CEPA eprint 2327

Expanding the Self-referential Paradox. The Macy Conferences and the Second Wave of Cybernetic Thinking

Bruni J. (2014) Expanding the Self-referential Paradox. The Macy Conferences and the Second Wave of Cybernetic Thinking. In: King R. & Arnold D. (eds.) Traditions of Systems Theory. Routledge, New York: 78–83. Available at http://cepa.info/2327
Table of Contents
Moving away from the midcentury: reflexive pressures
Post-conference: observing systems
References
According to the American Society for Cybernetics (2012), there is no unified comprehensive account of a far-reaching narrative that takes into account all of the Macy Conferences and what was discussed and accomplished at these meetings. This chapter will thus propose how group dialogues on concepts such as information and feedback allowed the Macy Conferences to act as a catalyst for second-order systems theory, when first- order, steady-state models of homeostasis became supplanted by those of self-reference in observing systems. I will trace how such a development transpired through a conferences-wide interdisciplinary mindset that promoted the idea of reflexivity. According to N. Katherine Hayles, the conferences’ singular achievement was to create a “new paradigm” for “looking at human beings ... as information-processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines,” by routing Claude Shannon’s information theory through Warren McCulloch’s “model of neural functioning” and John von Neumann’s work in “biological systems” and then capitalizing on Norbert Wiener’s “visionary” talent for disseminating the “larger implications” of such a paradigm shift.[Note 1] From this perspective, the most crucial work would achieve its fruition after the end of the Macy conferences. Yet the foundations for such work were, perforce, cast during the discussions at the conferences that epitomize science in the making and, as such, warrant our careful attention.
Moving away from the midcentury: reflexive pressures
The ten Macy Conferences took place from 1946 to 1953. These conferences were created by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation—as Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz notes, “one of a very few institutions to deliberately encourage multidisciplinary research”[Note 2] – and consisted of “oral, informal” presentations.[Note 3] They featured participation by such luminaries in the fields of informatics and social sciences as McCulloch, Wiener, von Neumann, Shannon, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson. Upon first glimpse, the conferences could be regarded as a product of the Cold-War social atmosphere. As Steve Heims elaborates, in the United States at the midcentury, the sciences—rather than the humanities—held cultural capital, a technocratic optimism, guided by the potential of the social sciences as “human engineering,” reigned,[Note 4] and a theory of systems, developed by the eminent sociologist Talcott Parsons, reflected a “conservative view centered on equilibrium, stability, and the continuity of institutions.”[Note 5] Centered on the idea of how to model thinking, the conferences were shaped by an interest in human–machine hybrids; these are, as Hayles points out, early versions of cyborgs,[Note 6] joined to a cognitive- behavioral (rather than psychoanalytical) model of psychology that emphasized a scientific approach to knowledge and understanding.
Originally titled “Circular Causality and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems,” the conferences were renamed “Cybernetics” (after the Greek word kybernetes: pilot, steersman—a term credited to Wiener) on the recommendation of Heinz von Foerster, who joined the group in 1949 and served as secretary of the conference proceedings (American Society for Cybernetics 2012). In particular, von Foerster embodied the multidisciplinary ethos of the conferences with his interests in mathematics, physics, and electrical engineering. The ultimate goal of the meetings, according to Leeds-Hurwitz, was “nothing less than ‘the reintegration of science’,”[Note 7] to be brought about by a dialogic, speculative approach “capable of encouraging wide-ranging discussions of overlap between apparently dissimilar fields.”[Note 8] Similar to von Foerster, Bateson, an anthropologist, was interested in “illuminating general, transdisciplinary issues.”[Note 9] In particular, Bateson’s famous dictum that information is a “difference that makes a difference” derived from his work on “initiation rituals” and, to be sure, reflected an interdisciplinary mindset.[Note 10] A collective sense of interdisciplinary consciousness, fostered by the Macy Foundation, thus catalyzed a move away from the monolithic thinking of the Cold-War era and toward a more critical stance of reflexivity. For example, there was a debate, instigated by psychologist Hans-Lukas Teuber, about the publication of conference transcripts.[Note 11] Likewise, Leeds-Hurwitz affirms that there was a tangible awareness that participant conversations were being recorded.[Note 12]
Structurally, we might say, reflexivity was an issue that came into sharp relief, one whose further attention at the conferences was the critical impetus for a viable cybernetic model.[Note 13] Here, we can trace moves both against and toward the second wave. There is, in particular, the (unresolved) debate about information and disembodiment—highlighted by Shannon’s choice to define uncertainty in information systems as entropy. By introducing the concept of chaos, or noise, as a formalist criterion for evaluating the performance of such systems, Shannon aligned entropy with information in order to downplay the idea of meaning itself. Supported by Wiener, Shannon insisted that “the ‘meaning’ of the message is irrelevant,” which crucially led to the abstraction of information.[Note 14] Under the byword of Cold-War efficiency, Shannon tried to ramp up the model for information processing by making the formation essentially a mathematical abstraction rather than a more relational (contextual) concept for language processing—eliding both Donald MacKay’s model that “recognized the mutual constitution of form and content, message and receiver” and Bateson’s definition of information as difference that makes a difference.[Note 15] Although Shannon by no means intended that his model be applied universally, as Hayles observes, “this distinction between signal and noise has a conservative bias that privileges stasis over change.”[Note 16] Dynamism, then, critically rests on a contextual (or embodied) foundation. Such a privilege, moreover, arises because science in the making, as Karen Barad argues, is shaped by the social realm, not apart from it.[Note 17] That is, due to Shannon’s definition’s being more popular with electrical engineers, whose discipline strongly relied on information theory,[Note 18] the steady-state feedback model emerges; this distinct residue of Cold-War thinking extends through the conferences to the connections between disembodied information and early manifestations of the cyborg, one prominent example being “Shannon’s electronic rat, a goal-seeking machine that modeled a rat learning a maze.[Note 19]
A similar model, W. Ross Ashby’s homeostat, was a machine that, by acting out how organisms, to survive, maintain equilibrium, evinced “the cataclysm of the war” by suggesting the importance of relations between an organism and its environment.[Note 20] From Ashby’s homeostat, we move to a discussion about technology and military performance that focused on the image “of an operator sandwiched between a radar-tracking device on one side and an anti-aircraft gun on the other.”[Note 21] Rather than to a simplistic picture of the operator as “man in the middle,” attention shifted to how the operator was constructed by an observer observing the action (second- order observation). That “psychological complexity was unavoidable” during the proceedings was exacerbated by psychoanalyst Lawrence Kubie, who stressed “the multiply encoded nature of language, which operated at once as an instrument that the speaker could use to communicate and as a reflexive mirror that revealed more than the speaker knew.”[Note 22] The subsequent resistance to Kubie’s viewpoint (expressed, especially, by McCulloch) suggests that, in the words of Hayles, “The Macy participants were right to feel wary about reflexivity. Its potential was every bit as explosive as they suspected.[Note 23]
Post-conference: observing systems
Human-machine hybrids, as we will now see, spoke to the increasing complexity of systems that operated not on the basis of equilibrium-seeking (through feedback) but on self-reference. Though it was being challenged by these cyborgs, a return to the traditional liberal humanist Cartesian model of the unified subject (that elevates mind over body), who has the distinct privilege of being disembodied, is evident in Shannon’s choice to define uncertainty in information systems as entropy.[Note 24] Given that entropy was already a defined term in thermodynamics, it is, certainly, open to question whether Shannon’s choice enabled the kinds of thinking necessary for devel-oping cybernetics after the conferences. Jeffery S. Wicken, for one, feels that it adds unnecessary confusion “to affix the same name to different concepts.”[Note 25] Conversely, Hayles thinks, “The metaphorical joining of entropy and information … allowed complexity to be seen as rich in information rather than deficient in order.[Note 26]
Embracing complexity is key to the (thermodynamic) self-organizing schema that inaugurates second-order systems of observation. While hybridity, defined as a dualistic—rather than singular—self-identity, is largely regarded as the legacy of cybernetics, it does warrant a careful reevaluation. Reading the Macy Conferences as a narrative about the embryonic state of second-order systems thinking achieves precisely this goal. To rightly assess the importance of the Macy Conferences, therefore, requires us to look beyond the conferences to the philosophies of Wiener and von Foerster.
