Kevin Hamilton on Sun, 8 Mar 2009 05:22:58 -0400 (EDT)

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Re: <nettime> Cybernetics and the Internet

Thanks Brian, rich thoughts - a few late-night responses below -

On Mar 7, 2009, at 5:24 PM, Brian Holmes wrote:

>  The more I look into it, the stronger is the correlation between
> first and second-order cybernetics and the two big periods of
> postwar economic history, 1945-73 and 1973-2008.

The interesting thing about this is how that second period signals the
end of military funding for cybernetic research, which meant the end
of cybernetics as a legitimated science on many research campuses.
Yet if we shift over to those other areas of research - economics,
trade policy, import/export, management - as you point out, we see the
second-order approach thriving, evolving - if rarely recognized! To
see the ideas so clearly manifest in the words and actions of people
who don't seem to have any real connection to the discourse gives me
pause. All the possible explanations for this are interesting. There
must be something applicable from this story to the current financial
crunches and crises on research campuses, the shifting in what is
valued and supported.

> Still there is a difference in the styles of thought: Mead and
> Bateson were concerned with the real-time patterns of cultural
> change, as they unfold repetitively and dynamically among manifolds
> of speaking subjects. The reflexivity is immediate, and rather than
> being measured by standardized units, it is "assessed" - at various
> levels of consciousness - by the people involved, according to their
> knowledge and whatever they are able to make of it.

Your distinction here between measurement and assessment is very
helpful, and like other thoughts here reminds me of what I like about
Curtis' documentaries. The "audit society" he describes under Blair's
England strives to make measurement look like assessment, implying a
more pliable relation of ruler to ruled. It's a rhetorical strategy
designed to soften the blow of removing social reflexivity from the
bodily realm, reducing it to measurement and then blowing it up to
such a scale that no one can comprehend it.

But when one takes into account, as you indicate, that assessment can
take place at multiple levels of consciousness, human scale re-enters.
There's the assessment of the oarsman, intuitively changing the
angle of stroke to establish intention over direction. There's the
assessment of the goalie, gauging the leap required before the ball
leaves the kicker. But once one steps out of the first-person, to the
aerial view from above, assessment looks to be more of a group-think
than it may be - I think of the helicopter view of a herd, moving to
avoid a predator. The mass appears to be changing in fluid, careful
terms, but that's just the perceptual-cognitive product of many
individually varied levels of ability to move, of consciousness of the
threat. Somehow this talk about the myths of machines keeps bringing
me back to the problem of how to keep the meta-consciousness, the
reflexivity, within range of human perception, but also not limited to

> But I would still make a "first/second-order distinction. A
> Wiener- type machine is always aimed at "changing some singular
> factor in its environment: that is its purpose, the "end-goal, the
> "teleology." The second-order systems approach tries to change the
> parameters of the entire envoronment and not just one factor within
> it. At the extreme limit, that means changing the parameters of the
> world economy, or even of world society.

Yes, I want to keep this question of teleology in place - it's how we
keep from mistaking a method for a moral, since the same method can
be placed in the service of very different morals. I do see a clear
enough distinction between first and second-order cybernetics, but
where it gets fuzzy for me is when "changing the parameters of the
entire environment" is for some a means of achieving a clear static
end, a singular factor such as world domination. Then something that
started out very second-order looks very first-order.

> One of the important things about this kind of strategy,
> insufficiently discussed by Gowan, is that all the actors know
> very well that they are just another part of a system which by
> definition goes far beyond them: therefore they need to play on the
> structure of beliefs that helps other people determine what they
> do, in order to be sure that they will spontaneously do some of the
> things that you want. This is why American power (and to a lesser
> extent, English power in the previous period) depends so much on
> very reasonable notions of democratic legitimacy and the extension
> of fundamental freedoms. These are major motivators for systemic
> changes that will ultimately only benefit a very few.

And so, to my line of thought above. Some, like Wulf, claim to
pursue a changed "ecology" of policy, etc not for the singular end
of their own betterment or even that of their nation - they claim
to pursue a changed environment for the sake of others who may want
to pursue individual gain. As such, they claim to be second-order
folk, less instrumentally-minded than their first-order forebears. So
when a member of that second-order class "falls" from glory through
financial corruption, the sin they're condemned for is not against
persons, bodies, but against the environment, and against a fraternal
rhetorical code.

> Who decides to change the basic parameters (the laws, the
> technological toolkits, the beliefs) according to which social
> reflexivity operates?

I gotta think about this way of framing the critique. Promising.

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