Stafford Beer the Hippy?

The Santiago Boys


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(*3), 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 their 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) That old myth – you can only manage what you measuremistakenly attributed to the likes of W Edwards-Deming. Not true, and he didn’t say it anyway.

(*4) 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 …


Post Notes:

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 h/t Ben, here a post by Petter Holme, linking Beer’s Cybersyn to Hayek.)

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:

[1] #CE_Shannon‘s theory of #Information and his description of a #Transducer,

[2] #WR_Ashby‘s #Cybernetics and his concept of #Transformation, and

[3]  #HR_Maturana‘s theory of #Autopoiesis and the resulting #Constructivism

We use our Kihbernetic worldview to help people navigate their #organization through times of #change. An organization is defined* as:

“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.]


Post Notes:

Essay on ITT – the bad guys – by the Morozov – the “Santiago Boys” series creator – in Le Monde Diplomatique August 2023.


Is Dennett an Illusionist?

No, he does not say that “Consciousness is an Illusion”. End of.

In a sentence: Dennett’s position is that: Consciousness and conscious will are as real and evolved as anything else in the world. The powerful (useful, but misleading) ILLUSION is the Cartesian theatre / video screen with the homunculus viewer / user as things distinct from each other. It is / we are one and the same evolved behaviour of our brains.

[Final Version – 3 July 2023]

Frequently find myself correcting even the best commentators on consciousness that “No, Dennett really isn’t saying that consciousness is an Illusion”. He does say, and has said over the years, many things about the illusory nature of some aspects of consciousness. Some aspects we intuit are illusions, but our consciousness (and its free-will) is real, so real he’s spent a long career evolving his explanations for it.

Happened again today with John Horgan, who made such a reference in reposting today his 2015 profile of David Chalmers, in response to the Chalmers-Koch bet news from the other day, that neuro-science would not find a “solution” to consciousness by this year. I already made an ironic reference in a note at the end of my last “Free Energy Principle Explains Consciousness” post.

Horgan’s profile of Chalmers is pretty good. I’m guessing it must have involved personal dialogue, because in both 2015 and 2017 versions, he cites Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” as an influential read before he switched from Maths to Philosophy and Consciousness – a search finds very few citations anywhere except Horgan’s(?) eg:

Found also this Cliff Sosis 2016 interview with Chalmers with explicit reference (same story as he told Horgan – or the source of Horgan’s quote?):

Q – “What made you turn away from mathematics?”

A – “It’s a long story. Before starting at Oxford I hitchhiked around Europe for four months or so. I’d done a bit of hitchhiking in Australia and enjoyed it. It was a great way to meet people and see all sorts of small towns in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, England, and Scotland. Of course I spent plenty of the time by the side of the road, and I read various philosophical books along the way. Not analytic philosophy — I still didn’t really know about that then. I read things like the Tao Te Ching, The Tao is Silent by Raymond Smullyan, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, philosophical novels by Umberto Eco and Hermann Hesse, and Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse (a neglected classic in the philosophy of living, I think). Somehow all that got me into thinking more and more about philosophy and especially about consciousness.”

Plenty of Zen and the Art and Chalmers references in searches, but mainly overlaps within Blackmore, McWatt and others, not direct Chalmers refs.

But Chalmers also has mentioned Pirsig on Twitter earlier this year:

(No Zen, ZMM or Pirsig mentioned in the slides themselves or anything else published by him? He was a student of Hofstadter of course and I’ve mentioned Doug’s parallel’s to Pirsig before. But I digress.)

Obviously Chalmers is famous for inventing the name “hard problem” for the fact that objective science will never explain the subjectivity of consciousness. That’s simply a fact, a limitation of objective science, not a problem with explanations of consciousness, not a problem anyone invented. Just a fact. Despite Koch conceding the bet to Chalmers, consciousness already has been explained by more complete versions of science, ones that permit the subjective (eg Solms, in a single post.)

Anyway for now, as my title suggests, I wanted to follow-up the Dennett as Illusionist myth. It just so happens I’ve been re-visiting some old Dennett pieces, since last week’s post.

In the profile above, Horgan compares Chalmers to Dennett:

… unlike, say, Daniel Dennett
when he insists that consciousness is an “illusion”

That link is to Horgan’s own review of Dennett’s “Bacteria to Bach and Back” (B2BnB) which I’ve referenced many times and had my own review published here in The New Humanist. and (say) here in “Dennett’s Speculative Bet”.

In Horgan’s review he includes this (presumed) Dennett quote right at the start:

‘[Consciousness] doesn’t exist, at least not in the way we think it does. It is an illusion, like … “American democracy.”‘

That’s very clearly about the way it exists being illusory – democracy exists and is embodied in real world organisation of things, but doesn’t exist in the same way a physical object does (in an orthodox view of the physical world). However, consciousness – like democracy – clearly exists in some form?

