantitative visualization and lists key aspects of Scottish national identity as answered by the pilot study participants. It would be negligent to derive a model of ‘Scottishness’ based on a small and unverifiable questionnaire. A range of verifiable statements was obtained from 16 focus group members during Spring 2013. Three focus groups were held (see Appendices 7-6), comprising of five or six interviewees. The use of a qualitative methodology provides richer, more in-depth responses to the research questions.[5] It also allows the researcher and participants more scope to fully explore some of the myths surrounding Scottish national identity. As such, this research has not endeavored to explore the diversity of Scottish identity. The focus groups and survey did not examine all the ideas of Scottishness, resulting in this study analysing the most popular beliefs based on anecdotal evidence. The focus groups members have been quoted anonymously and have been attributed a letter indicating which of the four groups they participated in i.e. letters A – D, with each individual member given a number 01 – 06.

Table 2: Question: Please list the key aspects you believe contribute to Scottish identity.


The research process was structured according to Cybernetics principles, rendering the research itself as an experimental work. Where possible, historical data has been verified, but some of the assertions of this project are conjectural. However, survey and focus group data has been used to guide the research, exemplifying the main Cybernetic theme of ‘feedback’. By assimilating the survey data, and outputting the most popular three answers as potential research areas, the research was conducted, analysed and resolved in a cybernetic way. The research was unable to factor in the variety of Scottish identities, and instead deals with the three prevalent myths revealed by the data collected. A fuller account of Scottish identity is a subject in itself and would demand an attention and rigour outside the system and boundaries devised for this research, resulting in some grave omissions.  The limits of this research have been designed to test explicitly whether Cybernetics can be used to analyse three popular mythologies as applied to Scottish identity. Each of the three most popular areas will now be considered below and referred to throughout the remainder of the dissertation. However, due to word count constraints, the focus in Section 2 will be on the historical manufacturing of myth. Three main research areas that emerged were: First, anti-English sentiment; Second, concepts of a Scottish attitude and third, historical links to the past.


1. Anti-English Sentiment

A04:    I think we consider ourselves to be more committed to a sense of community, justice and fairness. Rightly or wrongly, we view English identity as more class ridden, more imperial, with a strong, privileged elite ruling every aspect of society for their own profit and power.

Some of the respondents defined Scottish identity as being in binary opposition to England. It is therefore important to explore the messages that have been assimilated to produce such a belief. An analysis of the post-Empire period of the twentieth century Scotland until 1987, reveals that Scots changed from being willing participants, to a ‘subaltern’, subordinate group within the UK, displaying patterns of resistance to a hegemonic control (McLeod, 2012, pp.21-22). Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is a useful lens for analysing issues of class and nationhood, asking how people establish identities within and against hierarchically ordered society (Jones, 2006, p.58). This is relevant to Scottish identity, which has been produced in part, through the representation and relationship the Scots have with the nation-state. In terms of Cybernetics this is called the mechanism of control through ‘stability’ (see Glossary), maintained by allowing the system which it governs, access to a restricted amount of information, only that which is necessary for its own specific adaptive purpose. This can be used to analyse Scotland’s role in the Empire.

As settlers, administrators, military and business people, Scots are interwoven into imperial history (Devine, 2011, p.11). During the latter stages of the Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a unified British identity was at its peak. Yet this does not render Scotland’s relationship within the Empire as unproblematic. Colonisation embargoes[6] coupled with Glasgow’s role in the slave trade and the diversion of food and raw materials away from Scotland to population centers elsewhere in the UK, placed a strain on Scotland’s position within the British Empire.[7] Coley argues that British identity was fashioned from an unruly and quarrelsome alliance of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, coalescing around war, and defined in contrast to ‘others’ (Coley, 2009, p.24).  Both Frantz Fanon and Edward Said often present their analyses of ‘others’ in terms of binary opposition, where Said hints that polarity is at the center of Orientalism (1978). Bhabha (1994) claims that,

‘It is on one hand the system of discourse represents learning, discovery and practice, yet on the other, it is the site of dreams, images, fantasies, myths, obsessions and requirements’ (Bhabha, 1994, p.102).

