Go back to article: Wired-up in white organdie: framing women’s scientific labour at the Burden Neurological Institute

Part III: The perils of networking

‘We are both feminine’

Photographs of women employed at the BNI also provide an alternative perspective on one of the Institute’s main attractions for historians of science and technology: its involvement in the first wave of British cybernetics. Coined by American mathematician Norbert Wiener in 1947, cybernetics refers to the study of feedback, control, and communication systems ‘whether in the machine or living tissue’, integrating approaches from biology, physiology, mathematics, engineering, psychology and the social sciences (Wiener, 1948). In Britain, this field developed a distinctly psychiatric orientation, as practitioners utilised cybernetic modes of investigation to explore the capacities and vulnerabilities of the human mind. William Grey Walter is often credited as a key promoter of this approach, particularly through his construction of electromechanical models of the brain such as his Machina Speculatrix, or robot tortoises (see Figure 11) (Hayward, 2001, pp 622–624; Pickering, 2010, pp 41–54).

Figure 11

Colour photograph of a cybernetic tortoise from 1950

Cybernetic tortoise, c.1950. Front three-quarter view.

The distinctive kind of cybernetics practiced by Walter and others at the BNI entailed a peculiar way of thinking about the interactions between humans and machines, one that privileged the flow of information between them rather than their respective material forms. As such, through a cybernetic lens, the human actor is less a unique and inimitable entity than a roughly comparable organic counterpart to the machine. In turn, this requires all those involved in cybernetic research, including the supposedly ‘neutral’ experimenter, to be considered part of an interdependent and mutually transformative circuit (Hayles, 1999, pp 62–65; Hayward, 2001, pp 629–630). This perspective was reflected in many of the experimental designs and set-ups developed within the BNI’s laboratories, in which human brains were perceived as ‘wired’ into networks that blurred the boundaries between the organic and the mechanical (see Figure 12).

Figure 12

Photic stimulation circuit diagram

Photic stimulation circuit diagram, undated

Photographs of women’s labour at the BNI provide an insight into some of the complex and ambiguous implications of this cybernetic world-view. As N Katherine Hayles (1999, pp 283–291) and Andrew Pickering (2010, pp 383–391) have proposed, cybernetics has both liberating and anxiety-inducing implications. On the one hand, the field’s dissolution of traditional notions of order and hierarchy, combined with its emphasis on communality and interdependence, has the potential to undermine traditional distributions of power; on the other hand, cybernetics exposes the instability of concepts such as individuality and autonomy, and necessarily entails the incursion of machines into domains once considered exclusively ‘human’. The photographs of the BNI Papers, however, suggest that these potential benefits and pitfalls did not adhere to a logic of equal opportunity. While depictions of cybernetic research had the potential to absorb, engulf and anonymise the contributions of women, those of their male counterparts proved far less vulnerable to the totalising logic of the circuit.

The gendered implications of the cybernetic world-view can be rendered in stark contrast by comparing two photographs of EEG research at the BNI. The first, taken in 1964, depicts William Grey Walter at the helm of a complex network of machinery (see Figure 13). Sitting in front of a 16-channel EEG, Walter’s left hand holds a pen over the brainwave record while his right hand adjusts a dial on the control panel. This multi-tasking emphasises Walter’s skill and dexterity; while previous photographs depicted the technical and intellectual labour of neuroscientific research as belonging to separate, and strictly gendered, roles, Walter is here shown balancing the duties of both ‘brain worker’ and ‘technician’ with apparent ease. This dual labour is revealing on two levels. Firstly, it provides a visual performance of Walter’s rare genius and polymathic ability, a reputation already established through his growing number of television and radio appearances during this period, as well as his success as a popular science writer.[13] Secondly, considering the breakdown of his personal and professional relationship with Vivian Walter four years previously, the photograph perhaps provides an insight into a more practical reformulation of his laboratory routines as a solitary researcher. Ultimately, this performance of mastery ensures that Walter remains the primary visual point of reference in the photograph, despite the complex and potentially overwhelming mass of circuitry that surrounds him.

