Cybernetics as a Rhetorical Strategy

[in response to some recent posts on Nettime and from Brian Holmes’ excellent blog.]

The distinction between first-order and second-order cybernetics, and therefore possibly between a better and worse application of the cybernetic lens, invites further discussion about what that lens lends.

First-order and second-order cybernetics both tend toward the adoption of biological metaphors – this is especially true for Von Foerster’s crew, here at University of Illinois, where they worked under the banner of the Biological Computing Lab.

Cyberneticists look at everything as composed of systems – biological language seems to enter in as systems approach a certain level of complexity. If a particular set of systems interact at a level of complexity that seems too big for one human to grasp, cyberneticists liken that set of systems to something that’s alive, a plant, forest or sentient creature.

Certainly there are real limits to human perception and cognition at work here, even if at the basic level of interface the designers and engineers work hard to make sure we’re not so overwhelmed that we walk away on first glance.

But I think it’s worth asking what is gained, or who gains, from describing a particular system as too big to grasp without imagining it as a living thing.

Thinking of the pre-Modern era to which Brian alludes in his essay, I can imagine different routes to the same end of imagining there to be a supra-human or extra-human hand behind the mysteries of the universe. For some, the attribution of agency and divine order to the conditions of life conveniently supported a grasp for power. For others, it was a desperate effort at making sense of unlivable situations. For still others, it was a humble hope for a better world than they had inherited. The same could be said of the cybernetic view today.

Let’s look at two ends of the cybernetic era. The original cybernetic solution was Wiener’s take on computing ballistics trajectories. Looking to the complex problem of accounting for distance, weather conditions, and moving targets in the task of landing a shell in the enemy’s lap, Weiner applied calculus to describe a dynamic grid of numbers. Before, rooms of “human calculators” (who in America were mostly those classed as women, disabled, or Black) worked on finite tables containing every conceivable combination of variables to produce, months later, a handy reference chart for the army gunman. Wiener looked to these complex problems not as a collection of individual labor efforts that add up to a total solution, but as a system of possibilities that had a life of its own, a “self-organized” pattern that could be described and computed without actually doing the hard work of every algorithmic result.

By describing his original problem in cybernetic terms, Wiener cut out some labor, and thus cost. He cut out some time, and pushed the problem of aiming artillery closer into the battlefield, out of the homefront. The gap would begin to close between the detonator and the aiming mechanism, until they eventually fused as one device of looking and destroying.

Wiener also framed a problem in just the right way for a new emerging technology and research infrastructure, as early computing was only too happy to borrow from these approaches in the organization of efficient hardware, and eventually software. (Object-oriented programming perhaps owes something to Wiener, no?)

So the problem itself did not require an ecological, cybernetic metaphor to solve it – it was already solve-able. But by framing it in an approach that was more complex than the sum of human efforts, Wiener framed it more efficiently, and within terms governmental/educational/corporate institutions could easily fold into their Taylorist managerial slipstream.

If that’s an example of first-order cybernetics, let’s turn to an example of second-order cybernetics. (For some the distinction is still controversial, and perhaps not really apt.)

Second-order cybernetics, or a “Cybernetics of Cybernetics,” is often framed, as Brian describes, in terms of consciousness and subjectivity. The idea here is that one can’t even begin to look at the world as composed of systems without acknowledging how human thought, consciousness and communication is itself composed of systems. Wiener’s cybernetic description of the artillery aiming problem is itself the product a living, breathing, self-organizing system. It’s here that cybernetics gets all reflexive and modernist – the analysis and management of feedback loops is itself a feedback loop.

In the examples of Varela, Von Foerster, and the rest of the Urbana crew, this went many different ways. For some, this second-order notion sent them into exploration of human consciousness as both a product of, and agent within, the educational and governmental institutions responsible for things like the Vietnam War. As has been documented well in Das Net and other places, the mind became ground-zero for political action – either as a Cold War battleground for the CIA, or as a launch point for liberation in college classrooms. Brian’s written about this as well, how new attention to human subjectivity outlined both promise and peril.

But the “cybernetics of cybernetics” was equally applied to a less individualistic sphere – that of management and administration. Macy Conference alum Margaret Mead framed it this way in her address to the inaugural meeting of the American Society of Cybernetics in 1968. She describes two fateful scenarios of first-order cybernetics, before calling for a second-order cybernetics to save us from them. First she points to the spectre of the Soviet Union’s near-accomplishment of a fully cybernetic society, “as a way of controlling everything within its borders and possibly outside, with thousands of giant computers linked together in a system of prodigious and unheard-of efficency.” Then she points to how often in America, cybernetic solutions are reached but those in charge are never smart enough to apply them, resulting in failed infrastructure.

