Audio documentary (9 hours!) about Stafford Beer’s “Cybersyn” project in Allende’s Chile by Evgeny Morozov(*1) – “new” undated. (Hat tip to Ben Taylor on Mastodon / Twitter / LinkedIn – and was reviewed last week 22 July 2023 by John Bartlett in the Grauniad.)
Amidst all the left-right international and corporate power politics (Nixon, Kissinger, CIA and ITT vs Allende, Castro et al) and idealised socialist dreams – Utopia, literally – actually plenty of real world lessons about Cybernetics as Systems Thinking. That and a well documented history of Beer himself with recordings of him and many interviewees. “Went out a Management Consultant, came back a Hippy.” – Maturana. Thoroughly referenced, (including modern practitioners like Mike Jackson).
Cybernetics is NEVER about the technology. Technology as something owned, physically implemented in licensed hardware and/or software can become a tool of power and dependency. Yes, there is a lot about access to information, using technology to gather more – knowledge is power (Bacon) etc – but again it’s the info not the “tech”, and who has access(*2)? Very disappointing “scientific management” (Taylorism, resource-time-and-motion) aspect to the Cybersyn project – you can only manage what you know in data, etc. Early days I guess of this being something computing technology (ie Telex!) can do. But a distraction. I have similar early “tech” (Telex and Athenaeum! – ticker tape “at the club”) experiences.
Cybernetics is always about the thinking and the decision-making. Really originally (literally) about Governance – how we make (good) collective decisions. Democracy / Bureaucracy / Technocracy / Benevolent-Dictatorship -> Democracy with (or without?) some form of Elitism.
I came to the conclusion more than a decade ago the problem (of how we humans best “manage” our interests in the world) is solved by “proper” democracy and that proper democracy does require some form of “elite” – [Already mentioned here in hindsight in 2008 (*3)] – technocrats in a technical knowledge / expertise NOT technology sense. Balance of populism – popular votes on all decisions – vs delegated / hierarchical power and control. Either extreme is tyrannical. But how? It’s about the ecosystem, the thought-and-value-system, for decision- making and enactment. The technocracy (as thoughtocracy?) is about managing that NOT making / managing / controlling the decisions and actions themselves – that’s for those with their “skin in the game”. Civil service as not merely the bureaucratic executors, but also the guardians / curators of the (evolving) ecosystem – this is an area where “citizens assemblies” idea also fits well?
Hence the abstraction of Systems Thinking distinct from Project / Policy Management and Execution, and an Ecosystem that manages that distancing.
(*1) No secret that Morozov’s own agenda is, like that of the Grauniad, – “a very promising avenue for reinventing what socialism of the 21st century should be”. Not surprisingly, Russian friends with real experience of soviet communism don’t rate Morozov – nor Bogdanov – but as a documentary we can draw our own conclusions from the facts. Aside – Morozov’s project he calls “post-Utopia”, Paul Mason (Bogdanov scholar) calls his “post-Capitalism”. I say a pox on all Bayesian priors – Post-Post-Modernism for me 🙂
(*2) Clearly significant in 21st C that we have so much more “democratised” consumer information technology. Creates the illusion of more / better democracy, but of course it’s all still owned and funded with interests and power-structures. And even without dubious motives the channels become dominated by mediocre content – the medium is the message. Actually exacerbates the problem of tyrannical extremes – more activism at both ends – faster, more ubiquitous, more complete polarisation of interests. The need for the abstraction / separation of thinking and doing remains, and is indeed more urgent as it becomes ever more obscured by the “traffic” in would-be transparent information-overload.
(*3) Given our 2023 Systems context, ironic (in the Alanis Morissette sense) that 2008 reference was to a piece by Dave Snowden of Cynefin. Small world of consilience?
Three-week hiatus here since I last posted on Psybertron. Been focussed – apart from housekeeping – on a Research Proposal on that Ecosystem idea, supported by modern neuro-science and neuro-philosophy on how we humans really do make decisions as agents in the complex real world.
Which also means I’ve missed quite a few other interesting inputs. Hat tip to reader AJ Owens on Consciousness & Semantics, Pts 1 & 2, at “Staggering Implications”.
Bit more housekeeping to clear the decks …
Note to self – The rubber hits the road in nail clusters (miguelitos) sabotage, whilst the Santiago Boys deal in cybernetic concepts. Distance between thinking and doing again.
Also – Some interaction with this post, in the comments below as noted by Ben Taylor, but also on Twitter and Mastodon. Probably really need to create another summary page for all things Cybernetic and Systems Thinking. The reply to Finn below was itself a from-memory-summary of my previous recaps, with links to three previous recaps. Just capturing a couple of additional contributions here.
One, I can be a bit dismissive of certain specific thinkers and their branding of their own ideas and methodologies – “nothing new under the sun” – and everybody’s interpretation of everybody else is “for a reason” – so I’m always looking for conceptual essences at the “right level of abstraction”. Gregory Bateson I’ve “discarded” before on this basis, but did include him in one of the summary lists below – Cybernetics #1, #2, #3, the most recent summary before this one.
Two, as I already alluded and Ben made more explicit on Mastodon, it’s moot anyway how much (say) Cybersyn as executed represented what Beer’s ideas had originally intended, not to mention the politics – there are nevertheless always lessons to be learned from experience of both – the thinking and the projects.
And Three, one respondent on Mastodon – “Kihbernetics” – appears to have his own branded version of what I’m simply calling Cybernetics#3 – Feedback + Agent Feed-Forward + Agent Memory – but he also summarises his main sources:
“#Kihbernetics is the study of #Complex #Dynamical #Systems with #Memory very different from all other #SystemsThinking approaches. Kihbernetic theory and principles are derived from these three sources:
“An integrated composite of people, products, and processes that provide a capability to satisfy a stated need or objective.”
*MIL_STD_499B definition of the word “system”
#People are always at the forefront of our thinking (the #who and #why are we doing this for and/or with?). Our efforts will continue with the discovery of all the functions or #processes in your organization (#how and #when something happens or has to happen?), and finally, we get to the #products and/or services that you put on the market and the tools that you use or may need to buy or develop in order to fully integrate your system (the #what and #where things have to happen?).
Our goal is always to make the people of your organization self-reliant to the point that they shouldn’t need our help with the further maintenance of a continuous change management process.
In any case, we’ve got your back while you do the heavy lifting of establishing a better future for your organization!”
Why “Kihbernetics” I’ve no idea, nor why that narrow MIL-Std definition for a system, and obviously in the business of branding his own consulting business – but those three source summaries – Shannon, Ashby & Maturana – look useful. People front and centre, obviously.
[Trust is essential, no solution without it – “leave us to do your heavy lifting” (ie don’t trust “them” trust me, essentially) – is placing the expert-technocrat in the elite governance position (this never goes away as I said). And it’s not about transparency, beyond basic access needs & controls. Transparency is the opposite of trust. Effectively – I don’t trust you so keep your hands and your information where I can see them.]
Essay on ITT – the bad guys – by the Morozov – the series creator – in Le Monde Diplomatique August 2023.