A reader recommended Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain. This book is a survey of the British tradition in cybernetics, which it argues is a third, distinct strand of thinking that differs from the characteristic MIT and Soviet schools of thought. Where the US cyberneticians were inspired by engineering problems and saw it as a science of artificial intelligence, and the Soviets as a generalised theory of organisations, the Brits saw it as a means of inquiry into the sciences of the brain, and were especially inspired by biology and ecology, psychiatry, and fieldwork in sociology or in the practice of management consulting.
It’s also an impressive assortment of cool stuff, from robots that initiate a mating dance to Stafford Beer’s putatively intelligent pond just outside Sheffield. (Don’t you want a science-fiction alternate history where that thing worked?) Apparently, Beer and David Suzuki put together a high-concept 80s coffee table photo survey of the history of computing, including Japanese fishermen’s rope tallies and SGI workstations. Don’t you want one of those? No? What are you doing on this blog?
More seriously, the lesson that stuck out for me was that a lot of the work in neural networks, expert systems, and embodied cognition was rediscovered since the 80s in robotics and in theoretical computer science, and since then a hell of a lot of it has found applications. I suspect that the challenge now may be to get the emerging disciplines of user-experience design and service design to rediscover it in their turn.
To some extent, the cybernetic tradition of hardware-hacking and rapid prototyping as a method of inquiry has stuck around and prospered with the UX people, but I’m not sure if the critical element has got across. Beer didn’t just ask if this worked, he asked if it should work. The huge recommendations systems of the e-commerce majors are a fine example of the kind of artefacts cybernetic ideas were intended to help us explore and learn to live with.
Things I didn’t like about the book: the weird framing of the Iraq War as a big modernist planning scheme.
The individuals who drove the project on were very much informed by critiques of planning, by complex-systems studies, and by cybernetic and systems dynamics ideas. They were libertarians and people who spent their careers building the network-centric warfare systems of the 1980s! That’s what “regime change” means – a lot of people assumed it simply meant “replace the government of Iraq with a different one” or even “change some features of the government of Iraq”, but in fact it means “cause the whole Middle Eastern political system to flip to a different state”.
Rumsfeld had his “regime change”, and Petraeus’ “complex-adaptive systems approach” was called for to clean up the consequences. On a less intellectual level, all sorts of Iraq boosters constantly attacked experts, Arabists, and the very idea that a plan might have been useful.
Generally, I wasn’t totally convinced by Pickering’s philosophical distinction between “performative” and “representational” knowledge either. I understand the point, but it is perfectly possible to have a working, emotional/kinaesthetic understanding of something that is also horribly, disastrously wrong, and inhumane to boot. The history of medicine is a great source here.
Speaking of which, boy, there’s some deeply creepy mid-century psychiatry in here. Ross Ashby, who coined the phrase “requisite variety”, also sought a “Blitzkrieg method” of treating his patients that might include “hypnosis, then LSD, and then ECT”. William Burroughs, who repeatedly pops up in the book as a voracious reader on the subject, would surely agree that “gentle reader, this prospect buggers the imagination.”