Both Bhabha (1994) and Goldsmith (1978) point out that polarity prompts instability and opposition, resulting in the loss of self-regulation and a disruption of what in Cybernetics is called ‘homeostasis’ (see Glossary). It could be claimed that the UK’s homeostasis can only be maintained by a unanimous animosity towards other nations, religions and races (Coley, 2009, p.28). Cannadine agrees, (and in discussing Englishness) states that,

‘Demonising the enemy has always worked wonders at galvanising self-identity, and this solidarity morphed in to what later  became a characteristic mixture and xenophobia on the part of the English nation’ (Cannadine, 2013, p.61).

Without the singular and unifying objective of Empire, the bindings that held Britain together became more fragile and sparse. This revealed the differences within the United Kingdom and contributed to an ‘us and them’ culture, or ‘the Scots and the English’; called ‘binary opposition’ in both Cybernetics and Postcolonialism. A consolidated British identity required binary conditions and the ‘othering’ of colonised nations for the Union to survive. Paradoxically, the same system of polarity is partly responsible for the collapse of the Union in the twentieth century. ‘Hierarchical cooperation’ (see Glossary), pivotal to the success of a system like national identity and ‘stability’ become disrupted as the imposed hegemonic artificiality of Scottish identity fell away under these conditions of strain.

2. Concepts of a Scottish attitude

A03:    Clan nature, friendliness, helpfulness, talkative, proud of our country and its people, an ability to overcome hardships.

Some of the respondents claimed that Scottish people are in some ways different from their counterparts throughout the rest of the UK, arguing that Scots have a unique national character and suggesting that some consider their ancestry to be biologically or racially different. Historians, such as Trevor-Roper (2009), argue that the alleged racial origins of the Scots have been deliberately falsified during the nineteenth century, where nationalist literature re-appropriated and returned mythology as truisms (Trevor-Roper, 2009, p.21). Trevor-Roper maintains that there are,

‘three consecutive myths which have successively filled the four hundred years of Scottish history from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. They are (1) the political myth, the myth of the ancient constitution od Scotland; (2) the literary myth, the myth of the ancient poetry of Scotland which lasted from 1760 till the late 1820’s – if not beyond; and (3) the sartorial myth, the myth of the ancient costume witch began in the 1820’s and is with us still (Trevor-Roper, 2009, p.xx).

This suggests that the Scottish character is propagated by a mythologised history, which explains and authenticates key concepts of nation and national identity. It is therefore important to consider, as Trevor-Roper suggests, to what extent nineteenth century fiction writing has authored the Scottish character.

The two key frameworks of ‘print-capitalism’ and the Cybernetics theory of ‘connectivity’ (see Glossary) can be used to analyse this question and demonstrate that Scottish identity has been shaped by an inaccurate portrayal of the traditionally stereotyped Scottish character through overly sentimental representations. ‘Connectivity’ is based on maintaining a systems ‘stability’, and can be defined as a trajectory or path, along which discontinuities are kept to a minimum, ensuring a state of equilibrium (Goldsmith, 1979, p.6). This is achieved through the construction of traditions, myths, symbols and ceremonies, encouraging a sense of mutual belonging, through the standardization and repeated use of icons and symbols, to fabricate a common history and shared identity of a nations people (Harvie, 2010, p.81). ‘Connectivity’ relies on an assembling process where various standardized parts coalesce to form a complete system.  This theory shares ideas of standardization and unification with Anderson’s theory of ‘print-capitalism’, where Anderson claims nations are built on a unifying narrative, with individuals imaging they belong to,

‘a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history. An American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his … fellow Americans. He has no idea what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity (Anderson, 1991 [1983], p.26).

