Cybernetics helps us understand dynamic systems that are driven by a particular type of data. Here are some examples:
- Many economists see markets as essentially driven by price data.
- On the Internet (especially social media) we can see systems that are essentially driven by click data.
- Stan culture, where hardcore fans gang up on critics who fail to give the latest album a perfect score
In a recent interview with Alice Pearson of CRASSH, Professor Will Davies explains the process as follows:
For Hayek, the advantage of the market was that it was a space in which stimulus and response could be in a constant state of interactivity: that prices send out information to people, which they respond to either in the form of consumer decisions or investment decisions or new entrepreneurial strategies.
Davies argued that this is now managed on screens, with traders on Wall Street and elsewhere constantly interacting with (as he says)
flashing numbers that are rising and falling.
The way in which the market is visualized to people, the way it presents itself to people, the extent to which it is visible on a single control panel, is absolutely crucial to someone's ability to play the market effectively.
Davies attributes to cybernetics a particular vision of human agency:
to think of human beings as black boxes which respond to stimuluses in particular ways that can be potentially predicted and controlled. (In market trading, this thought leads naturally to replacing human beings with algorithmic trading.)
Davies then sees this cybernetic vision encapsulated in the British government approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What you see now with this idea of Stay Alert ... is a vision of an agent or human being who is constantly responsive and constantly adaptable to their environment, and will alter their behaviour depending on what types of cues are coming in from one moment to the next. ... The ideological vision being presented is of a society in which the rules of everyday conduct are going to be constantly tweaked in response to different types of data, different things that are appearing on the control panels at the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
alertoriginally comes from an Italian military term all'erta - to the watch. So the slogan Stay Alert implies a visual idea of agency. But as Alice Pearson pointed out, that which is supposed to be the focus of our alertness is invisible. And it is not just the virus itself that is invisible, but (given the frequency of asymptomatic carriers) which people are infectious and should be avoided.
So what visual or other signals is the Government expecting us to be alert to? If we can't watch out for symptoms, perhaps we are expected instead to watch out for significant shifts in the data - ambiguous clues about the effectiveness of masks or the necessity of quarantine. Or perhaps significant shifts in the rules.
Most of us only see a small fraction of the available data - Stafford Beer's term for this is attenuation, and Alice Pearson referred to hyper-attenuation. So we seem to be faced with a choice between on the one hand a shifting set of rules based on the official interpretation of the data - assuming that the powers-that-be have a richer set of data than we do, and a more sophisticated set of tools for managing the data - and on the other hand an increasingly strident set of activists encouraging people to rebel against the official rules, essentially setting up a rival set of norms in which for example mask-wearing is seen as a sign of capitulation to a socialist regime run by Bill Gates, or whatever.
Later in the interview, and also in his New Statesman article, Davies talks about a shifting notion of rules, from a binding contract to mere behavioural nudges.
Rules morph into algorithms, ever-more complex sets of instructions, built around an if/then logic. By collecting more and more data, and running more and more behavioural tests, it should in principle be possible to steer behaviour in the desired direction. ... The government has stumbled into a sort of clumsy algorithmic mentality. ... There is a logic driving all this, but it is one only comprehensible to the data analyst and modeller, while seeming deeply weird to the rest of us. ... To the algorithmic mind, there is no such thing as rule-breaking, only unpredicted behaviour.
One of the things that differentiates the British government from more accomplished practitioners of data-driven biopower (such as Facebook and WeChat) is the apparent lack of fast and effective feedback loops. If what the British government is practising counts as cybernetics at all, it seems to be a very primitive and broken version of first-order cybernetics.
When Norbert Wiener introduced the term cybernetics over seventy years ago, describing thinking as a kind of information processing and people as information processing organisms, this was a long way from simple behaviourism. Instead, he emphasized learning and creativity, and insisted on
the liberty of each human being to develop in his freedom the full measure of the human possibilities embodied in him.
In a talk on the entanglements of bodies and technologies, Lucy Suchman draws on an article by Geoff Bowker to describe the universal aspirations of cybernetics.
Cyberneticians declared a new age in which Darwin's placement of man as one among the talks about how animals would now be followed by cybernetics' placement of man as one among the machines.
However, as Suchman reminds us
Norbert Wiener himself paid very careful attention to questions of labour, and actually cautioned against the too-broad application of models that were designed in relation to physical or computational systems to the social world.
Even if sometimes seeming outnumbered, there have always been some within the cybernetics community who are concerned about epistemology and ethics. Hence second-order (or even third-order) cybernetics.
Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Hardcore pop fans are abusing critics – and putting acclaim before art (The Guardian, 3 August 2020)
Geoffrey Bowker, How to be universal: some cybernetic strategies, 1943-1970 (Social Studies of Science 23, 1993) pp 107-127
Philip Boxer & Vincent Kenny, The economy of discourses - a third-order cybernetics (Human Systems Management, 9/4 January 1990) pp 205-224
Will Davies, The Politics of Economics - Staying Alert: Cybernetic Policy Imagination and the Pandemic (CRASSH, 7 July 2020) Recording via YouTube
Will Davies, Coronavirus and the Rise of Rule-Breakers (New Statesman, 8 July 2020)
Lucy Suchman, Restoring Information’s Body: Remediations at the Human-Machine Interface (Medea, 20 October 2011) Recording via YouTube
Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950, 1954)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A cybernetic view of human nature