Tag Archives: Andrew Pickering

Stafford Beer on Ross Ashby

Here is some old time systems theory from my Swedish summer reading.

Stafford Beer on Ross Ashby‘s Law of Requisite Variety in his paper “The Viable System Model: Its Provenance, Development, Methodology and Pathology” in The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp. 7-25

It has always seemed to me that Ashby’s Law stands to management science as Newton’s Laws stand to physics; it is central to a coherent account of complexity control. “Only variety can destroy variety.” People have found it tautologous; but all mathematics is either tautologous or wrong. People have found it truistic; in that case, why do managers constantly act as if it were false? Monetary controls do not have requisite variety to regulate the economy. The Finance Act does not have requisite variety to regulate tax evasion. Police procedures do not have requisite variety to suppress crime. And so on. All these regulators could be redesigned according to cybernetic principles…

Much more on Beer and Ashby can be found in Andrew Pickering’s fine book – the Cybernetic Brain – sketches of another future.

Cybernetics and philosphy of science

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.

In a review of Pickering’s new book in Science, Performance, Not Control, historian of biology Tara H. Abraham writes:

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.

CBC radio’s “How to think about science”

The Canadian Broadcasting Company radio show Ideas has an interesting eighteen part series of hour long shows called How to think about Science. These shows are available on the web as podcasts or streaming audio.  They describe the series:

If science is neither cookery, nor angelic virtuosity, then what is it?

Modern societies have tended to take science for granted as a way of knowing, ordering and controlling the world. Everything was subject to science, but science itself largely escaped scrutiny. This situation has changed dramatically in recent years. Historians, sociologists, philosophers and sometimes scientists themselves have begun to ask fundamental questions about how the institution of science is structured and how it knows what it knows.

Some of the episodes are a bit annoying, but some are excellent.  In particular I liked

  • Episode 4 – December 5 – Ian Hacking and Andrew Pickering A new generation of historians and philosophers have made the practical, inventive side of science their focus. They’ve pointed out that science doesn’t just think about the world, it makes the world and then remakes it. Science, for them, really is what the thinkers of the 17th century first called it: experimental philosophy.
  • Episode 5 – December 12 – Ulrich Beck and Bruno Latour Few people ever apply a name that sticks to an entire social order, but sociologist Ulrich Beck is one of them. In 1986 in Germany he published Risk Society, and the name has become a touchstone in contemporary sociology. Among the attributes of Risk Society is the one he just mentioned: science has become so powerful that it can neither predict nor control its effects. It generates risks too vast to calculate. … Later in the hour you’ll hear from another equally influential European thinker, Bruno Latour, the author of We Have Never Been Modern. He will argue that our very future depends on overcoming a false dichotomy between nature and culture.
  • Episode 6 – January 2 – James Lovelock In this episode David Cayley presents a profile of James Lovelock. It tells the story of a career in science that began a long time ago.
  • Episode 10 – January 30 – Brian Wynne
  • Technological science exerts a pervasive influence on contemporary life. It determines much of what we do, and almost all of how we do it. Yet science and technology lie almost completely outside the realm of political decision. … In this episode we explore the relations between politics and scientific knowledge. David Cayley talks to Brian Wynne … one of Britain’s best-known writers and researchers on the interplay of science and society.
  • Episode 13 – March 5 – Dean Bavington David Cayley talks to environmental philosopher
    Dean Bavington about the role of science in the rise and fall of the cod fishery.

Pickering on science fiction and cybernetics

Historian of science, Andrew Pickering (who wrote Mangle of Practice) while reviewing How We Became Posthuman by Katherine Hayles (in Technology and Culture 41.2 (2000) 392-395) writes about science fiction and cybernetics:

“Posthumanity” is not necessarily a bad thing. Following Donna Haraway, Hayles sees it as having a positive potential in freeing our imaginations from the hold of old dualisms and associated patterns of domination. But posthumanity can have a dark side, too. Haraway associates this with global capitalism and militarism, but Hayles’s bête noire is Hans Moravec, the computer scientist who talks about downloading consciousness into a computer. This equation of human-ness with disembodied information looks like another male trick to feminists tired of the devaluation of women’s bodily labor (from having babies to all the menial tasks that have traditionally made the “life of the mind” of the male scientist possible).

To put it crudely, then, Hayles wants to promote an embodied posthumanism and to fend off the Moravecian “nightmare” (p. 1). To this end, much of How We Became Posthuman is devoted to discussions of how scientists have struggled with notions of embodiment and information, in three waves, as she calls them, in the history of cybernetics: a first wave associated with the name of Norbert Wiener; a second wave from the 1970s onward, associated with Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s idea of autopoiesis; and a third, 1990s, wave emblematized by work on artificial life. Hayles notes the different conceptions of the body and information that have surfaced in each wave, and seeks to emphasize the costs (intellectual, moral, and political) entailed in editing the body out. As is her wont, interspersed with these discussions are her readings of novels. Without claiming any necessary causation in either direction, she seeks to draw out parallels between fiction and science, coupling Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo with the first wave of cybernetics, Philip K. Dick’s mid-1960s novels with the second, and works by Greg Bear, Cole Perriman, Richard Powers, and Neal Stephenson with the third. I rather resisted these readings at first, but I find that the associations Hayles makes have stuck in my mind. She is certainly right that Limbo (which I had not heard of before) is truly amazing both as a novel and as a document of the early days of cybernetics and the cold war.