As demonstrated earlier, Anderson convincingly argues that nations form around a shared language and discourse, revealed and disseminated by printed material such as newspapers and novels. The study of linguistic hierarchies is a key theme in Postcolonial studies. Hegemonic groups have frequently imposed specific languages upon marginalized groups resulting in the loss of native languages from public space. Stroh (2012) agrees, and claims that ‘the history of English in Scotland has been associated with power imbalances and imposition under pressure’[8] (Stroh, 2012, p.273). ‘Connectivity’ parallels ‘print-capitalism’ as both theories demand that for a system to become successfully self-regulating, diversity must be streamlined resulting in the fatality of sub-sets, which Anderson claims are idiolects, dialects and diversity (Anderson, 1991, p.56). As sub-sets are subsumed, considerable power dominates their final forms. It can therefore be argued that the publishing industry has influenced, or has been an active catalyst in the emergence of nationalism and the nation-state (Anderson, 1991, p.58). In the system of identity, this model becomes the view of the self, creating a consciousness of shared common values or sentiments to create an imagined kinship (Smith, 1979, p.27).

3. Historical links to the past

C01:    Contemporary identity, individually and collectively, is informed in part by history. History is conveyed through story telling, and meaning. Fact becomes secondary to meaning over time, and hence myth influences our sense of self and purpose.

Historians such as Tindley (2013), Ash (1980) and Kidd (1998) claim that very little Scottish history exists after the Act of Union in 1707 (see Appendix 7). Enlightenment historians focused on writing a modern, post-union history for Scotland, largely ignoring the documentation of pre-union Scotland (Findley, 2001). A useful lens on this period is Edward Said’s discourse of Orientalism (1974), specifically the concept of ‘othering’ where, as has been shown, hegemonic groups exert authority and power over subordinate groups in order to ‘civilise’ or exploit ‘others’. Linking Orientalism with Cybernetic theories of ‘transformation’ and ‘negative entropy’ (see Glossary) reveals that nation-states are formed by the absorption of smaller associated systems, or communities (Goldsmith, 1978, p.8).

As soon as systems associate to form a larger system they are subjected to a new set of constraints. These do not replace the others but supplements them. Constraints in fact accumulate as the system advances up the ladder of life, as they move from one level of organization to the next. The actual strength of the constraint imposed upon a system is a measure of its order, or negative entropy                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             which terms are used synonymously. Order is defined as a limitation of choice … or the influence of the whole over the parts (Goldsmith, 1978, p.8).

By attempting to understand ‘othering’ through the prism of Cybernetics, the trajectory of some aspects of Scottish identity can be, in part, predicted within a range of performative (see Glossary) potentials and agency. The next section will consider the issue of historical links to the past more fully by examining the manufacturing of myth through the re-writing of Scottish history.

Section 2: The Historical Basis of Identity

B06:    I think I got my ideas about Scotland from movies. Definitely whiskey, and the highlands, and kilts were my first idea. I think kilts a lot. When I go back to Czech people are asking, do they wear kilts all the time? Do they drink whiskey all the time?

The quote above is an external view of Scotland from a foreign visitor, demonstrating the long lasting effect of the romanticisation of Scottishness first laid down in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries within the literature of the time. This section critically analyses the messages and myths which contributed to one model of Scottish identity, amongst a myriad of possible identities. It will show that the predominant view is an artificial model of identity constructed during the period from the 1707 Act of Union, to the height of the Scottish Romantic movement at the beginning of the nineteenth century (see Appendix 8).  By showing that eighteenth century intellectuals largely reinvented Scottish history immediately after the Act of Union, the consequential ‘othering’ of post-Union Scots will be analysed.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, nationalism blossomed throughout Europe, but not in Scotland (Morton, 1994). This anomaly can be understood by examining an ideological change in post-union Scottish history writing. Prior to the Act of Union, Scottish identity could be broadly described as libertarian and republican (Harvie, 2004, p.13). The glorification of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace contributed to the national epics that were in constant print from the sixteenth century onwards (Harvie, 2004, p.14). However, after the union with England in 1707, imperialism and Scotland’s position within the British Empire strengthened ties to England politically, economically and ideologically (Devine, 2004, 348). Devine argues that:

‘Scottishness was under sustained attack from the intellectuals of the Enlightenment. The nations most gifted historian of the age, William Robertson, denounced everything before the revolution of 1688 as feudal darkness, fanaticism and anarchy’ (Devine, 2004, p.347).

