Brian Holmes on Thu, 5 Mar 2009 16:18:29 -0500 (EST)

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Re: <nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet

Florian Cramer wrote:

> One could even go farther back in history and say that the link between
> chaos and complexity theories, communication networks and counterculture
> created in Thomas Pynchon's 1966 novel "The Crying of Lot 49" already
> mapped out the whole field and discourse.

Yeah, I love that book. You're right, it does more or less map out
the counter-cultural desire for cybernetics. The more rigorous
second-order phase begins more-or-less around that time, with Maturana
and Varela, then with Von Foerster, who were all into serious
mathematical formalism. It grows directly out of the inclusive
tendencies of systems thinking, which in the end cannot help but
include the observer. In my opinion it is what leads to the break-up
of the whole cybernetic "paradigm" - because this self-reflexivity was
too fuzzy for the physicists. However, the break-up led to various
reformulations in the 80s-90s, both in the hard sciences and in the
behavioral sciences, and it is those that I think have really affected
the society we live in today. Jean-Pierre Dupuy's book retraces part
of this history (as I am sure you know).

> The problem, however, is that second-order cybernetic notions of
> "chaos", "complexity" and "self-organization" have been, and continue to
> be, thoroughly misunderstood in countercultures just because they appear
> to be identical to their homonymous political and cultural notions. In
> reality, they are quite if not radically different: The scientific
> notion of chaos is stochastic-deterministic, the political-cultural
> notion of chaos is ontological and anti-deterministic.  The
> scientific/cybernetic notion of "self-organization" and emergence is
> about [nonsubjective, swarm-like] organic phenomena whereas the
> political notion is completely about social construction and personal
> intention. 

Definitely stochastic, but not only organic - as I point out in the
text on Guattari's cartographies, Prigogine and Stengers are referring
to physical phenomena, even something as simple as the phase-change
from water to steam. Their major reference in the history of science
is to Boltzmann and his theory of entropy. Wiener begins in the same
place, with statistical analysis which you need in for any kind of
quantitative information theory and therefore, any kind of control
engineering. The tension that separates the command-and-control
paradigm from second-order cybernetics and its chaos-and-complexity
offshoots is the tension between the classical forms of statistical
determinism and the notion of singular points of bifurcation that
shape the outcome of a phase-change in an evolving system. But this
is really a tension, which joins as well as separates, because it has
common roots in Boltzmann's equations. Of course I would agree that
most counter-cultural versions of chaos, etc, totally miss this kind
of point. They replace mathematical complexity with literary figures
of the labyrinth and the enigma, as in Lot 49.

> In a systems theoretical context, a software cellar automaton or a
> fractal is "complex", in a social, political and aesthetic sense,
> they're blatantly under-complex.

Yeah, and the lay people who really got the instrumental,
systems-theoretic version of complexity, unfortunately, have been
the financiers and also the marketers. In the recent text I bring up
the case of Mandelbrot, with his double life as a mathematician and
a stock-market analyst. The whole trend toward predictive profiling
on the basis of the info gathered by consumer surveillance similarly
depends on the statistical analysis of patterns in large data-sets.

> Unfortunately, these misunderstandings thoroughly pervade the field
> - and, most importantly: utopias - of "new media" studies, art and
> activism. I wonder what will be left of it as soon as people wake up
> and realize that the hopes they put into "open systems that organize
> themselves" have been just another god delusion.

Well, again I would agree generally but if that remark is meant for
me I am not sure it applies! What I have tried to do is assess how
the various incarnations of systems theory have been put to work,
also in the social sciences, and not only in the "counter-cultural"
ones. The text "Future Map" is particularly oriented to the
statistical modeling. I then try to look at opposing strategies
where the "ontological" moment (the moment of value-creation and
self-orientation) is put _consciously_ to work, in order to escape
from statistical determination or the preemptive modeling and
channeling of dynamic systems. The last two of my texts attempt to
deal with this as best as possible, and in the one on Guattari I try
to show that he really did know what he was doing, that he appealed
to the ontological moment very consciously, after having understood
the social effects of systems-theoretical research. Of course I may
have made some mistakes with the technical bits, which anyone is
free to criticize, and I would be very curious -- especially since
you and I have such a similar read on the role of cybernetics in the
long history of liberal and neoliberal thought -- to know, Florian,
which new-media authors have not succumbed to the "god delusion" of
self-organization, in your opinion. Because I do intend to go on
reading this kind of thing....

best, Brian

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