brian carroll on Wed, 19 Sep 2007 18:12:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> ref: cybernetics and tool-use

// overview essay on the Principia Cybernetica Project, and
// its relation to establishing 'truth' on the cybernetic network...

The Principia Cybernetica Project
Placing the Web at the Center of Man?s Quest for Knowledge

Ben Goertzel
September, 2000

Today when you think ?Internet? you think of chat rooms, banner ads,
spam e-mails, day-trading, stock scams, buying books and Christmas
presents?. People worry about their kids surfing porn sites or playing
violent network games, or their employees spending work hours looking
at sports videos on ESPN. One doesn?t often hear anyone talking about
the Net as, say, a medium for the human race to collectively move
toward philosophical truth.

Yet, this was exactly what Valentin Turchin, Francis Heylighen and
Cliff Joslyn had in mind when they founded the Principia Cybernetica
Website ( ) in 1993, just months after the
birth of the Web itself. And, odd as this view may seem in the current
Internet environment, it?s a perspective with considerable power,
though no one knows exactly how it will manifest itself as the Net
grows and changes.

To understand how this deep and unusual view of the Net was conceived,
you have to remember how different the online world was10 years ago.
In 1990 there was a Net but no Web: the Internet consisted of e-mail,
the ftp protocol for file transfer, the telnet protocol for remote
execution of programs, and Gofer, a text-based directory service
with a very limited amount of information. The big news was the
increasing prevalence of Internet use within academia ? in the 70?s
and early 80?s, the Net had only been available to US military staff
and industrial and academic researchers working on military-related

No one, at that stage, saw what the Net was going to grow into. But
a few visionaries saw that it was going to grow into something huge,
and Heylighen, Turchin and Joslyn were among them. Turchin, the oldest
of the three, had foreseen that something like the Net would emerge
way back in the 60?s. As well as being a stellar computer scientist,
he was a systems theorist in the grand European tradition; and based
on his cybernetic philosophy of the world, it seemed obvious to him
that, in time, computer and communication technology were going to
advance to the point where people would be linked together in radical
new ways, transforming society and culture and eventually the mind
itself, and even the body. Looking at the Net in 1991, Turchin and his
colleagues didn?t foresee the crucial role that graphics and sound
would come to play in the development of Internet technology. They
didn?t see the dot com stock boom coming, either. But in some ways
they saw further ahead than these things, to aspects of the Net that
are currently present only in germinal form.

One thing they saw quite clearly was the widespread confusion that was
going to emerge in the wake of the accelerating pace of technological
change. On this they were dead on; today, the high- tech gurus and
Internet business moguls are almost as baffled as the common man
? they just do a better job of hiding it. And, unsurprisingly to
anyone with a system-theoretic background, what?s most intensely
brain-tangling is not the technology in itself, but the web of
interconnections ensuing when new technologies are put together
with human psychology and human culture. Occasionally someone gets
a relevant intuition, and is able to see clear trends and patterns
where others see a shifting maze of possibilities. But as with every
other domain of knowledge, it?s hard to tell true intuitions from
wishful thinking and self-delusion. The history of the Net is full of
brilliant people who thought they?d limned the future but were proven
wrong, sometimes at great financial or personal cost.

Their early recognition of the confusing nature of the emerging Net
led to the inspiration underlying the formation of the Principia
Cybernetica project: That, in order to understand the technological
changes occurring in the world today, the new technologies themselves
must be involved in the thought process. Turchin, Heylighen and
Joslyn felt that, in order to understand the changes occurring, a new
philosophy was needed ? a cybernetic philosophy for the technological
age. But this philosophy, they sensed, would be best developed not
by a handful of isolated thinkers, but rather in a communal way,
mediated by new technologies for intellectual interaction. They saw
the Internet as ultimately leading to the emergence of a global brain,
and one of the early tasks of this global brain, they reckoned, should
be the creation of an ontology, metaphysics, epistemology and ethics
capable of dealing with issues such as the emergence of a global

As Heylighen wrote in 1991, ?Every time has its own approach to
these eternal philosophical questions, deriving from its knowledge
and technology. We hold that in our time, the age of information,
it is systems science and cybernetics, as the general sciences
of organization and communication, that can provide the basis
for contemporary philosophy.? And the best way to develop this
cybernetic world-view, he proposed in the same article, was to
deploy new computer-based tools to allow collaborators around the
world to build a philosophy together. In 1991, their proposal to
use hypertext, e-mail lists, and ftp servers to promote collective
philosophical development was quite a radical one. Today these tools
are commonplace, but other aspects of the Principia Cybernetica vision
remain cutting-edge, for example their concept of self- organizing
Websites that rebuild their link structure dynamically based on
continual human feedback.