As Devine notes, the union with England impacted upon concepts of Scottish national identity among the political and literary elites, who reconstructed versions of Scottish history that were in keeping with new ideologies. Yet Devine also notes that although Anglicisation existed at the level of the political and landed elites, the ‘common people’ of Scotland continued to speak Scots or Gaelic, attend Scottish churches and take pride in national icons such as Bruce and Wallace (Devine, 2004, 351). According to Kidd (1997), the eighteenth century Scottish literati declared Scotland was without history, and English history, representing modernity, became the base for a national, ‘British’ identity (Kidd, 1997).

Many Scots welcomed the Act of Union, and the nation wide introduction of English ideology cannot be denied.  The imposition of ideology can be considered in Cybernetics as an ‘asymmetrical system’ (see Glossary), where one part of the system; one homeostat (see Glossary), is fixed and each other parts of the system must seek stability by adapting to it. Asymmetric Cybernetics can represent technocratic social ideologies and re-enforce or intensify existing hierarchical power relations. A Postcolonial analysis of this period suggests theories of ‘binary’ opposition and of ‘othering’, explored in the introduction, should now be explored more fully. To assume we know the mentalities of Scots would be negligent, but for some living during the transition to Union, the knowledge of a Scottish history, and the imposition of ‘British’ ideologies based on English history may represent a direct binary between the two.  By acknowledging binary conditions is to simultaneously acknowledge that hegemony is a constructing order, leaving one group in a position of subaltern. Social ordering is not recorded in post-Union history; instead we see aspects of interdependence as the evolving nation-state dominates Enlightenment history writing of the time (Tindley, 2013). The historical moment of interdependence, and the consequential lack of Scottish history, may serve to camouflage a polarity and uncertainty in the modern union.

Escaping the uncertainty of the modern world, the paradox of Scottish history is the runaway success of the romanticisation, and subsequent standardization of Scottish history throughout Europe, by writers such as Walter Scott. Just as the clearances were emptying the highlands, Scott was re-created them, celebrating their past, and creating a myth for the future (Oliver, 2010). Yet Scott did not supply an intellectual framework to rebuild an authentic Scottish history. Instead the influence of his books contributed to the artificiality, and cultural hijacking of Scottish identity, as it developed through the eighteenth century. Ash (1980) claims that Scottish history died when British history took over:

‘At the time when Scotland was ceasing to be distinctively and confidently herself, was also the period when there grew an increasing emphasis on the emotional trappings of the past. This is the paradox, and it’s symbols are bonnie Scotland of bens and glens, misty shieling, the Jacobites, Mary Queen of Scots, tartan mania and the raising of historical statuary’ (Ash, 1980, p.10).

Eric Hobsawm (1983) observed that symbols, tradition and ritual are necessary parts of the invention of a nation, made visible through the repeated use of icons and statues, often of past events embellished by myth, to fabricate a common history and shared identity of a nations people (Hobsbawm, 2013 [1983], p.23). Hobsbawm’s analysis, that entirely new symbols and devices came into existence as part of national movement in Scotland in the early eighteenth century, helps to explain the Scots readiness to accept fictionalized accounts of their origins as a form of cultural memory, to create a stable model of identity. In Postcolonial terms, for some Scots, the result of cultural, historical and political sidelining can be viewed as hegemony, aligning with constructing order in asymmetric Cybernetics. For Frantz Fanon (1956), hegemony and containment were acts of violence that can only be countered with violence.

