Discovering the Cybernetic Brain - COSMONAUT

Date: 2021-02-14T05:43:44+00:00


Amelia Davenport interviews philosopher of science and historian of cybernetics Andrew Pickering. 

We live in a society without a future. Fewer people than ever believe in the lies pushed by corporate and government leaders of eternal growth and prosperity for all; it can’t be achieved on the basis of our current social structures. Even as we go to work and engage with our civil institutions, people increasingly simply do not believe in them. Apocalypse movies and books are incredibly popular. For instance, the television show The Walking Dead has reached 10 seasons and has two recent spin-off shows. We have impending climate disaster, stagnant wages, and the rise of what Marianne Williamson rightly calls “dark psychic forces,” in the form of movements like QAnon. For many, modernity has failed. We can keep on our current path, doubling down on its failures the way Margret Thatcher did with her neoliberal policies, out of blind faith that we just need to do more. We can put our faith in liberal democracy, technological innovation, bread and butter labor struggles, or struggles for representation within the system. Or, we can look to a different future; one where our current technology and philosophy merges with the best of the past, to produce a worthwhile synthesis.

To talk about this other future, and its implications for those of us who want a different world than the one we have, I (virtually) sat down with sociologist, historian, and philosopher Andrew Pickering. Andrew worked to excavate this other future in his book The Cybernetic Brain, while also contributing to the philosophy of science in The Mangle of Practice and Constructing Quarks. His historical and philosophical work covers the development and application of what he calls a “nonmodern” ontology. This framework is concerned with looking at how things in the world act in the world rather than the more prevalent focus on “enframing” things through fixed categories. This nonmodern ontology is the basis of cybernetics and a different kind of science (as proposed by Stephen Wolfram) than the one which dominates our academic, corporate, and military institutions. 

Cybernetics, historically and contemporarily, has a place in all three of the above areas, but the original project was largely dismembered by the early 2000s. Although cybernetics’ origins in the military struggle against Nazi Germany and its role in the development of the Internet are relatively well known, less is known about its relationship to other important areas like ecology, eastern philosophy, and socialist construction. Pickering’s work is an invaluable contribution to a much broader discussion on organizational science and other ways of knowing beyond the paradigms we live under which have reached their limits.

Can you introduce yourself for our readers please? 

I work in the history of science and technology, usually with a philosophical edge. My first book was Constructing Quarks, a history of particle physics; my latest is about cybernetics, The Cybernetic Brain. I feel like I’ve gone from one extreme to the other. Most of my career was in sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but I came home to England in 2007 and now I’m an emeritus professor at Exeter University.

In The Cybernetic Brain, you describe cybernetics as having a sort of amateur character, but rather than a flaw, it seems to be a source of strength. Can you speak to that? 

Disciplines shape the direction of travel. One reason for the grimness of American cybernetics was the urge to be ‘scientific’ (maths, logic, etc). I described the British cyberneticians as amateurs in the sense that there was no institutional apparatus holding them to account—so they could shoot off in all sorts of different directions, and sometimes it worked. More scope for imagination.

So you argue the imperatives the academy places on research limits the potential creativity in science? How might a young engineer or scientist interested in grappling with real social problems carve out a space to work on them? 

There’s no magical answer, you just have to care. I could add that the amateurism of cybernetics was also a sociological problem. There were no jobs or obvious sources of funding for the second-generation cyberneticians. That’s one very mundane reason for the increasing marginalisation of cybernetics over the years.

What does it mean for cybernetics to be “counter-cultural”? 

Modernity is basically dualist, implicitly or explicitly assuming that people and things are different in kind and need to be understood differently. Cybernetics is non-dualist, concerned with couplings between heterogeneous entities likeiike people and things. This is not just about ideas, but plays out in different practices. As documented in Cybernetic Brain, the affinities between cybernetics and the 60s counterculture were obvious: antipsychiatry, the Anti-University, explorations of consciousness, experimentation in personal and social relations, dynamic artworks.

Do you see any affinities between cybernetics and Non-European non-dualist philosophies? Certain strains of Hinduism, Buddhism and Nahua thought perhaps? Any direct influences? 

Likewise what parallels and differences do you see between cybernetics and 19th/20th century holistic philosophies like Marxism or Kropotkin’s evolutionary anarchism? Do you buy claims that Marxist theorist Alexander Bogdanov influenced General Systems Theory with his Tektology? 

The East: yes, sure, very many connections, though I only discovered many of them as I was finishing Cybernetic Brain. Eastern philosophy and spirituality is non-dualist leading to an obvious resonance with cybernetics (see above). Biographically, Stafford Beer was interested in India as a schoolboy and taught Tantric yoga in his later life. Grey Walter ’was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, very interested in altered states and strange performances. Ross Ashby declared himself a spiritualist and a time-worshipper. I think Gordon Pask was attracted to the doctrine of Universal Mind. Gregory Bateson worked with Alan Watts, one of the great popularisers of Buddhism in the west.The cybernetic worldview actually strikes me as Taoist.

