Cyberfolk But Shit: Trump and the Stinking Pond

I was reading this post about White House CoS John Kelly trying to control Trump’s consumption of #snackable #edgy #content and failing when it reminded me of something. Trump Twitter is like Cyberfolk but shit.

To unpack a bit, while cybernetics pioneer and blog icon Stafford Beer was working on Cybersyn, Chile’s experimental real-time planned economy, he and his team also had the idea of gathering instant feedback on how it was doing. They hacked on a variety of devices that would let ordinary Chileans watching TV express their feelings in a way that would be summarised and visualised in the famous Cybersyn Ops Room. You’d turn a knob or whack a big red button. Thus:

Beer proposed “Project Cyberfolk,” a cybernetic system that would further popular participation and democracy by allowing citizens to communicate their feelings directly to the government. Beer built a device that would allow citizens to adjust a pointer on a voltmeter-like dial in order to indicate moods ranging from extreme unhappiness to complete bliss. The device would record a citizen’s happiness—ideally during a live television broadcast featuring some proposed new political policy—and electronically send the data directly to the government for real-time aggregation and review. Beer theorized that his system would improve public well-being and bring homeostatic stability between government and constituent.

And…well…these days Trump watches TV, and responds by reaching for his greasy tweeting-iron. The TV responds. It’s a loop. And you too can influence the system dynamics by dropping a meme into his pellet hopper, another turd into the stinking pond. And you know?

It sucks.

Interestingly, critics of Beer’s vision tended to emphasise its potential for surveillance, even though no identifiable information of any kind was transmitted (the inputs were literally summed at the physical, voltage control layer). There is of course a hell of a lot of that about. But they don’t seem to have thought much about the more subtle possibility that it might go horribly right. The critics had a centre-outwards model in mind – the Leader announces what he says you should think on the TV and you better press the LIKE button. But the whole point was that the citizens should influence the centre – which would then, this being cybernetics, influence them. The worrying thing here is that the feedback loop might settle in an objectively awful state of homeostasis, with the citizenry and the leader exchanging jolts of outrage.

The Two Minutes’ Hate may have been much more important to the nature of power on Airstrip One than the Telescreen. We’re all pond life now.

3 comments

  1. Metatone

    This reminds of the notion that Latin American banana republic/favela land super inequality is just another “equilibrium” that economics can settle into…

  2. ajay

    they don’t seem to have thought much about the more subtle possibility that it might go horribly right. The critics had a centre-outwards model in mind – the Leader announces what he says you should think on the TV and you better press the LIKE button. But the whole point was that the citizens should influence the centre – which would then, this being cybernetics, influence them.

    This is pretty much the plot of Neal Stephenson’s “Interface”: you get a 100-person focus group. Instead of a Cyberfolk rheostat to turn, each of them wears a device that looks at pulse, galvanic skin response and a few other things. The results are fed, in real time, into a chip in the brain of a presidential candidate – so he knows as he’s speaking what is and isn’t appealing to key demographics, and can adjust as he goes.

  3. Guano

    “The worrying thing here is that the feedback loop might settle in an objectively awful state of homeostasis, with the citizenry and the leader exchanging jolts of outrage.”

    Or alternatively the feedback loop might settle in a state where the citizenry and leader exchange feelings of complacency or confirm some of their other mutual prejudices. This would complement those newspaper comment articles “Why unexpected event X proves that I was right all along”. We have created a series of communication channels that confirm biases rather than provoke a rethink of the original assumptions.

    At some time when John Major was PM, I found myself next to Phil Gould at a lunch and I started chatting to him about his focus groups for the Labour Party. I came away with the strong impression that he was creating a closed loop: swing voters in marginal constituencies would tell him things based on Sun or Daily Mail talking points, the Labour Party would put those things into speeches by Blair to show that Labour was “in touch with people’s concerns” (sometimes in conjunction with those very newspapers) and swing voters in marginal constituencies would read those things in the Sun and Mail and have their views confirmed. The real world and policy choices, meanwhile, could be going off at a tangent. It certainly wasn’t the use of focus groups as understood in social research, which are supposed to explore the underpinnings of people’s beliefs.

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