Building on these initial observations, a conjectural practice based research experiment involving the programming of two machines to move within a delineated space helped to visualise Cybernetic control and stability. The machines were constructed to produce a drawing which mapped their movements within the space. Made from modified children’s toys, the machines held 12 pencils, each protruding from a central trajectory and bounced within a container leaving marks where they hit the walls or floor of the container. For the purpose of this experiment, the Situationists notion of Play, and the contemporary sub cultures of Hacktivism[9] and Modding[10] have been drawn upon to create the machines, which challenges typical notions of westernised art practice, and demonstrates that ‘art can no longer be justified as a superior western activity’ which is in keeping with the Postcolonial theme is this study (Debord & Wolmen, 1956). [11] Additionally, building the machines from existing objects highlights an alignment with the post-expert maker movement, which decentralises production of art, science and engineering objects away from mass and standarised production, thus demonstrating autonomy and independence

(Monk, 2013).[12]

Firstly, one machine representing Scottish identity was made to bounce within a round container, rebounding off the sides. (See Image 03). The resulting drawings were examined, and areas of ‘ultrastability’ were found as repeated wear on some parts of the machines created a system of feedback, where the expected behaviour of the machines adjusted to compensate, resulting in dark marks being drawn at points of stability, near the margins of the drawing (see Image 04). The drawing became an allegory of identity where stability is observed as artificial. Based on the homogenisation of cultural diversity, resulting from ‘transformation’, identity became ordered through a process of ‘negative entropy’, adapting and stabilising around a fictional, standardized version of history.

The experiment introduced another machine, which disrupted stability by collision and interaction. The machines moved within a series of external pressures: height of bounce, and acceleration were clearly governed by physical laws; gravity etc. However, disruption was also represented as the circles become bruised with little uniformity (see Image 05). Homeostasis (see Glossary) became unbalanced and stability lost. This was especially evident when the machines collided causing often-violent encounters resulting in radical alteration of a perceived course or trajectory. The disturbance could represent a reality which acknowledges that there are, and have been, many different people and identities in Scotland. The Scots have very little accurate information about their history and origin because the Enlightenment and Victorian writers attempted to standardize British identity in an effort to celebrate the nation-state (Tindly, 2013). Clay Shirkey’s argument that hierarchical organisation is reduced in preference for decision-making using agency, can be referred to in this analysis. In a national sense, this represents the loosening of the bonds of state-society (Stokes, 2004, p.37). Individual agency leads to identity of the self, separate from top down hierarchy.  In this sense modern identity is ‘performative’ and reactionary, in as much as it counters the cultural and hegemonic construction of identity (Butler, 2013, p.152).

 Image 05: Andrew Welsby, Cybernetic experiment 04, 2013.

By interpreting the drawings differently, one Scottish identity model may be seen as being on the margins of a centralised ‘Britishness’ within a set of cultural boundaries separating some Scots from their UK counterparts, suggesting an intransigence and a view of struggling against the State. In Postcolonial theory, this identity may align to center/ margin theory, where Scots may see the formation of themselves dependent on where they sit in relation to the center. For some post-Union Scots, the center may be the hub of governance in London, or could be the sense that some Scots try to make of the influences, diversity and growth of Enlightenment Britain.

From the vast body of Enlightenment history, Scotland’s polarity is not well recorded. The narratives of eighteenth century history talk of reason, economic expansion and education, which Bhabha argues, emerged as the technologies of colonial and imperialist governance (Bhabha, 1994, p.280). While these histories triumph in progress, they can be viewed through the lens of Orientalism (1978) which states that cultures that are binary ‘others’ have history imposed upon them. An analysis of the economy of Scottish historiography in Enlightenment writing reveals a solid fixed ‘otherness’, where Scots are cast as powerless, and where the traditional ideas of binary have only positive or negative dimensions. However, Bhabha advises that [Scots] had some agency in creating the limits of their own culture and identity (Bhabha, 1994, p.227). This assertion commands some credence, as not only were Scots resident as politicians in London, with John Stuart becoming the first Scottish Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1762, but much of the Enlightenment historiography was written by Scots, such as John Millar (1735 – 1801).

