[iDC] IPF09 Conference thoughts

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Tue Dec 8 02:09:12 UTC 2009

Judith Rodenbeck wrote:

 > Brian, can you unpack:
 >> its classic forms, the cliches of American Grafitti: a society whose
 >> epistemological base was still more behaviorist than cybernetic, despite
 >> the feedback loops that started coming into play in the 1950s through
 >> the monitoring of consumer reception.
 > This feels terminologically off somehow....

I know exactly what you mean, Judith, it's a total terminological 
mash-up! But the perfect structuralist break - i.e., Wiener, McCulloch 
and co. enter the picture, they turn on the cybernetic light and 
everything changes - is not exactly how it works either, social reality 
is more messy. So instead of trying to describe the practical 
applications of postwar American social theory as "first-order 
command-and-control cybernetics" (as I used to do) I am clumsily 
grasping toward a sort of Duchampian tableau of standard stoppages, 
which would include the staggered delays whereby intellectual reception 
takes place and a congeries of social theories becomes more-or-less 
unified practice.

Concretely - and leaving American Grafitti to the connoisseurs! - that 
means behaviorism in the very midst of cybernetics. True, behaviorism 
was the theory that cybernetics set out to dethrone - but only because 
its hold was so deep, significantly in the USSR as well, where it was 
known as Pavlovianism. But now we're talking America, so we have to 
remember that behaviorism had great applications when it came to selling 
things. I think that the Freudian school (strongly present in 
advertising and PR via the unfortunate nephew, Edward Bernays) could 
easily map its notion of drive and object onto the reflex arc, and it 
could even layer that same acquisitive schema onto the more 
sophisticated notion of a fantasmatic desire to reinforce the ego via 
the possession of what you might call ego-attributes (or maybe stardust, 
if you're from Hollywood). Which means, on a practical level, that 
behaviorists and Freudians could collaborate on a marketing strategy, 
centered around acquisitive desire (for objects and for identity). 
Fordism = the lust for objects and identities.

That equation has its importance in society, because if the working 
class was going to be recognized as the necessary source of effective 
demand for the products of mass production (the substance of the salary 
concessions that resulted from the 1930s compromise), then the whole 
business of the capitalists would be to make sure that the demand was 
there, at the right time, in the right quantity, according to some 
scientific principle you could be "sure" of. Salivating at the sight of 
an image, or even better, reaching for a banknote, would be perfect if 
you could just make people do it; but what gets introduced in myriad 
ways after the war is the consumer study, and ultimately the Neilsen 
rating, which seek to prove that Product X really was "attractive" and 
that after its image was seen it was purchased - so that you don't 
produce too much of Widget X and find no buyer. Fordism = ensuring the 
identity between the lust and the banknote. So, in order to get a better 
grip on what they thought was the essential form of the social tie - the 
purchase - what emerges is a kind of feedback control (or verification) 
of an acquisitive desire that is presumed to be as reflexive as the 
proverbial tap on the knee (but let's verify a little anyway). It's this 
hybrid form of behaviorist stimulation of the effective consumer demand 
plus feedback control of the productive offer that I was spluttering 
about in that clumsy sentence, as a research question: "Is that really 
the way social behavior was understood in the 1940s and 50s?" Because 
someday I'd like to get at the way things really worked at that time, in 
order to better understand how things are really working today.

Now, this opens up the question, what is meant by "first-order 
command-and-control cybernetics"? Consider the engineers and the 
Operations Research people during WWII, who were supposed to figure out 
the most efficient, cost-effective and timely ways to develop huge 
technological systems from the invention phase to mass production: How 
did they conceive of feedback loops? What kind of human being was the 
military psychologist John Stroud thinking of when he talked of the 
antiaircraft gun and the enemy plane and famously asked, What kind of 
machine have we placed in the middle? Although the final cybernetic 
answer is not crude at all, and ultimately has nothing to do with 
behaviorism, there are a lot of steps along the way, and for many of the 
managers of Fordist society, I'm afraid the machine in the middle was 
just a reflex arc with a few extra sensors.

