Nettime mailing list archives

Re: <nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet
Brian Holmes on Sun, 15 Mar 2009 08:27:35 -0400 (EDT)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: <nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet

Theo Honohan wrote:

> If a cybernetic view is supposed to be more realistic than the
> alleged "god delusions" of self-organization, this idea of "changing
> the parameters of the entire environment" is a steep requirement for
> it to satisfy without itself becoming a god delusion.

Well, unfortunately that kind of delusion has been the biggest game in
town for quite some time now (maybe it's some intrinsic human thing,
as you remark later on, the Greek tragedians had a lot to say about

The case of Google which attempts to internalize the activity of
the entire Internet by archiving it, analyzing it, simulating
interventions to see what they might do, and then performing those
interventions in ways which affect a majority of the users (namely, by
building in a relation between searching behavior and the advertising
that one sees) is just the most obvious example. Interestingly, they
now hope to extend their range into mobile phones, notably by offering
an open-source operating system for VOIP phones (Android, I believe
it is appropriately called!) that includes a GPS function alerting
you if any of your friends or contacts are in the immediate vicinity.
Wonderful app! But if you use it they will track your behavior and
correlate it with other information to make some guesses about what
people like you tend to want to do and to buy in certain places, at
certain times, under certain weather conditions, etc. Considering
that in the US, Google has already internalized entire cityscapes by
photographing them systematically and pasting the results into 3-D
rendered and geocoordinated representations, it gives them a really
powerful tool for performing this kind of environmental analysis and
simulation - and then collaborating with other businesses to change
the parameters of the urban environment. The user remains free in all
this, because the current democratic ethic is to intervene "not on the
players but on the rules of the game."

However, there are still some concerns about the coercive nature of
these kinds of interventions, and maybe even about the zombification
of the USA as I once suggested on Nettime. That fourfold logic -
recording, analyzing, simulating, transforming the environment - is
now at the basis of most planning processes where any kind of traffic
flow is at stake, ranging from the web to architecture and urbanism.
Simon Leung usefully termed the results a "control environment." My
article "Future Map" is all about such environments. At the end of
it, I do refer to them as "God Machines" and I do reflect on the
self-illusory nature of the drive for total control.... But the drive
is out there.

> In the system the diagram portrays, second order cybernetics
> replaces the (supposedly reductionist) engineer of first order
> cybernetics with the term "feedback", while Wiener, Bateson and
> Mead appear as fully conscious observers at a higher level of
> abstraction. The elitism and narcissism implicit in this depiction
> is more than just amusing, it's intrinsic to the fatal direction of
> the cybernetic project.
> Any mathematician or computer scientist would point out that Wiener,
> Bateson and Mead, for all their enlightened holism, could equally
> be replaced with the term "feedback" in a system observed by
> others--Holmes, Stalder and Hamilton, say. This is not a discipline
> with two distinct modalities, first order and second order, it's a
> unitary activity which has a self-referential structure.

Well, anyone *could* have done so, but it seems that a broad majority
did not. If we are to believe Paul N. Edwards, the author of a
great book called The Closed World, the militarized engineering and
computing culture of the 1950s and 60s was not exactly permeated by
this kind of self-reflexivity.... Rather the dominant belief was that
the world could be controlled by eliminating elements whose did not
conform to the proscribed models. This is very different from allowing
people their freedom and transforming the environment so as to channel
that freedom and capture value from it. In fact, it seems that in
social history, there really was something corresponding to a "first
order" period. I must admit to being deeply impressed by the opening
chapter of Edwards' book, which describes the Vietnam-era Operation
Igloo White. Perhaps just three paragraphs will give you an insight
into what the "second-order" cyberneticians were facing, in terms of
an epistemology embodied in everyday practice:

"In 1968 the largest building in Southeast Asia was the Infiltration
Surveillance Center (ISC) at Nakhom Phanom in Thailand, the command
center of US Air Force Operation Igloo White. Inside the ISC vigilant
technicians pored over banks of video displays, controlled by IBM
360/65 computers and connected to thousands of sensors strewn across
the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos.

"The sensors -- shaped like twigs, jungle plants, and animal droppings
-- were designed to detect any human activity: the noises of truck
engines, body heat, even the scent of human urine. When they picked
up a signal, it appeared on the remote display terminals of the ISC
as a moving white 'worm' superimposed on a map grid. As soon as the
ISC computers could calculate the 'worm's' direction and rate of
motion, coordinates were radioed to Phantom F-4 jets patrolling the
night sky. The planes' navigation systems and computers automatically
guided them to the 'box,' or map grid square, to be attacked. The ISC
central computers were also capable of controlling the release of
bombs automatically. The pilot might do no more than sit and watch
as the invisible jungle below exploded into flames. In most cases no
American ever actually saw the targets at all.

