Jocelyn Chapman (Ed.): For the Love of Cybernetics. Personal Narratives by Cyberneticians (2020)

Paul Cézanne, A Painter at Work (1875)

“Cybernetics thrives among people who are interested in, and revere, the reality of their own and other people’s minds and hearts.” — Frank Galuszka

Cybernetics’ is a rare example of a ‘new’ science, the origin of which can be pinpointed rather precisely. In 1948 the American mathematician Norbert Wiener published his book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. This put in place the foundations for the study of workings of goal-directed systems that are involved in circular feedback chains of action and communication: from effectuating a change in their environment, to sensing the effect, comparing with a desired goal, to acting again, and so on. Needless to say these insights have been pivotal in the fields of robotics and AI.

It seems a rather cold, unemotional subject. So what is the connection with ‘love’? Well, cybernetics evolved beyond Wiener’s theories to influence how we think about social systems, about the meaning of relationships.

For a start, under the impulse of Margaret Mead and Heinz von Foerster a ‘cybernetics of cybernetics’ emerged, a so-called second-order cybernetics that adopted as a foundational principle that observers cannot escape being part of the system they are observing. This moved cybernetics beyond the study of mere automatons to include human agency as a core interest.

The British psychiatrist Ross Ashby then conceptualised cybernetics as the science of all possible machines. Or rather the science of all possibilities of all possible machines. A meta-design science then, that allows us to investigate existing and as yet non-existing systems that (have the potential to) show regular, determinate behaviour within an evolving set of constraints. The important move here is a reflection on the affordances, or ‘possibility space’, of the entities involved in interaction with their environment.

Taken together, and applied to social systems, these ideas open the way for a cybernetic ethics. In his contribution, Klaus Krippendorf advances a conception of cyberneticians as agents who are “intervening in the world with the aim of changing their observations.”

In a civilised society, we want ethical and aesthetic principles to give direction to this aim.

This leads to the pivotal notion of ‘conversation’, the discursive matrix within which these cycles of judgment and action are embedded. Human beings interact in language as a performative, socially constructed and constructive activity. The issue is then to encourage awareness of what language constructively facilitates or systematically inhibits. We also need to embrace the responsibilities that go with the shared connection in conversation. Paul Pangaro voices the hope that we exist in interaction, even if unreliable and scary, in a spirit of performance and participation, of being alive.

The ethical challenges of interaction expand beyond the human sphere. Frank Galuszka offers a compelling perspective on the delicacy of ‘conversation’ based on his experience as a painter. The successive cycles of action and aesthetic judgment from which the painting emerges — at the intersection of myriads of material, intellectual and emotional factors — lead to a point where the artist feels he has to let go of the original pretext and as has to allow the work “to ‘find itself’, to resolve into the emergent structure of its own integrity”.

Here we arrive at a point where it is perhaps easier to see how the leap from cybernetics into love might be made. Love as a cybernetic experiment. Cybernetics as a practice of collectively elaborating an evolving purpose in a spirit of love and respect for all the entities — human and non-human, living and non-living — we interact with.

Seen as such, cybernetics, or rather ‘cyber-systemic thinking in practice’ as Ray Ison labels it, offers a crucial platform for reinventing the governance of our planetary society in the Anthropocene. Can we imagine to embrace the world around us as enablers, as carers, intent on liberating rather than mastering the potential of this richly layered complexity?

The nine chapters have been written in a very personal voice by extant cybernetic thinkers and practitioners. We might call them ‘second-generation cyberneticians’ as they have personally known and worked with the pioneers in the field. Love between ‘master’ and ‘disciple’ is certainly one of the threads that run through this book. Mentor personalities such as Heinz von Foerster, Humberto Maturana, Franscisco Varela, Ross Ashby, Gordon Pask, Warren McCulloch, Geoffrey Vickers, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead loom large in these pages. Then also love for a discipline that has opened their practitioners’ eyes to the beauty and fragility of human-to-human and human-to-non-human interactions, for a discipline that issues a call “to construct in mind and action (…) an optimism and a future waiting to be invented from the possible and neglected worlds-that-might-be-built …” (Frank Galuszka).

The editor of this book, Jocelyn Chapman, has to be commended for having taken the initiative to put together this richly rewarding collection of essays. Articulating the resonances between love and cybernetics allows us to develop a fresh perspective on what it means to be human. Having recourse to this kind of compass will be vital in the turbulent time to come.

“Can we imagine to embrace the world around us as enablers, as carers, intent on liberating rather than mastering the potential of this richly layered complexity?”

Acknowledgment: I wish to express my appreciation for Houda A. Khayame’s perceptive comments on an earlier version of this review.

Systems & futures thinker ⎹ @shiftNGroup ⎹ shiftN Academy ⎹ helping ‘change makers for the common good’ to handle complex strategic challenges #systemsthinking

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