By thinking about the research in terms of Cybernetics, a representation of the binary system of identities was investigated creating an analogy of the key theories in a practical model. Two roving machines were programmed to move freely within a large flat container designed to represent confinement. In this experiment, the container, with its straight edges, stands for the arbitrariness of this assembly, fixing an imagined barrier that the machines could not rove beyond. Each machine occupied a space opposite from the other. With a pencil mounted in the center, the machines moved about their space drawing a line, making visible the effects of their movements and decisions. Using sensors, the drawing machines were programmed to avoid the edges of their confinement, and to avoid each other. This cybernetic system observed its environment, assimilated observed data, and adjusted in line with its parameters, attempting to realise its goal of stability, as all Cybernetics systems do. In this case the drawing machines frequently approached the edge of the container, and then turned away, occupying an interstitial space between the two binaries. Again, the machines demonstrated some sort of performative agency by reacting to their environment and modifying their behavior. An oscillation of behavior occurred as the rovers moved towards the middle of the space, and then returned, roughly to the binary position. The continuous movement, in this case suggested that neither of the rovers reached a point of stability.

Moving between an interstitial center and a binary position represents a spectrum of ‘decisions’ made within a range of possible parameters. Binary ‘othering’ in these terms resonates with the post-structuralist assertion of ‘othering’ by Homi Bhabha, who argues that once binaries are destabilised, cultures can interact, transform and transgress each other in a way that traditional ideas of binary disallow (Bhabha, 1994, p.246). Bhabha argues that these

‘In between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. It is in the emergence of the interstices – the overlap and displacement of domains of difference – that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated’ (Bhabha, 1994, p.2).

Bhabha claims that identity can be de-centered by re-interpreting time as a series of contingencies, or possibilities based on set parameters (Bhabha, 1994, p.277). By considering the traditional Postcolonial definition of ‘binary’ as focused inwardly on ‘here and now’, a post-structuralist and Cybernetics view questions ‘binary’ as viable system, where its parameters include a forward looking ‘there and then’ (Stokes, 2004). Therefore identity is not fixed, but is a relationship of differences, which could possibly refer to Derrida’s Differance (Stocker, 2007, p.52). Bhabha suggests that political action, and by association, identity, has potentiality which can be termed as ‘subaltern agency’, maintained by a state of indeterminacy, and a negation of the self as an ‘other’, where the self can negotiate its own authority (Bhabha, 1994, p.265). By resisting binary structures of opposition, the complexity of political and social boundaries must be recognised as a ‘hybrid location of culture’ where the concept of the ‘other’ becomes problematic. Bhahbha states that his

‘growing conviction has been that encounters and negotiations of differential meanings and values within ‘colonial’ textuality, its governmental discourses and cultural practices, have anticipated … many of the problematics of signification and judgment that have become common in contemporary theory – aporia, ambivalence, indeterminacy, the question of discursive closure, the threat to agency, the status of intentionality, the challenge of ‘totalising’ concepts, to name a few (Bhabha, 1994, p.248).

These ideas are paralleled in Cybernetics, and contrast the asymmetric model discussed earlier. ‘Symmetric’ Cybernetics is a system where the component parts do not coalesce around a hegemonic center. In this model, homeostats, or the parts of the system which regulate and look for stability, react to each other non-hierarchically; what Pickering calls ‘a dance with agency’ (Pickering, 2011, p.17). Pickering expands to claim that human and non-human agency share similar qualities, which he characterises as a dialogue based on a choice of heterogeneous elements and multiplicity (Pickering, 2013). Pickering offers:

‘An ontological vision of the world and our place in it, a vision in which both the human and the non-human are recognized as open-endedly becoming, taking on emergent forms in an intrinsically temporal dance with agency (Pickering, 2011, p.1).

Pickering builds on the work of Weiner, by considering the messages and myths that construct the identity of the ‘other’. Weiner claims that the ‘other’ becomes the ‘same’ as objects are defined by their actions, where the future behaviours are predicted by the past actions of the objects within the system, not by a hegemonic center. In this version of the identity system, homeostasis and stability are found as the parts adapt to each other, ‘explore’ their environment performatively, reacting through reconfiguration until equilibrium is reached. Therefore, all communication is statistical rather than based on a system of asymmetric othering, where the other and the self can be modeled on the same assumptions in terms of homogeneity rather than difference, where the new form of other is now the same.