In fact in Dennett’s B2BnB he never says anywhere “Consciousness is an illusion” nor even uses the word illusion except in the important later chapter entitled “Consciousness as an Evolved User-illusion”

I spent some time on that in my own review. Using the language of “user interfaces” fashionable among many in the 21st C as an update to his earlier Cartesian Theatre metaphor. Although our metaphorical “minds eye” calls up “a view” in our subjective experience, there is no separation between the subjective (mental) view and the physical performance on the (biological brain) stage. The view experienced is the experience viewed, they’re one and the same, there’s no user distinct from the hardware and software behaviour. That’s the illusion that has evolved, for good reason. #Distancing

One place Dennett suggests the idea of consciousness being an illusion is his infamous TED Talk entitled “The Illusion of Consciousness” from over 20 years ago, where the first line of intro says “Dan Dennett thinks that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes.” That’s NOT denying the reality of consciousness in my book, it’s simply the title of his talk.

And importantly – as per his title – the subject of his talk is an illusion (or a set / class of illusions) OF consciousness, not any suggestion that consciousness IS the illusion. Primarily visual illusions about detail we see (or fail to see) in the world vs what is physically (statically and dynamically) presented by the world. Things worth understanding as we build and refine our model or explanatory description of our consciousness and the many aspects of its workings, but in no way suggesting that consciousness is not real – that it’s merely an illusion.

Provocative click-bait is not unusual in media titles and set-piece debates 🙂 Hat-tip to Anvesi on Twitter and to John’s response to the tweet above for pointing out Dennett’s use of the same content in the talk he gave at the same Chalmers-Koch event. These are from 20 & 25 years ago!

More worrying for me are more recent references by Dennett to Illusions in a Consciousness context.

A favourite of mine, Kevin Mitchell – evolutionary neuroscientist and systems thinker at Trinity College Dublin – author of “Innate” and “Free Agents” picked me up on a more recent quote in the last year. (Kevin’s own post referring to the “Just Deserts” debates with Greg Caruso which also starts with a popular media piece by Oliver Burkeman in the Grauniad.)

Refreshing interview here just last month with Kevin – quite matter-of-fact description from a working neuro-scientist – on how our agency (free-will) and more work and evolved to work. Even starts by shunning the value of “a definition” – see also this LinkedIn piece – Matthew West & Anatoly Levenchuk. Anyway nothing contentious, and nothing Dennett would disagree with. It just all makes sense – including the levels of agency, the degrees of freedom – not every decision needs conscious thought – it’s just efficient – the free-energy principle – to have many semi-automated / habitual actions and to focus on the value-add of consciousness. Free-will as free-won’t – a supervisory control system – as many have said before.

Important to notice that in these cases the focus is that aspect of our consciousness we call free will or conscious will – that part of consciousness that makes decisions to act based on what our consciousness experiences. Not the whole of what we might mean by consciousness. Again with Dennett it’s the user illusion. The will, the agency exists. The illusion is that there is some separate entity deciding and acting, a “user” separate from the experiencing occurring in the brain machinery. Frankly, this all goes back to earlier Dennett and Hofstadter “who am I” thought experiments. We are our experience and sense of will. They’re not separate things.

And just last week, I was watching this Karol Jalochowski conversation with Dan at his home in Maine, November last year. Prompted by the post note on my last post. It’s very good. In fact it gets round to the “who am I” to have free will and responsibility for my actions. Large enough to be the whole person, not a detached, point homunculus within the Cartesian theatre, externalising everything else.

Freedom and responsibility are not absolute, they’re constrained by physics and biological & development evolution & history. The “oppression” of having masses of 20th C technology “can do” capabilities, and the prioritisation of the many “ought” possibilities that now exist. World hunger, health, climate, ecology – you name it – are we all responsible for all of it? Kinda, but let’s get real.

A wonderful relaxed, informal “interview”. Recommended.

In a sentence: Dennett’s position is that: Consciousness and conscious will are as real and evolved as anything else in the world. The powerful (useful, but misleading) ILLUSION is the Cartesian theatre / video screen with the homunculus viewer / user as things distinct from each other. It is / we are one and the same evolved behaviour of our brains.


[Long Story Short – When Dennett says “consciousness is an illusion” he is saying our subjective experience of consciousness is real experience, but it’s an illusion to think of it (or its qualia) as a physical thing – an objectively distinct and observable thing, within the terms of orthodox science – even though it is entirely explained as the result of physical processes. Every systems thinker – anyone who’s crossed Solms’ Rubicon – knows he’s right. There really is no mystery – thinkers like Mitchell, Solms & Friston, McGilchrist and, of course, Dennett already have consciousness and conscious will cracked. The questions are all about how much devilishly detailed explanation of which aspects do you want? The necessary angels are already in the abstractions.]