As a systems scientist I am often frustrated by the narrow analysis of wicked problems. I’ve just started sociologist of Science, Andrew Pickering’s (author of the Mangle of Practice) new book, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future.
In The Cybernetic Brain Pickering aims to reposition systems science as framework for dealing with wicked problems. In the book he explores the work and approaches of British cyberneticians – the well known Ross Ashby and Stafford Beer as well others -arguing that their work shared a worldview that saw nature as full of novelty and not fully comprehensible – a worldview that has had a strong influence on resilience science.
Why should we care about cybernetics? Pickering sees something vitally important in British cybernetics, and this explains the book’s subtitle. Put simply, cybernetic practice can be seen as a model for future practice. We are increasingly confronted with problems that require different solutions—the “exceedingly complex systems” that modern sciences cannot tackle. There are systems that surprise us, that fall outside of the framework of calculability and prediction. The aspect of cybernetics that is most important and compelling for Pickering is its assumption of an ontology of unknowability. The term captures, for Pickering, what was novel and important about what the British cyberneticians were doing. This unknowability and awesome complexity is not cause for despair—in fact there are ways that scientists can be constructive and creative in tackling such systems—and Pickering’s cyberneticians show us how. The author sees cybernetic science as fundamentally democratic: it forces us to have respect for the other, and it displaces the anthropomorphic stance we have on nature as a result of the dominance of modern sciences. Following political scientist James Scott’s list (2) of “high modernist” projects that “aim at the rational reconstruction of large swathes of the material and social worlds,” Pickering discusses the “dark side” of modernity. Here he includes projects that have had very disastrous consequences, such as the reform of agriculture with its effects on world famine and the effects of industrialization on global warming. It is in combating such projects—and the modernist attitude that fuels them—that Pickering sees the greatest merit in cybernetic ontology. It suggests that there is a way we might act differently. There is enormous value in adopting this different ontological stance, in which the world is not ours for the taking.