Indeterminacy first came to prominence in the 20th century as a scientific idea. In physics, it was associated with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that there is a limit to the precision of measuring a particle’s position and velocity. Bohr further developed this idea into an ontological position: being itself is fundamentally indeterminate. These ideas quickly filtered into other fields. The European musical avant-garde adapted the probabilistic basis of quantum mechanics as a means of dealing with the complexity of the new, electronic sound worlds. In the U.S., Cage adopted a practice of indeterminacy in performance, where alternative techniques of notation were utilised to trigger unpredictable sound events. His ideas were widely adopted in the world of art, with practices such as happenings and groups like Fluxus creating open-ended art-life situations.
In philosophy, too, indeterminacy appeared in various guises, from Quine’s ‘indeterminacy of translation’ to Derrida’s différance, undermining the fixity of meaning and the transparency of communication. So too in cybernetics and information theory, introducing themes that destabilise the human and point towards posthumanist theory. Yet with the advancement of digital media, indeterminacy seems to lose much of the emancipatory potential that characterised its uptake in the 20th century. Where permanent change is the rule, indeterminacy requires re-examination.