Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Thinking About Heinz and Mai

I would not be who I am as I approach 60 had I not met Heinz and Mai in my 20s.

My degrees are in physics, which I suppose meant that Heinz and I immediately communicated in that shorthand that physicists use, scientific terms serving sometimes as witty self-mockery and sometimes as wholly serious heuristic metaphors as we discuss not physical but social systems.

Vignettes:

  • Heinz triumphantly whipping open a supply cabinet at BCL and pulling out—a bullhorn!! He knew what was needed to be heard in the midst of large scale demonstrations.
  • Heinz incredulous at discovering that Murray Babcock had built an electronic ear.
  • Heinz’s “blind spot” lecture. I’ve since, for decades, shamelessly plagiarized that brilliant piece and shown countless hundreds of students, from fifth graders (my wife’s) to grad students the blind spots in their retinas, suggesting, as Heinz did, that the blind spot, created by the retinal nerve punching through the retina itself, is a physical manifestation of Plato’s observation that we do not know what we do not know. We are blind to our blindness.
  • Heinz explaining that every grant proposal was in fact describing work already done. It is easy to propose work that you have already finished. So little guessing necessary with regard to time and materials required! The trick is to get ahead just once, and then always keep ahead by selecting and finishing fundable projects—prior to asking for the funding!
  • Heinz’s “principle of redundancy of potential command, in which knowledge constitutes authority.” We needed it in moments of campus crisis. There were individuals out and about on campus who knew that they possessed knowledge essential to good decision making by, say, Chancellor Peltason—but how to get through to him, to be heard among all the other voices each certain that it had Truth that he needed? So often did we fail!
    Well, Heinz, this amateur beekeeper can report that some years later he saw the principle in action. Honeybees demonstrate it! The dance of a scout is performed and perceived on an absolute grading scale (no grade inflation in beehive society!) If she has located a truly smashing source of nectar or pollen, a scout’s dance back on the frame in the hive is maximally vigorous and it rouses the maximum number of worker bees to follow its instructions. Any scout can redirect the collecting power of the hive, simply by employing a universally recognized signal.
  • Flying to New York with Heinz to meet John Seeley and others from around the country, just because Heinz suggested that we compare notes on what was happening on different campuses. (Heinz picking up Seeley’s travel costs when it became apparent that Seeley did not know we had all been supposed to pay our own ways.)
    No one had more panache, more insight, more sheer enthusiasm for complexity, than Heinz. How liberating to know an adult with such catholic interests—science, society, art, politics. Who did not wait around for other people to fund what he wanted to do, who simply did it.
  • Heinz’s tales, not many, of living in Hitler’s Europe, discovering that the most valuable most trustworthy people if you wanted to do something you could get shot for were often where you might least expect them—the lift operator, for example, a man whose very ordinariness, whose mundane daily routine, combined with true bravery, made him the one free actor in an otherwise paralyzed fearful society. The redundancy of bravery, perhaps.

How many of my friends also knew Heinz! It is at least 50% of those with whom I am still in touch from those days, 1965-1975, in Champaign. There is a reason, of course. We found Heinz because he was among the two or three faculty members who was truly listening to us and the times, and truly engaged in understanding not only those times but the whole strange century.

Few people change one’s life. Heinz changed mine, entirely for the better, even if being open-eyed and open-minded does often induce tears and confusion. Better to be confused than smug. Heinz’s way is the opposite of smugness.

David Eisenman

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift