The term cybernetics tends to be associated with computer control systems and AI these days, but when the term was first coined it was originally about how systems of any kind – social systems – governed themselves.

It was back in 2002 I read Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s work on the origins of cognitive science “The Mechanization of the Mind“. It was the first I’d heard of the Macy meeting in New York in 1946, and although I’d been on the systems engineering and information science track in my psychological research for some time and Psybertron clearly shared some of the same roots, it was the first time I’d been able to put the name Cybernetics to my interests.

Mechanisation of mind was the very problem being lamented in retrospect by Dupuy. Since I was already investigating what was wrong with “classical” science and logic at the metaphysical level, I quickly latched onto this string of comparative quotes from Dupuy:

“Beyond the dualism; the schizophrenia …

American Neo-Positivism
and French Post-Structuralism

Hidebound Savants
and Cultured Ignorami (or Foggie Froggies)

the philosophies of science, mathematics and logic
and the philosophies of the human and social “sciences”

the analytic, rigorous, democratic, shallow and tedious
and the rich and meaningful on the other

knowing everything about almost nothing
and knowing almost nothing about everything

the need for formal models
and the nevertheless deeply held belief that ….
literature is a superior
form of knowledge than science.

Especially that last highlighted quote. Remember I was a techy geek who’d barely read a book that wasn’t a technical manual for the previous 35 years. All different now, as a born-again reader of literature with any philosophical content.

Inevitably in philosophical discussions the basis for ontology, epistemology and ethics lead to real world political cases and I was forever, after Causation itself, concluding that Governance was the overriding practical concern, whether talking at fundamental physical, biological or higher psychological and intellectual decision-making levels, or social / group management and government levels.

At root, Governance = Cybernetics, by definition – supervisory control levels as well as operational feedback levels, albeit one emergent (supervenient?) on the other. Free-won’t as the best model of conscious will and freedoms in the complex systems of individual humans and human societies. Etc.

Anyway, somewhere recently, (the IP thread, and the most recent Edge edition with a piece on the agent himself, John Brockman, I picked-up a reference to Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics being most influential (*), and recalled it was a book I’d still never read, despite many references. One of the key recurring references was of course the BCS Cybernetics special interest group, and the view of information as fundamental to all other levels.

So I put that right and obtained a copy of “Cybernetics“.

I’ve so far read the 1961 preface to the second edition and the original 1947 introduction. The full title is “Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine“. I’m very impressed:

The pre-war discussions, the wartime projects, and immediate post-war exchanges that led to the multi-disciplinary Macy meeting in 1946, make-up the bulk of the introduction. The names are a pantheon –  Wiener and his long-term associate Rosenblueth; Shannon and Turing; Bose and Gabor; Heisenberg and Schroedinger; von-Neumann and Haldane; Carnap and Russell (Wiener was a student of Russell’s) ; Bateson and Mead;  and many more … Josiah Royce, Henri Bergsson and FCS Northrop included !!! Wow.

Facing the new world of Belsen and Hiroshima, (see also Durrenmatt’s Die Physiker, and Bronowski’s Science and Human Values) the “evil” mis-use of science is an unsurprising topic, but so are the potential evils of markets and industrialised corporate war-based economies – recalled by Eisenhower in 1961 as the military-industrial complex.  Blake’s “dark satanic mills”. Wiener wrote:

“The answer is to have a society
based on human values
other than buying and selling.”

And …

“… there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by [cybernetics] may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution [it makes] to the concentration of power – which is always concentrated by its very conditions of existence – in the hands of the most unscrupulous.

I write [in 1947] that it is a very slight hope.”

Since these days, my agenda has been much influenced by Dan Dennett’s – Turing meets Darwin – information evolution view of the world, but that’s another story.


(*) It was Brockman, back in his Whole Earth Catalogue days with Stewart Brand
” … he started having weekly ‘shroom dinners with John Cage, who gave him a copy of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, a book that forever informed his intellectual sensibilities.”

(Aside, talking of The Edge, didn’t one of the writers in the past year – the 2011 question – suggest Supervenience was the concept that we would most benefit from appreciating more widely? It was Joshua Greene who suggested Supervenience in 2011. Which reminds me it’s time to read The Edge 2012 Q&A. But I digress.)

[And Post Note : Of course, the connections arose through me noticing Daniel Kahneman’s response (first) to the 2011 Q&A … I had bought Kahneman’s Fast & Slow Thinking book at the same time I ordered Cybernetics last week. I found myself with ten or a dozen web-pages all open at the same time and couldn’t recall why they were connected, when I had to do a shut-down for various updates. Now I know.]

Also published on Medium.

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