‘Thinking in Pictures’: Processing the Autistic World through Cybernetics Theory

Research Proposal: ‘Thinking in Pictures’: Processing the Autistic World through Cybernetics Theory



Social constructionism, Cybernetics, Autism, Software art, Collaboration



Scientists and engineers created the first images generated by computers in the late 1950’s. By the end of the 1960’s, inspired by system theory and cybernetics, artists collaborated with technicians in research labs to create an art form based almost entirely on software. This study will draw upon cybernetics theory in order to participate with a group of high school students on the autistic spectrum in a project that will enable them to produce original art works that reflect their understanding of their social world. As such, this collaborative study provides an opportunity to analyse and engage with the theories of the early computer art pioneers, leading to a deeper appreciation of the conceptual potential of the medium for the artist and research participants.



The use of creative technologies can assist an autistic child to engage with and understand their social world and in so doing, produce original computer art works.


Main Research Questions

  1. In what ways can cybernetics theory offer young people with autism an opportunity to engage with and interpret their social world?
  2. How can social and physical environments be described by a software mediated art practice?



‘I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-colour movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head … visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination’. (Grandin: 1995: 3)

This study will draw upon cybernetics theory in order to participate with young people on the Autistic Spectrum (AS) in a project that will enable them to produce original art works that reflect their understanding of their social world. Young people and adults on the Autistic Spectrum are frequently presented as having difficulties in engaging with and understanding everyday situations. The quote above was written by Prof Temple Grandin in her book Thinking in Pictures (1995). In the book, Grandin relates her own experiences of life on the Autistic Spectrum. As the quote suggests, people with autism often process information on the social world in entirely different ways.

From my own experiences with my partner’s two children who are on the autistic spectrum, I am aware that the boys often encounter difficulties in giving and receiving information. As such, children with autism can become alienated from everyday events in the ‘real’ social world. However, ‘new’ technologies such as the Internet, computer gaming, social networking, handheld consoles and mobile phones, offer an ‘alternative reality’ for children with autism. This version of reality contains given rules, structure, and logic – qualities that are often lacking in ‘real world’ situations. In this sense, computer technologies provide a structural framework for processing ‘real world’ information that AS children find easier to engage with and navigate.

Cybernetics theory offers an approach to understanding human communication by means of information processing. The theory rests on the assumption that humans and computers process information about the social world in a similar way, using a system of messages and feedback. As such, humans and machines rely on processing outside information in order to act in a certain way (Weiner: 1954: 21). This reliance on given parameters, rules and logic, resonates with AS children who engage with computer technologies. Therefore this study will draw upon cybernetics theory to facilitate a collaborative project between the artist and a group of young people on the Autistic Spectrum. The project will produce a series of images that exemplify a systemic processing of ‘real world’ photographic image data, which in this case will be captured by the participants using smartphone technologies.


Review of Existent Knowledge

Norbert Weiner’s book Cybernetics: Communication in the Animal and Machine (1948) is a seminar work in the field of cybernetics theory. Weiner 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). We can interpret cybernetics as being about epistemological goal-based objectives achieved through a system of feedback and interpretation. In his 1954 book, The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society, Weiner compares humans to machines, of which there are two sub-types: one is clockwork like apparatus that requires no communication; whilst the other is a more complex machine which relies on the processing of outside information in order to act in a certain way (Wiener, 1954, p.21). W. Ross Ashby is another notable scholar in the field of cybernetics and systems theory. His book, An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956) provides a clear and concise account of cybernetics, which explains the principles with given examples, illustrations and basic mathematical principles.


Methodology and Methods

The study is theoretically informed by a social constructivist perspective which assumes that ‘reality’ is not a given, but is instead a product of human activity (Rogers & Pilgrim: 2010:14). It also draws upon cybernetics theory as a means of understanding the ways in which ‘reality’ is processed and understood. These perspectives combine to offer a better understanding of how young people on the Autistic Spectrum construct their social worlds, and to what extent computer technologies assist these young people in processing, engaging with and interpreting their everyday lives.

The study will involve both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Working with a group of students from Hillpark Secondary School, I intend to create a body of work, which reflects their sense of place in their immediate environment, and in the wider social world. Working with photography, each student will be responsible for shooting and then selecting images with which to process as part of a system inspired by cybernetic theory. Capturing colour data from the participant’s photographs, the student collaborators and I will use quantitative methodology to convert the colour data to points on a Cartesian co-ordinate grid to create a vector based visualisation of the participants social environment. Using self-authored software, statistical sampling will be used over a series of equidistant points in each photograph to obtain accurate colour information as it is distributed throughout the photograph. The system dictates that the colour information for each of the points will be converted to a red (R), green (G) and blue (B) hex value. Each value has a numerical attribution between 0 and 255.  Once the data is collected and stored, the values will be converted to points on an XYZ axis: R becomes X, G becomes Y, and B becomes Z (Welsby: 2012)

In order to introduce the quantitative aspect of the research I will organise a series of short workshops that helps to familiarize students with systems analysis as a method for creating art and self-reflection. This method makes visible the opportunity for the student to actively participate in the conceptual construction of their lives through communication, observation and experimentation with others. I will record the workshops using photographs, and taking notes. This will provide qualitative observational data, which can be used to contextualise the student’s finished art works.