I’ve always loved the Marx quote: ‘production creates a subject for the object as well as an object for the subject’—a beautiful expression of the non-dualist, non-modern coupling of people and things that cybernetics circled around. Beer had a lot of sympathy for Marx, but beyond that it’s hard to find much Marxist influence in cybernetics, or, indeed, any trace of Kropotkin or Bogdanov.

Why do you think cybernetics fractured into so many disciplines (control theory, bionics, Operational Research, etc)? Do you think it can create a second life outside official institutions? 

In 1948, Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics as a kind of amalgam that included brain science, feedback engineering, information theory and digital computing. These were more or less held together in a series of interdisciplinary meetings (the Macy conferences, the Ratio Club, the Namur conferences), but later fell apart, reverting back to cybernetic vectors in individual disciplines. Cybernetics does still have a life outside the usual institutions. I run across traces of it in all sorts of places and, conversely, all sorts of people contact me about it.

I should emphasize that when I say ‘cybernetics’ I’m thinking about the branch of it that interests me especially, namely cybernetics as it developed in Britain in the work of Ross Ashby, Grey Walter, Stafford Beer, Gregory Bateson, and Gordon Pask.

Are there any particularly interesting projects or areas of research in cybernetics you know about? 

Well, two areas interest me especially, both discussed further below. I’m just finishing a book on cybernetic approaches—though they don’t call themselves that—to the environment, approaches that seek to act with rather than on nature, to get along in the world rather than dominating it. The second area is cybernetic art, which I regard as a kind of ontological pedagogy, helping people to experienceexperfence the world as cybernetics understands it. (I got the idea of ontological pedagogy from Brian Eno, also mentioned below, though he’d never use that phrase.)

What kind of prospects do the organizational cybernetics of Stafford Beer have in future socialist experiments? Would you consider his project successful (insofar as it was cut short by the Pinochet Coup)? 

A great thing about Stafford Beer was that his interest in democracy was not just a lofty aspiration but centered on forms of social organization. His Viable System Model and Syntegration are practical diagrams of how to organize collective decision-making in a minimally or non-hierarchical fashion. There are endless books and articles on why democracy is so great and why we need more of it, but very little, apart from Beer, on how to bring it down to earth. Project Cybersyn in Chile was a funny sort of success, inasmuch as (1) it encouraged Beer and others to think through further the politics of the Viable System Model; (2) it created a nucleus of organizational cyberneticians still active and influential today; and (3) of course, people are still interested in it, 50 years later. In practice, it hardly got started. 

Can you explain the gist of the Viable System Model and Syntegration for our readers? 

Beer thought that organizations needed to be ‘viable,’ meaning able to adapt to unforeseen changes. He therefore modelled his understanding of organization on the most adaptive system he could think of: the human brain and central nervous system. In the trademark version of the VSM, he divided the organization into five levels running from the board of directors to production units, and he insisted that couplings between levels should have a two-way give-and-take quality, not the top-down hierarchy of conventional organizations. He regarded the overall form of the VSM as the most democratic an organization could be while still remaining a single entity. Syntegration is a protocol for structuring non-hierarchic decision-making. Participants are assigned to the edges of a notional geometric figure (usually an icosahedron), with discussions alternating between the vertices at the ends of each edge. In this way arguments can echo around the figure in a decentred fashion. Beer thought of this as a sort of perfect democracy.

Against models of the mind that create a dichotomy between knowledge and lived reality, you say “knowledge is in the domain of practice”, what kind of implications does that have for you? 

We’re brought up to think that knowledge comes first and somehow runs the show. I think knowledge is at most just a part of getting along in the world and is continually mangled in that process. One implication is that we can never know what will work til we’ve tried it. 

What do you think of the value of AI like AlphaGo that is developed in a black box way? There is no real representation that we can extract. Its trained by trial and error with sample adversaries. 

I think all knowledge is developed in a ‘black box way’ (see previous question). On the other hand, the basic function of neural nets is pattern recognition and I don’t think pattern recognition is a good model for human knowledge. We don’t walk around just pointing to things and saying ‘cat,’ ‘dog.’ 

Do you think developments in AI will have implications for socialists in terms of both what they’re up against and potential tools they can use? 

Mainstream AI reinforces a very thin model of people as disembodied knowers, and modernity depends on this. Cybernetics began as brain science, but assumes a much denser and more interesting version of what people are like, which offers a basis for an important critique of and deviations from capital (see above on counter-culture). 

So while AI attenuates people, when applied beyond narrow technical scopes, as it attempts to control behavior, cybernetics may prove to be a framework for escaping that kind of domination? 

Oh yes! The subtitle of Cybernetic Brain is Sketches of Another Future. As I just said, the rational and logical brain is central to neoliberalism and the government of modernity, while the performative brain of cybernetics hangs together with all sorts of weird and wonderful nonmodern projects, as discussed in the book.