So this morning I was reading a wonderful article, called "The human 
face of cybernetics: Heinz von Foerster and the history of a movement 
that failed," in Kybernetes 34, 3-4, by a guy with the terrible name of 
Peter Krieg, and I found these reflections:

"...the roots of cybernetics can also be found in the other grand 
control scheme of the 20th century: behaviourist psychology. Education 
was considered a simple technique, allowing to engineer human minds and 
to wash deviating brains. Cybernetics was widely seen as the scientific 
key and enabling technology to achieve a fusion of biology and 
technology, nature and machine, brain and computer. It promised the 
re-unification of such diverse scientific fields as biology and 
mathematics, sociology and physics, psychology and engineering. Its 
protagonists in East and West were united in the vision of new 
applications like “social engineering” and “artificial intelligence”. 
Not surprisingly, the military on both sides became the primary funding 
sources and most secret services became deeply involved. Cybernetics 
soon was “branded” by the Cold War as the preferred technical and 
scientific approach by both sides to control, rule and dominate."

Even though cybernetics was EXPLICITLY formulated by Wiener, Rosenblueth 
and Bigelow in opposition to behaviorism, still I think Peter Krieg has 
a point here. He distinguishes between the between the cybernetic 
biologists (McCulloch, Von Foerster, Maturana and Varela) and the "hard" 
cyberneticists (Von Neumann, Simon, Minsky, etc), and he goes on to say 
things like this:

"To understand the difference between the two factions it is useful to 
reread some of the contemporary papers and quotes. The hard cybernetics 
faction considered man as a trivial feedback mechanism who could be 
modelled in computer soft-and hardware and controlled by social engineering:

    >'The whole man, like the ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite 
simple. The apparent complexity of his behaviour over time is largely a 
reflection of the complexity of the environment in which he finds 
himself' (Herbert Simon, cited in Weizenbaum, 1976, p. 260).

"To the hard cyberneticians, man, as all living beings, could be 
described in terms of simple feedback loops. The functions of the human 
brain could thus be modelled and duplicated in computers:

    >'Duplicating the problem-solving and information-handling 
capabilities of the brain is not far off; it would be surprising if it 
were not accomplished within the next decade (Herbert Simon, cited in 
Weizenbaum, 1976, p. 245).

"This view of humans as robotic feedback mechanisms was one of the 
earliest cybernetic delusions:

    >'It is possible to look on Man himself as a product of . . . an 
evolutionary process of developing robots; . . . his ethical conduct 
(is) something to be interpreted in terms of the circuit action of. . . 
Man in his environment – a Turing machine with only two feedbacks 
determined, a desire to play and a desire to win' (anonymous 1952, cited 
in Weizenbaum 1976, p. 240)[1]."

The article by Peter Krieg is great, because it shows how Von Foerster 
just couldn't stand this kind of thinking, how he did everything to 
formulate a different kind of thinking and interacting based on 
generosity and responsibility. So Von Foerster is the quintessential 
"biological" cybernetician (along with Bateson, Varela, and later maybe 
Prigogine or even Guattari). But alas, I have a dark view of everything 
right now and I think that the very theorists who finally expunged all 
the behaviorism from cybernetics were also the ones who opened up a 
whole new possibility of going terribly far astray, which is called 
radical constructivism, and which opens the door for the development of 
multiple, autonomous, predatory systems, constitutively incapable of 
even perceiving a more integrated whole. In lieu of fixations on 
identity, they developed a flowing process of transidentity; but in so 
doing they left behind the very subject of generosity, its ontological 
ground in the living reality of the Other. And I do hope that someday, 
future generations will be able to look back and say that the arbitrary, 
diusembedded, unmoored forms of radical constructivism actually 
coexisted - just like behaviorism and cybernetics in the 40s and 50s - 
with some other as yet nameless way of thought and model of interaction, 
more subtly integrative and respectful of interdependencies, which could 
give us a way to act together rather than rushing each other's path to 
extinction. Which, I suppose, finally gets to the point that Saul Ostrow 
just made in his usual sybilline and welcome appearance in these kinds 
of conversations.

So that's about what I can unpack from my terminological confusions,

all the best, Brian

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