            In summery, this section has shown that a complex system like Scottish identity may interrogate the unknown in an exploratory, performative way, reacting to its environment, past behaviours, and to the multiple and complex identities within the larger system. The reaction to input information is at the heart of Cybernetics, where the system makes a ‘decision’ and changes within a range of constraints and parameters, free to adapt to its environment (Pickering, 2013). Considering Scottish identity in these terms counters any claim that Scottish identity has been, in totality, authored by a hegemonic construction. By analyzing identity with Cybernetics as a methodology reveals that the evolution of the system, such as the homogenisation of diversity, can be explained with the cold clarity of an impartial system based analysis. But Cybernetics also allows for an understanding of identity evolving along a continuing trajectory, which has in part been chosen by those that the system describes – the Scots themselves.  For some Scots, memory becomes the foundation of identity as history and agency merge, to become a history not of objectified others, but as subjects of history, actively recombining narrative, cultural meaning, language and a variety of identities, as the encumbrance of fiction and myth are removed to construct a new diverse Scottish identity.

Section 3: Conclusion

Cybernetics has matured, and its application can now be found, intentionally or not, in a vast number of modern systems, devices and studies, way beyond the scope of the pioneers in the 1950s and 60s. Modern Cybernetics is applied across a range of disciplines and activities including the arts, humanities and social sciences. In theoretical biology, Stuart Kauffman explores the origins of order. Christopher Alexander has built on a reputation carved in the 1960s to excel in the field of interactive and responsive architecture. Steve Wolfram uses cybernetics in the study of cellular autonoma. Cybernetics represents a different paradigm from modern sciences. Considering ontologies, modern sciences deliver familiar answers based on what is knowable and structured. The ontology of Cybernetics has a different view, and could be considered as the science of very complex systems, or subjects that continually evolve and change (Beers, 1958, p.43). If modern science is the study of the knowable, Pickering states that Cybernetics is the science of the unknowable (Pickering, 2013). For the purpose of this study, to use a system based on change and evolution is a perfect methodology to investigate the continually evolving social phenomenon of Scottish identity. As Cybernetics represents the science of autonomy, its use becomes particularly applicable to analyse identity in Scotland as Scots soon face a decision over their own political autonomy.

There are three main conclusions to be drawn from this study. Firstly, theories drawn from Cybernetics and Postcolonial frameworks were combined with practice-based explorations in order to describe some of the processes and myths that produce identity as a reality. It has been argued that Scottish identity has in part been authored by a relationship with England. Historical subjugation, at times closely aligned to the discourses of Postcolonialism has been explained in binary terms. Drawing upon Said’s Orientalism, it was shown that false cultural assumptions were reinforced by selective writings from an Enlightenment elite, resulting in an inaccurate portrayal, and a filtering of accurate data, about Scottish cultures. Secondly, Cybernetic theories of ‘transformation’ and ‘negentropy’ were used to describe the process of homogenisation, and the absorption of small localised groups and cultures prior to the 1707 Act of Union. By turning to one aspect of Homi Bhabha’s Location of Culture (1994), it has been shown that by rethinking some traditional Postcolonial discourses, questions of identity can be re-considered to include hybridity, interstice and social agency. Thirdly, by analysing concepts of Scottishness with Cybernetics, this study has revealed clarity of analysis, and a method of looking at identity as a dialogue between control and agency. Cybernetics has helped show the processes that have caused Scottish identity to be manufactured when systems are interrupted, stability is manufactured and false, and when reality is called as a disturbance through the processes of agency.

