Tag Archives: systems theory

Whole Earth Catalog web archive

coevolutiongaiaThe entire 35-year archive of Whole Earth Catalogs, along with its Supplements, and descendant magazines – CoEvolution Quarterly, and Whole Earth are now available on the web.  The Whole Earth Catalog,was published in 1968 by Stewart Brand, it and its related  magazines embodied a certain type of Californian environmental thinking.  A key concept was systems – which included thinking about people,  and computers, as well as ecosystems, and when I read first read issues of the magazine as a teenager in the 1980s it was my first exposure to systems theory.

The full archive is in a difficult to navigate scanned form, which is difficult to link to or search, however some of the later articles are available as text.  However the archive includes lots of interesting stuff.  For example, Dana Meadows famous article on where to intervene in a system there.  Other interesting bits include articles by ecologists such as HT Odum, Paul Ehrlich, and Buzz Holling as well as an issue focused on scenario planning.

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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.