18 October 2016

Cybernetics and Society

I'm going to a seminar later today on cybernetics. The idea has a certain appeal because of the obvious way that feedback operates in organisms and ecosystems. However, in reading for the seminar I'm also learning why the field is not more mainstream.

The readings focus on Stafford Beer. A management consultant and self-confessed Marxist. Beer was fascinated by how cybernetic systems could replace human beings as decision makers. Just as a reflex is faster and more responsive to a simple stimulus such as pain than a cognitive response is, Beer thought he could make cybernetic feedback systems respond faster than traditional computers. This is back in the mid 20th Century when computers first began to escape from academia and the military. To be fair using computers to do things in exactly the same way as humans had done them might have been short sighted. But it never seems to have occurred to Beer that replacing human beings with machines was a monstrous goal completely out of kilter with the thought of Marx as I understand it. Beer seems to have considered all kinds of organic substitutes for human beings as well - at one point trying to map factor inputs and outputs onto a pond.

The readings are problematic in other ways. For example the author continually refers to what he calls an ontology of unknowability. I may not know much about philosophy, but I do know that what is knowable or not is the domain of epistemology. Ontological views, even Realism, tell us nothing about what may be known or what must remain unknown. They tell us about what can be inferred to exist. So an ontology of unknowability is an oxymoron. I plan to ask about this.

The author of the two papers, who will also lead the seminar, seems to see machines that use feedback in an animistic way. He focusses on the homoeostat, a kind of current regulator that can hold an output steady under different input currents, but in a quite inefficient way by changing the internal resistance of the machine randomly to 1 of 24 values in response to rising input currents. As the current rises it forces the machine to adopt first one then then another value. With four linked together, the output of one linked to the input of another, one can create a feedback system which stabilises the output current.

The author wants us to see this as agent-like behaviour. It isn't. He says that such devices "explored the unknown". They didn't. That they "reacted constructively". They didn't. And there are better ways to make current regulators using transistors!

Sadly beer ended up becoming a "tantric yogi" and this opens the door to all kinds of nonsense. It links all this to "spirituality", that empty modern word for values we can no longer articulate, but which has something to do with what we feel when we walk into a grand church or a forest, or when we shut ourselves of from ordinary sensory perceptions as in meditation. The ontology of unknowability is also a neo-Taoist ontology. And as this point I begin to doubt I will get anything at all from the seminar. However I have watched a long interview with the author on YouTube and in person he is quite a bit less flaky than he appears to be in the seminar readings.

So my expectations for the seminar are pretty low to say the least. However, this is the first in a series with a lot of guest speakers and I hope to attend them all to see if there is any value to be had in talking about cybernetics. Going by what I've read so far I'm unlikely to adopt the language of cybernetics even though the ideas are clearly related to things I've been writing about. Indeed it seems to me that the more urgent need is for Amistics, the study of the impact of technology on humanity and the world.

Since R. D. Laing is praised in one of the articles, I revisited part of Adam Curtis's documentary The Trap which describes the baleful influence of Game Theory on Laing (and on society in general). Game Theory was the invention not of a beautiful mind, but of a mind warped by paranoid schizophrenia. The influence of Game Theory on Laing seems not the be widely recognised.

Ironically, Laing who had so viciously chided the medical profession for medicating their patients, was an inveterate user of drugs and alcohol, who became an alcoholic. On the plus side, though it was far from being a cure for psychosis, Laing's practice of actually talking to the insane as human beings did relieve their suffering. Game Theory led him to see the family as the cause of insanity. His view of the family was bleak and paranoid in the way that John Nash's view of humanity as expressed in Game Theory was. Curtis suggests that Laing was sublimating his feelings about the Cold War and projecting them onto the families he studied, seeing them purely in terms of tacit and deceptive struggles for control. This is a view of humanity lacking in reciprocity and empathy - i.e. lacking the basis for morality that is found in all primates.

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