In conclusion, Autonomy and self-reflection in the modern age of communication technology removes, in some ways, the polarisation of identity, perhaps seen in the period covered by this dissertation. Lateral pathways facilitated by globalisation permit a myriad of simultaneous identities. For many Scots, being Scottish is in part about being European, or being British, or being a woman or a man, for example. In an interview for this study, Catriona MacDonald argued that England and Scotland shape each other’s identity through the positive contribution of the modern union (MacDonald, 2013).[13] The UK government face a challenge, as Scottish identity moves from the identity of mass British society to a more complex system of multiple identities, of which Scottishness is included. Cybernetics can help view a modern Scotland where hierarchical systems of social organisation are losing ground to autonomy, and self-governance in a time of multiple identity claims, making available a mode of social and networked agency.



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[1] The AGIL paradigm is part of Parsons’s larger action theory outlined in his book The Structure of Social Action (1967) which aims to construct a unified map of all action systems and living systems, Pickering, 2010, p. 53.

[2] It should be acknowledged that Parsons was writing at a time just after WW2 and the beginning of the cold war when society was in a state of deep upheaval. At this time social order was pivotal to establishing a sense of national unity in the US.

[3] Stroh affirms that postcolonial approaches to Scotland have been kept mostly within the disciplinary studies of these countries, and mostly on countries overseas, or on more obvious cultural and racial differences within the UK.

[4] It should be made clear that the machines were not created as surrogates for human movement, but instead were designed to test the theories of cybernetics.

[5] The topic-based conversations lasted about an hour, were recorded and then transcribed. The subsequent qualitative analysis was made without the use of computer software. Interpretation of the extracted sections of the conversation was examined thoroughly to ensure the respondent’s answers were not taken out of context.

[6]   1695 The Company of Scotland is formed in 1695, raising £400,000 – a third of Scotland’s wealth to establish a colony on Darien after English forbid Scotland to trade with her colonies in the Americas or on allied Spanish territories. English bankers refused to invest in Darian project despite promising support, and the project collapsed after the Scots faced Spanish invader alone. English warships intercept, and kill returning Scottish would-be colonisers.

[7] Further alleged problems with Scotland and the Empire include, but are not exclusive to; the Act of Union, 1707, is pushed through parliament without a single Scottish representative present, despite ‘the whole country being against it’ (Oliver, 2010). Consider also the majority of Scots being denied a vote in the nineteenth century, unless a property owner of an estate valued at over £100; the 1840 famine where Scots watched their valuable food resources sail off to England; the twice repopulation of lands by sheep, first from the highlands, and then to the coastal crofts of first time displaced Scottish families. Review the pitifully low wages of workers toiling in the ‘workshop of the Empire’; the infant mortality; poor sanitation and general squalor of nineteenth century Scots, and it is hardly surprising Scottish people took issue with their English partners (Devine, 2006, p.197).

[8] Stroh states that ‘the endorsement of minority language revival in a modern Scotland can be linked to Postcolonial nationalism. Some Scots have debated the question whether national emancipation necessitates one or more separate languages.’ (Stroh, 2012, p.280)

[9]  Techno-culture writer Jason Sack, in a piece about media artist Shu Lea Cheang published in InfoNation in 1995, officially coined the term ‘Hacktivism’. Marc Garret states that Hacktivist Artists work with technology to explore how to develop their critical and imaginative practice in ways that exist beyond traditional frameworks of art establishment and its traditions (Futurefield, 2012).

[10]  Modding refers to the practice of modifying a hardware object, computer or otherwise, software, or any other article, to perform a function not initially intended by the manufacturer or designer.

[11] The machines were hacked together from children’s toys, and were bought from the former British colony of Hong Kong. Reflecting worldliness, rather than western, the machines were round. Twelve sharp pencils were attached to them around its external shell, transforming the toy from playful, to menacing. In one test, coloured tape, and in another coloured Sugru[11] helped keep the pencils attached. The colours on the round machine seemed to reflect nationalities, or flags. This was developed to include only the colours of Scottish and English flags.

[12] Dr. Simon Monk is a Cybernetician and writer who was interviewed for this study on Monday 19th August 2013. The interview was not recorded and excerpts of the conversation have been transcribed from notes.

[13] Dr. Catriona MacDonald was interviewed for this study on 24th may 2013.


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