The name ?Principia Cybernetica? was inspired by Russell and
Whitehead?s early-20?th-century classic Principia Mathematica,
in which mathematical methods were applied to the foundations of
mathematics itself with unprecedented success. Russell and Whitehead,
as Heylighen put it, formulated ?the laws of thought governing
mathematical reasoning by means of mathematical axioms, theorems and
proofs. This proved highly successful, and the Principia Mathematica
stills forms the basis of the "modern" mathematics as it is taught in
schools and universities. ?.Our contention is that something similar
should be done with cybernetics: integrating and founding cybernetics
with the help of cybernetical methods and tools.?

Turchin sketched the initial nodes and links of the site, based on his
years of research into the foundations of systems theory. Cliff Joslyn
brought a practical intuition to the work; presently he?s the only one
of the three working outside of academia, at Los Alamos National Labs
in New Mexico. Francis Heylighen, though, has been the site?s primary
parent ? the one to maintain the site over the years, and to keep the
vision alive by creating new spin-off projects dealing with specific
topics within the cybernetics umbrella.

The members of the Principia Cybernetica founding trio complement one
another in valuable ways. Heylighen?s writings, though important,
perhaps lack the philosophical depth of Turchin?s best work. Now in
his 70?s, Turchin still stands out as the intellectual powerhouse
of the trio, providing the strongest force behind the philosophical
rather than Web-oriented aspects of the project. But Turchin works
best when paired with others with more practical mentalities (it being
understood that practicality is a relative term, and what passes for
practicality among global brain aficionados is probably about 1000
times more abstract than what passes for abstractness in most walks
of life!). Turchin has a fairly structured and rigorous view of the
intellectual mission of Principia Cybernetica very seriously, tying it
in with his notion of the progressive formalization of philosophical
concepts. Heylighen is no less serious about the project, but seems
more open to the wild and chaotic nature of the contemporary Net, and
less tied to a specific vision of how knowledge should unfold within
the project.

Turchin?s philosophy of science is much like that of Charles S.
Peirce: he views the scientific enterprise as a process of moving
gradually closer and closer to an ultimately unattainable truth,
through a process of individual inspiration and social collaboration.
More precisely the Peirce ever did, he conceives scientific progress
as a matter of formalizing formerly intuitive concepts so that they
can serve as a solid substrate for further intuitive development.
As he sees it, this kind of sequential formalization is what makes
science contribute more and more as time goes on, whereas other
pursuits such as art and literature contribute at a roughly constant
rate. The initial nodes of the Principia Cybernetica website embody
some of Turchin?s simple formalizations of system-theoretic concepts
like ?system,? ?action,? ?emergence,? and ?metasystem transition.?
He envisions these nodes as being elaborated over time, by other
researchers, leading to the development of a growing network of
concepts, providing an increasingly accurate and substantial
formalization of the world in the mathematical language of systems

Sure, by the standards of the contemporary Internet, this vision of a
collective movement toward scientific truth seems peculiarly staid.
Today the Net is known for rumors and hoaxes and opinions rather than
anything resembling a movement toward absolute truth. Free-flowing
interaction is big: Amazon lets customers review books;
pays people for their opinions on products and issues, where the rate
of pay is based on how much others like their opinions. But perhaps,
in spite of its un-trendiness, the Principia Cybernetic vision of the
Net has something to recommend it. Turchin isn?t so optimistic about
the value of mass opinion; if he posted to epinions on this topic, he
would surely rate it unlikely that this kind of averaging together of
everyone?s glib opinions is ever going to lead to any kind of deep
understanding. On the other hand, Heylighen and Joslyn, younger and
more comfortable with the chaos of the Net, are at least a little more
positive about the mass-interaction aspects of it all. They?ve even
created some simple experiments showing how Websites might organize
themselves automatically based on user feedback, although their
experiments have not yet been implemented on the Principia Cybernetica

How successful has the enterprise been? That depends upon your
measurement criteria. So far, the Principia Cybernetica website,
although a great and popular site, has not really sparked a
renaissance of cybernetic philosophy. It?s no Principia Mathematica,
yet. The ideas presented by the site are basically the same ones
that were there when the site started, although some of them are
presented more clearly and thoroughly, and there are more practical
applications, as in Heylighen and Bollen?s work on user-modified
Web structures. However, there are indications of new concepts
brewing. Most notably, the concept of a global brain, a higher-level
intelligence emergent from computational agents and computer-using
humans, has been fleshed out much more thoroughly than was done a
decade ago, partly due to discussions on the Global Brain Study Group,
an e-mail list that Heylighen created..