Do you see any potential for cybernetics in architecture and urban design in the future? Gordon Pask seems to have made a mark on the field. 

Yes, of course. Pask was one of the leaders in thinking about adaptive architecture from the 1960s onwards, and is now a patron saint for some of the most interesting work in art and architecture. 

What might a “Paskian” home or office building look like?

The key thing about cybernetic architecture would be that it is somehow reconfigurable in response to the actions of the people inhabiting and using it. I used to imagine waking up in the morning and trying to find out where the kitchen had gone. Pask’s prototypical contribution to architecture was the design of the Fun Palace, a big public building in London, conceived but not built in the early 1960s. The Fun Palace was a big shed with lots of moveable parts. Sometimes it would arrange itself to suit whatever people wanted to do (sports, education, politics, etc). Sometimes it would act to differently, to encourage people to find new things to do, new ways to be. The Pompidou Centre in Paris was modelled on the Fun Palace, but the dynamic elements were stripped away.

In what ways can cybernetics, ecology, and agriculture inform one another? Permaculture seems to have some shared principles with cybernetics despite generally being seen as “low tech”. Do you think there’s a possibility of a fusion between the approaches? 

Gregory Bateson was one of the first to think cybernetically about ecology and the environment. His argument was that we need to think differently—non-dualistically—about the world we live in. I am more interested in practice—I think we need to act differently. From that angle, permaculture is quite cybernetic but not very exciting. I’ve been writing recently about a form of ‘natural farming’ developed in Japan by Masanobu Fukuoka, which, in effect, choreographs the agency of farmers, soil, plants, organisms in growing crops. 

What are the key highlights of Fukuoka’s approach?

Wu wei—the Taoist concept of not-doing. What first struck me was the absence of plowing (and flooding in growing rice), but also not using chemicals as insecticides or fertilizers, not weeding, etc. Instead, the farmer times his or her actions to fit in with the shi of the situation, the propensity of things.

Can you explain what Hylozoism is? What kind of consequences do you think the concept has for changing our society’s relationship to the world

Hylozoism (as I use the word, at least) is taking seriously the endless liveliness of the world. We live in a place we will never fully understand and that will always surprise us. We are not the center of creation; we are not in control; we are caught up in the flow of becoming. If we really grasped that we would be very different people and act very differently—modernity would be over.

Heinz von Foerster claimed that the basis of cybernetics is synthesis in contrast to modern Science’s basis in analysis. Would you agree with that characterization? 

Kind of. A hallmark of conventional sciences like physics is ‘analysis’—breaking the world down into its smallest parts and understanding phenomena as built from the bottom-up. Cybernetics is not like that. Some cybernetic understandings instead emphasize ‘synthesis’—the idea that phenomena arise from systems or networks of interconnected parts. That’s how Gregory Bateson thought about the environment. On the other hand, the system aspect is much less salient in other cybernetic projects—Gordon Pask’s Fun Palace, for example.

I think it’s worth mentioning the time dimension of the contrast. Conventional sciences imagine the world to be built from fixed, unchanging entities (quarks, black holes, etc). Cybernetics—the branch of cybernetics that interests me—instead understands the world as a place of continual change in time, emergence, becoming.

Cybernetics is often seen as techno-fetishist but Norbert Wiener, Stafford Beer, and others were very critical of blind faith in technology. Why do you think there is this misperception and why do you think the founders of cybernetics were so skeptical of the power of technological development to solve social problems? 

I’m not sure it is entirely a misperception. As I said at the start, many different threads are entangled in the history of cybernetics, including the sort of control engineering that is central to the automation of production, as well as the military devices Norbert Wiener worked on in World War II. That military connection is a sort of original sin for many people. Wiener himself refused to work for the military after WWII and warned of the dangers of automation, but I find it hard to think of any other examples. Beer had a rather uncritical vision of the ‘automatic factory’ in the early 1960s—a factory with no human workers at all. In Britain in those days the big danger of automation was seen to be the so-called ‘leisure problem.’ It’s hard to believe now, but the idea was that people would have nothing to do once their jobs had been automated so that the older generation would sit around all day watching the television while the young ones lived a life of delinquency (the plot of Clockwork Orange). The Fun Palace was conceived as an antidote to the leisure problem, a place where the population could recover the creativity that had been stifled by work, on the one hand, and the society of the spectacle on the other.

If someone were to ask you what are the best resources for a non-specialist to learn about cybernetics and apply it to their own life, professional work, or political organizing, what would you tell them? 

Yes, well . . . When I first became interested in cybernetics I tried to find popular or scholarly accounts that would help me get into it, and I failed. There wasn’t much that I could recommend then or now. My own solution was to go back to read the original writings of the cyberneticians, and that would still be a good tactic: try Grey Walter, The Living Brain (1953), Ross Ashby, Design for a Brain (1952) (what a title!), Gordon Pask, An Approach to Cybernetics (1961). Modesty forbids me recommending The Cybernetic Brain, but it’s a great story and not a bad read . . . Sketches of Another Future . . .