Figure 13

Black and white photograph of William Grey Walter and a 16 channel EEG

William Grey Walter and a 16-channel EEG, 1964

The second photograph, taken by Bristol photographer Desmond Tripp, depicts Janet Shipton sat in front of a six-channel EEG, conducting research with a similarly complex experimental circuit (see Figure 14). To her left is a reclining male subject, his face obscured by a stroboscopic lamp; on the opposite side of the room stands a 22-channel toposcope, a machine designed to provide a real-time visual map of the subject’s brain responses through the patterned illumination of light bulbs; to her right is a video camera, positioned to record the entire experiment. However, unlike the previous photograph of Walter, it would be difficult to argue that Shipton is the primary visual focus here: indeed, her body is partially cut off by the frame. Instead, she is given no greater visual presence than the anonymous male subject beside her or the pieces of complex machinery positioned around the laboratory. The relatively equal spacing given to each constituent part of the experimental circuit – the operator, the subject, the EEG, the toposcope, the video camera – underscores the networked totality of cybernetic research rather than Shipton’s unique position at its helm. Thus, while the depiction of Walter remains a relatively conventional ‘portrait’ of the scientist at work, Shipton’s photograph has more in common with circuit diagrams and unpopulated images of experimental set-ups, transmitting a cybernetic worldview in which man (or, more accurately, woman) and machine are almost indistinguishable.

Figure 14

Black and white photograph of Janet Shipton with a six channel EEG in 1955

Janet Shipton with a six-channel EEG, 1955

This uneven application of the cybernetic perspective – rendering women’s labour in mechanistic terms while preserving the work of men as abstract, intellectual and irreplaceably ‘human’ – left women in scientific occupations particularly vulnerable to marginalisation and even replacement via automation. For example, Walter’s research became increasingly reliant on feminised mechanical substitutes for his female colleagues as the 1950s progressed. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his creation of ANNIE, an automatic wave analyser that organised brainwave patterns into distinctive alpha, beta, theta and delta frequencies. Acting as assistant and interpreter in Walter’s EEG work, ANNIE began to encroach upon the role that Vivian Walter had once occupied, as depicted in earlier photographs of the pair’s scientific partnership (Hayward, 2003, pp 623, 631). Walter’s attribution of distinctly feminine identities to such machines did not pass unnoticed by his colleagues and peers. As Mollie Brazier, a pioneering electroencephalographer working in Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, noted: ‘I am considering having ruffled curtains of white Organdie for my room and Annie’s just to show that we are both feminine.’[14] Displaying once again the tendency to render in erotic terms the engagement of women with neuroscientific machinery, Walter rejected the possibility of ANNIE being surrounded by demure white cotton. ‘I have a leaning for black satin myself,’ he replied, ‘with lace peepholes tactically disposed!’[15]

As the framing of Shipton’s labour demonstrated, the eagerness of photographers and editors to capture the cybernetic totality of the BNI’s experimental programme could often lead to women being relegated to the very edges of the frame. However, this desire could also see them excluded entirely: the BNI Papers contain no photographs of women engaged in research activities after 1956. This in many ways foreshadows what Marie Hicks has identified as the growing ‘masculinisation’ of technological labour in the 1960s and early 1970s. With computer-based work growing in both social prestige and economic importance during this period, employers increasingly ignored the ranks of skilled, experienced women who had overwhelmingly occupied these roles since the Second World War and instead filled positions with (frequently less qualified) male candidates (Hicks, 2017, pp 187–188). At the BNI, this decline in the status of women engaged in research appeared to set in at a much earlier date: Hutton died in 1956 following a long illness; Shipton moved to the United States in 1958 when her husband took up a position at the University of Iowa; only Vivian Walter continued to conduct research at the BNI, co-authoring publications into the 1970s.[16] The glorious technological future heralded by photographers visiting the BNI, then, was a future in which women were an increasingly scarce sight.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181003/005