The notion of a global brain emerges straight from the heart of the
philosophy underlying Principia Cybernetica, Turchin?s "Metasystem
Transition Theory", which is based on the spontaneous emergence of
higher and higher levels of organization. His metaphysics is process-
based, with action taken as the fundamental entity. Actions are
understood to involve elemental freedom; and agents are understood
in terms of the actions that they undertake. Some actions are more
successful than others; combined with the freedom that leads to
random variation among actions, this leads to evolution by natural
selection. Systems of agents interacting with each other display
complex dynamics, and sometimes undergo transitions in which the whole
system displays so much coherence and unity that it begins to control
the parts. This is a metasystem transition ? like the emergence of
multicellular life from one-celled organisms, the emergence of mind
from body, or the emergence of society from collections of humans. The
Principia Cybernetica crew believe that the Net is about to trigger
another metasystem transition, in which computer and communication
technologies worldwide come together to form a brainlike whole.

For instance, in November 1999 there was a thread on the Global Brain
group comparing humans in the emerging Global Brain to ants in an
ant colony. Leor Gruendlinger posted the following worried message:
?Before I happily agree to become the part of a cyber-brain (and
hence die one clear day because of a bug), I would like to retain my
autonomy, or at least lose it in stages? What kind of stages? I think
about insect colonies as an example: still free to move, to act by
themselves, but very much committed to the community, sharing food and
resources, caring for the young together, etc. ?Perhaps before humans
agree that their sight, smell and other senses be manipulated by a
chip, they will need this confidence and trust in the system they will
be part of. It has to sustain them better, perhaps by seeing farther
into the future and preparing in advance for challenges they cannot
even grasp?... What levels of autonomy are there to pass through on
the way to the global brain? Will such a passage be gradual, or very

In response, Steve Wishnevsky pointed out that this vision of the
future Net as usurping individual autonomy and rendering us like
ants in a colony may be a big exaggeration. After all, he argued,
?consciousnesses larger and more permanent than human have existed
for thousands of years, in the form of bureaucracies, churches and

But I found this argument somewhat lacking. ??Largeness? and
?permanence,?? I argued in my reply to him, ?are not the most
important parameters of consciousness?. Suppose we accept the
panpsychic theory that everything is conscious?. Still, some things
are more conscious than others? There is something called "intensity"
of consciousness (which ?has to do with the amplification of
information...) I think that a bureaucracy has a much lesser intensity
of consciousness than a human.?

The key question, I elaborated, isn?t whether the Net is gaining more
and more structure, and invading our lives and implicitly directing
more and more of our activities. Obviously, it is, and it?s not about
to stop. The key question is ? how much. How much control will this
emergent meta-system have ? will it just be like a weird new kind of
social institution, or will it be something bigger, something that
invades our minds and makes us into some new kind of posthuman human?.
Will it be like the Principia Cybernetica site now, which helps
humans organize their thoughts, and channels human interactions? Or
will it be like the n?th power of Heylighen and Bollen?s dynamically
interactive Web experiments, a turbulent information network that?s
continually rebuilding itself based on our feedback, and creating so
many new ideas that our own ideas barely get any time in our minds?

One thing that?s nearly certain is that everyone, no matter
how brilliantly visionary, is going to be surprised. Given the
unpredictable nature of the situation, it?s tempting to just sit back
and watch the show ? or try to make a quick buck from some dot com
firm riding one or another short-term trendy manifestation of the
long-term technological revolution. But Principia Cybernetica holds
out a different ideal. At a time when the Net seems dominated by chat
rooms, various forms of advertisements, porno, multiplayer networked
gore games, and other forms of digital dreck, it?s worth reflecting
on the Principia Cybernetica dream, the view of the Net as a means
for drawing our minds and souls together, to move slowly but surely
toward the unattainable goal of truth. One hopes that, as the Net
moves into the next phase of development, this kind of seriousness
and intellectual quality will play more of a role once again, as they
did in the early days before the wonderful and chaotic explosion of
graphics, sound and e-commerce that the last decade has delivered us.

[educational fair-use, 2007, ]

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