Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I HATED episode 2 of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

We just watched it in class today and I ended up screaming at my colleagues. I was furious with it and with them for following it. I think I even used the word "dishonest" which got me an arch look from the tutor.

Now I've just got off an hour on the phone bitching about it with my friend who's another systems theorist / cybernetics fanboi.

Anyway, something that got under my skin that badly must be doing something right. Yes, there are questions to be asked about what assumptions have historically gone into systems theory. There are definitely issues with how it's been applied and put to work politically. Yes, there are things to think about when you deny that power exists (Tyranny of Structurelessness etc.)

I still hate it. But I think it's good for me to be forced to work through a response.


John Powers said...

One of my favorite aspect of your personality is how willing you are to say: On the other hand... I find it very endearing that you say this drives your wife batty at times.

The program isn't available here in the USA so all I've got to go on are reviews, like this one.

I love stories and I think in a fundamental way people learn by way of stories. An aspect of oral cultures is teaching stories. Kids hear these stories along with adults. Kids get the gist, but the stories remain interesting to adults because as experience increases new meanings from the stories emerge; or at least the stories provide a context for talking about meanings. Nowadays people like stories which lay flat on the page. That maybe fine for stories but life isn't like that.

A 2-minute video of Howard French talking about stories is brilliant. French was a reporter for The New York Times. Lots of people hate the Times but I never really understood the animus against French, especially in re his reporting from Africa until this clip. I suspect the resentment has to do with simple stories are the ones which get printed in the paper. Following him online I gathered overtime French got the complexity.

Perhaps the problem with Adam Curtis is telling stories that are simple and not complex. Anyhow, I think the relationship between ecology and cybernetics is more complex than his story allows. "Our Own Metaphor" is an counter example.

I blather too long but want to post two links. The Place Between Stories and much talked about online Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert

BillSeitz said...

You can find at least the first 2 full episodes on YouTube.

I found it completely cartoonish. Reminded me of when you read a newspaper or magazine article about something you actually know about, and then wonder "crap if they blew this so badly, how much can I believe what they write about stuff I *don't* know about?".

To take one example, certainly a number of communes were inspired by cybernetic/systems thinking, or at least what they supposed was such. But obviously nothing in their governance structures/processes was at all informed by such real thinking. Otherwise Forrester might have joined one - could you see that? The implosion of those groups has nothing to do with the usefulness of cybernetics/systems.

(I think there's a big question as to whether there *is* any usefulness to Forrester's direction, but I would never use communes as even 1 strand of argument...)

More significantly, the characterization of "Machine Thinking" that fails to distinguish "we can model humans as components in a system, and they respond to changes in inputs" from "people are the same as machines, and should be treated as such" is either a fool or a fraud. Any "professor" failing to recognize that deserves to be teaching post-modernism until they turn out the lights.

You would have learned more watching the I Love Lucy episode in the chocolate factory.

phil jones said...


I agree it's disturbing for that ""crap if they blew this so badly, how much can I believe what they write about stuff I *don't* know about?" moment.

I'm not so sure on your point about the communes. There was certainly a lot of pop cybernetics going into that movement thanks to Stewart Brand. In fact this film clearly draws on Brand's story as outlined in Fred Turner's http://www.stanford.edu/group/fredturner/cgi-bin/drupal/?q=node/6 which I liked a lot. (Partly because I thought it got the balance right between showing how amazing Brand was, while raising important political questions about the project and its aftermath.)

Cybernetics definitely influenced the fields of psychology and inter-personal interaction theory. Even things like improv. So it's not implausible that governance structures of the communes would be influenced by these ideas. The hippies would have been reading Wiener and Gregory Bateson in the Whole Earth Catalogue for example.

I agree that the "humans were treated as machines" line was particularly clunky and annoying ... and yet ... all philosophies that take focus away from the individual and towards some greater whole are in danger of sacrificing the individual's welfare for the alleged benefit of the whole. Systems theory does, indeed, play to that tendency.

BillSeitz said...

I think the communes (and note that that trend was growing fast before Brand) were a reaction against "traditional" "hierarchy-oriented" society, and that while the most obvious problems with that society were at the macro level (war-mongering nationalism), they recognized the fractal nature of human relationships, and therefore wanted to eliminate hierarchy in all relationships.

I can understand that. http://webseitz.fluxent.com/wiki/AlternativesToTraditionalFamily

Cybernetics helped explain the inevitable problems around command-and-control processes, at least at large scale. Taking the fractal mentality to having a "let it be" mentality affect every decision was outside the scope of cybernetic thinking, I think. So to paint commune failures as being inherent flaws in cybernetic models seems like a stretch.

And Brand's WholeEarth info was definitely about recognizing that you couldn't "let it be" about sanitation and food production, etc.

And I think he was open/enthusiastic about experiments in new extended-family-scale governance structures, but I don't think he'd put up with much bullshit himself (though I haven't read Turner, so maybe I'm wrong). And you have to gives commune-folks some credit for *trying* something new. Even if some of those failures seem like they should have been obvious enough to prevent.

BillSeitz said...

"...all philosophies that take focus away from the individual and towards some greater whole are in danger of sacrificing the individual's welfare for the alleged benefit of the whole. Systems theory does, indeed, play to that tendency."

I think cybernetics is more of a challenge to group-power-structures (big companies, big government) than to either individuals or World Government.

You could see the modelling on info/energy flows as putting individual actions/reactions at the core of society, saying that (large-scale) governance structures are unnecessary.

The WorldGovernment mentality came later, I think, from recognizing that at any smaller scale, pro-growth behaviors were inevitable, and the Forrester models said that would lead to a crash. I think there's some justification for that thinking, but I'm anti-WG because of the even-greater concentration of inevitably-corrupting power that comes with that.