Her suggested solution is that a meta-cybernetics might be as efficient as the Soviet system, but would govern as a self-organizing system the very domain of international politics and economics, making for “smarter” leaders at the national and international levels. The appeal here is to a kind of consciousness or subjectivity at a massive scale. It’s not the ontologically real A.I. of sci-fi, Orson Scott Card’s Jane, for example. It’s merely a way of describing a problem as so complex that it looks from the human perspective to be as alive and sentient as any human brain. And in the area of second-order cybernetics, it’s a way of examining even the analysis and management of systems as itself a solve-able systematic problem.

Now back to my original question – what is gained, and by whom, in framing a problem this way?

We need a second-order example to compare to Wiener’s artillery computing, so let’s move forward to the present-day, 35 years after Von Foerster’s lab folded, after the US military lost interest in funding “blue-sky” research with no battle-ready results.

At a recent NSF-sponsored conference on “Creativity and Cognition,” I heard a brief riff of a spiel from William Wulf, then President of the National Academy of Engineering, now a Computer Science professor at University of Virginia, formerly an active edu-tech player in Richard Florida’s model “creative city” of Pittsburgh. The gist of his talk, intended to be inspirational I think, was that the most urgent problems we face as a planet are so complex that engineering and science can no longer solve them. It will take “creativity” to solve these problems – meaning, I interpret, that not even an army of desk-workers or a state-full of computers can follow every algorithmic process to its end. In reframing the problem as one that requires “creativity,” Wulf appealed to the power of perspective, subjectivity and intuition. He conjured a picture of a global network of interrelated concerns so statistically large that management cannot handle them efficiently, if at all.

Elsewhere Wulf describes this picture as an “Ecology of Innovation,” sounding every bit as cybernetically-minded as Mead. (He stops short of speaking in literal cybernetic terms, but then he would have to, given how cybernetics lost credibility in the sciences after the 70’s.) Wulf, an outspoken critic of current patent and intellectual property law, anticipates a “coming age of mass customization,” in which low-wage labor is replaced by a “knowledge-intensive kind of manufacturing.” His criticisms of patent law, antitrust legislation, and even drug-testing protocols are not that they are wrongly-based. Rather, they don’t change fast enough. For Wulf, we don’t need different laws, we need a different system within which those laws are developed, changed, managed. Citing Thomas L. Freidman, Wulf draws a boundary around a new domain of concerns that need to be better linked into one dynamic, changing system. This domain includes “intellectual property law, tax codes, patent procedures, export controls, immigration regulations.”

The picture conjured here by this much-lauded leader is one strikingly reminiscent of Mead’s “cybernetics of cybernetics,” or even of Wiener’s artillery firing data. For Wulf, science’s old tools no longer suffice. It’s not enough to break down the problems into small chunks and solve them – in part because in his picture of the world the chunks can’t be separated, but also because if we solve them today, the same solutions won’t work next week. Space is less differentiated or striated in this picture, time less linear and continuous. The target keeps moving, so we need to stop computing the distances and just assume that the target’s life can be anticipated, merged with that of the gunner.

Few can argue that Wulf’s picture isn’t based on real conditions, real limits to human cognition and intervention. But what is gained by describing this world as an ecosystem, an entity with a life of its own? My fears here are multiple, and probably obvious.

When the larger system is described in terms of subjectivity and agency, what becomes of individual agency in either daily life or in efforts to impact and change the system?

When the boundaries of a problem are framed so as to supercede human perception, does it still take humans to solve it?

When the problem is described as so complex as requiring an interdisciplinary network of experts to address it, to what is that new extra-disciplinary body accountable?

There’s a new form of citizenship implied and even explicit in Wulf’s approach – just yesterday on this University campus, he delivered a talk on “Responsible Citizenship in the Technological Democracy.” Citizens bear the brunt of keeping up with the policy issues at stake in the Innovation Ecology, and also must be prepared for precarious knowledge-based labor. Meanwhile, their living and working environments respond and morph dynamically in relation to needs, without stopping for a second to afford a close view or a close vote.

Second-order cybernetics seems to be alive and well, if even its current adherents are ignorant to its history. The questions that remain for me around cybernetics are around these issues of rhetoric, where cybernetic language and representation assumes a particular end for the world, a particular basis for action.

One Response to Cybernetics as a Rhetorical Strategy

  1. Pingback: CoEvolution 1976: Second order cybernetics « Design Dialogues

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