"The 'worm' would then disappear from the screen at the ISC. This
entire process normally took no more than five minutes."

(Paul N. Edwards, "The Closed World," chapter 1)

> IMO the decision to talk about "second order cybernetics", rather
> than just publish better papers about the generality of cybernetics,
> was misconceived and inelegant.

Heinz von Foerster, who introduced the term, was a remarkably elegant
Viennese scientist. But he does seem to have enjoyed a touch of
narcissism, to judge by the photographs of him in his prime...
Kevin Hamilton has been inquiring into his work at the Biological
Computer Lab in Champaign Urbana in the 60s and 70s. Quite interesting
to me was his friendship with the Chilean cybernetic biologists,
Maturana and Varela, whose ideas are at the source of the second-order
turn. One summer (or maybe it was a sabbatical) Von Foerster -- who
frequently worked on military contracts like all the cyberneticists
of his time -- just off and went to visit them in Chile. Funny
enough, it was during Allende's presidency... I have not yet seen
anything explicitly political in Von Foerster's writings of the time,
and certainly nothing resembling leftism, but in my view he began
to act as a "double agent" within the Anglo-American scientific
establishment. His insistence that the observer be taken account of as
part of the observed system leads to phenomena of infinite regress,
where it is not longer possible to fully calculate the givens of the
system and its possible evolutions, because each act of calculation
adds a new given. Von Foerster used this disruptive strategy as a way
to bring the discussion around to the ethics of the observer, a trend
you can see by looking at the broad sweep of his work. But it was
all very subtle, very much a debate among scientists, expressed in
mathematical formalisms. Very often it goes beyond my capacity to read
it, but it sounds like the kind of thing you might find interesting.

> Computer science approached analogous issues of generality when
> the question of considering functions as "first class citizens"
> (Christopher Strachey) arose in the 1960s. The resulting terminology
> and equipment now in use deals in terms of "first class objects" and
> "higher order functions" rather than fixing the degree of reference
> at any particular number of levels of remove. (The inelegance of
> using numbers other than "one" and "many" should be familiar to
> philosophers; it's a red flag. Number theory has many complexities
> and depths but they are rarely explicable in any satisfactory way,
> being more chaotic natural artifacts than objects of logic)

Well, this is very intriguing for those like myself who are totally
ignorant of number theory, so I would like to hear more. Indeed, once
you move to a second order there is a tendency to have a third, a
fourth and so on... I believe that was implicit in the whole move.

> Perhaps that's a bit of a rant but my point is that although the
> move to second order was an acknowledgement that the engineer could
> be considered as an entity in the scope of the model, it necessarily
> suppressed the fact that Wiener, Bateson and Mead were, and always
> had been, entities in the scope of the model. Perhaps not accounted
> for by the model, but nevertheless passively present. Capable, for
> example, of sabotage by throwing their clogs into the modelled
> mechanism. The kind of schizoid distancing of the modeller from
> the action obscures the fact that the system (reality) has always
> included them, has always been universal and closed.

Yeah, what interested me was the history, who did throw the clogs,
why and how. In the language of the 70s, the notion of "closure"
was the bugaboo, because it referred to those gridded boxes that
the American military engineers thought they could keep perfectly
free of "worms", i.e. Vietnamese guerillas. Actually I should add,
as Edwards does in conclusion to his chapter, that the guerrillas
just threw rocks onto the Ho Chi Minh trail, then ran away while the
Americans bombed the shit out of everything. Afterwards they proceeded
safely going about their business, which was basically bringing in all
the supplies which they finally used to defeat the Americans in an
astonishingly rapid series of campaigns in 1975.... .. > > The hubris,
the grandiose scope, the collective psychopathology(!), > particularly
the narcissism, of the cybernetic movement, combined with > a failure
to find practically applicable techniques, is surely what > killed it,
rather than narrow-mindedness in the world of scientific > research.

Yes, that's more or less the way I see it. The militarized side is
what killed it. The "second-order" moment represents a revolt against
that military hubris, in my reading of the history...

> Bifo Berardi suggested at his talk in London a week or two ago
> that the primary political activity now should be therapy. Perhaps
> dealing with the equally attractive, opposed drives towards
> cybernetic mastery and self-organizing lethargy would be a good
> place to start.

Let's do it then! Because the last incarnation of that opposition
was the supposedly self-organizing financial markets, where hedging
against risk was supposed to absolutely guarantee that the "invisible
hand" would always operate in the favor of every actor in the entire
system... It was totally pathological and people did not see the
obvious, which was that it all reposed on the capacity of poor people
to keep on paying their skyrocketing debts. In addition to working
on what I call "the politics of perception," I would love to hear
something about number theory and self-imposed blindness. Maybe it
would get us back to Sophocles and on to some new therapeutic ideas.

best, Brian

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org