Ethical Considerations

The study will adhere to the ethical requirements of GSA by heeding respect for human dignity, and demonstrating awareness of the GSA Research Ethics Policy.  Informed written consent will be obtained from the students, parents and carers, the school and education authority prior to the start of the study. In addition to this I will host an ‘information evening’ at the school for students, teachers and parents in order to inform them of the aims and objectives of the study and to answer any questions they may have. I will also offer to provide all participants, parents and carers and the school with draft copies of the dissertation prior to submission. Additionally, at the end of the study, I will organise and host an evening event at the school, which will showcase the students’ work. I will also invite all the research participants, families, and teachers to attend my own final show. Throughout the research, the participants’ privacy and confidentiality will be considered at all times.


Bibliography and Indicative Reading

ASHBY W R, An Introduction to Cybernetics, UK, University Paperbacks, 1954

Von BERTALANFFY L. & RAPOPORT A., General Systems: Yearbook of the Society for General Systems Research. Vol. IV., 1960, UK, Braun-Brumfeld. Retrieved February 2, 2009, from PsycINFO database.

(Ed) Bentkowska-Kafel, A., Cashen, T., Gardiner, H. Digital Visual Culture: Theory and Practice, UK, Intellect Books, 2009

(Ed) BENTKOWSKI-KAFEL, A, CASHEN, T, GARDINER, H, Digital Art History, Intellect, USA, 2009

BRYMAN A, Social Research Methods, UK, Oxford University Press Inc., 2004

(Ed) CLARKE, B, and HENDERSON, L, From Energy to Information, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, 2002, p155-77

BODEN, M. A. Authenticity and Computer Art, 2009, England, University of Sussex, 2008

(Ed) BROWN, P, GERE, C, LAMBERT, N, MASON, C, White Heat Cold Logic, USA, MIT Press, 2008

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GERE, C, Digital Culture, London, Reaktion Books, 2002

GERE, C, Art, Time and Technology, UK, Berg, 2006

GREEN, R, Internet Art, USA, Thames and Hudson, 2004

GRANDIN, T, Thinking In Pictures, London, Bloomsbury, 1995

KLUTSCH C, ‘The summer 1968 in London and Zagreb’, Germany, 2005, International University of Bremen, http://www.computerkunst.org/Kluetsch_London_Zagreb (02/04/2012)

LEAVEY P, Method Meets Art, 2009, New York, The Guilford Press, 2008

LEE P, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960’s, USA, 2004, MIT Press

LOPES, D. M, A Philosophy of Computer Art, London: Routledge, 2010

MANOVICH, L, The Language of New Media, USA, MIT Press, 2001

MASON C, A Computer in the Room: The origins of Computer Arts 1950 – 1980, UK, JJG Publishing, 2008

McCULLOUGH, M, Abstracting Craft: the practiced digital hand, USA, MIT Press, 1997

PAUL, C, Digital Art, USA, Thames and Hudson, 2004

PELLEGRINI A, New Tendencies in Art, New York, Random House Value Publishing, 1966

(Ed) REICHARDT J, Cybernetics, Art and Ideas, USA, New York Graphic Society Ltd, 1971

RANCIER, J, The Future of the Image, UK, Verso, 2007

ROGERS A. & PILGRIM D., A Sociology of Mental Health and Illness, UK, Open University Press, 2010

RUSH, M, New Media in Late 20th Century Art, USA, Thames and Hudson, 1999

(Ed) ROSIN M, A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961–1973, USA, 2011, MIT Press

SNIBBE, S, ‘Useless Programs, Useful Programmers and the Production of Social’ Interactive Artwork’http://www.brown.edu/Research/dichtung-digital/2006/01/Snibbe/index.htm, accessed 2011

THOMPSON A, Landscape and Ethnography, (lecture) 16/04/2012

WEINER N, Cybernetics: Control and the Animal and the Machine, 1948, USA, MIT Press

WEINER N, Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, 1954/1986, UK, Avon

WRIGHT, R, ‘Software Art After Programming’, MUTE magazine, 2004

WOLLHEIM, R, ‘Why is Drawing Interesting’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 2005

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