What seems clear, from this vantage point, is that Shannon’s choice fits all too well with Wiener’s disembodied cybernetics/informatics. In a pivotal moment, Wiener, in Cybernetics (1948), hesitates, stopping short of claiming that systems radically destabilize self-identity, that is, they disturb the idea of the corporeal body as a grounding for subjectivity. What Hayles calls “intellectual celibacy” occurs; hence, when Wiener constructs an “analogy” of insect reproduction that depicts pheromones outside of the body acting with hormones inside of the body, for imagining the operation of informational and organizational hierarchies. Hayles suggests that the analogy constructs the body as “a sort of permeable membrane through which hormonal information flows.” Yet Wiener retreats from this “disturbing” realization, since it implies that “personal identity and autonomous will are merely illusions that mask the cybernetic reality.”[Note 27]
While Bateson further explored reflexivity by organizing a conference in July 1968,[Note 28] it was, arguably, von Foerster’s essay collection, Observing Systems (1984), that brightly reflected the contribution of the Macy Conferences to systems thinking. As he worked on “the epistemological implications of including the observer as part of the system,” von Foerster’s schema of second-order observation was enhanced by his inviting Humberto Maturana (notably, not a Macy participant) to speak at a conference at the University of Illinois in 1969.[Note 29] Picking up and going beyond Ashby’s emphasis on environment for system self-maintenance, Maturana argued that organisms do not get objective knowledge from their environments— therefore reflexivity is integral to (what now becomes second-order) observation. Maturana’s concept that systems are autopoietic, that is, self-maintaining, depends on the self-reference of systems that are both connected to and separate from their environments—a concept that helps von Foerster to work out, as he so rightly realizes, what is the crucial circularity of self-reference that constitutes the identity of systems, and the final step to second-order systems thinking.[Note 30]
Terms such as “circularity,” “reflexivity,” and “self-reference” mobilize the second wave; they derive their contextual meaning from the interdisciplinary ethos of the Macy Conferences, where the nascent concept of systems thinking was being viewed from multiple disciplines, thus recharging the idea of observation as something being carried out by somebody. Maturana’s breaking down of the formalistic register of information (regarded as being independent from autopoiesis) locates systems autonomy within a second-order definition of closure (that constitutes the system/environment distinction). From the general classification of “intelligent machines” promulgated by the Macy Conferences, we move to a more nuanced model of identity that is neither tethered to an essentialist concept of being nor located beyond the autopoietic becomings of complex systems. It is, as von Foerster would put it, a second-wave cybernetic world of complex systems where meanings are generated from the paradoxes of self-reference.
References
American Society for Cybernetics 2012 “Summary: The Macy Conferences.” http://www.asc-cybernetics.org/foundations/history/MacySummary.html
Barad, K. 2007 Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, .
Bruni, J. 2010 “The Miseducation of Henry Adams: Fantasies of Race, Citizenship, and Darwinian Dynamos.” In Darwin in Atlantic Cultures: Evolutionary Visions of Race, Gender, and Sexuality, edited by J. E. Jones and P. B. Sharp, 260-82. New York: Routledge.
Clarke, B. 2011 “Systems Theory.” In The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science, edited by Bruce Clark and Manuela Rossini, 214-25. New York: Routledge.
Clarke, B. and Rossini M. 2011 “Thermodynamics.” In The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science, edited by Bruce Clark and Manuela Rossini, 226-37. New York: Routledge.
Hayles, N. K. 1990 Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press.
Hayles, N. K. 1999 How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Helms, S. J. 1991 The Cybernetics Group. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Leeds-Hurwitz, W. 1994 “Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics as a Case Study in Multidisciplinary Communication.” Cybernetics 37 (3-4): 349-64.
Wicken, J. 1988 “Thermodynamics, Evolution, and Emergence: Ingredients for a New Synthesis.” In Entropy, Information, and Evolution: New Perspectives on Physical and Biological Evolution, edited by Bruce H. Weber, David J. Depew, and James D. Smith, 139-69. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Endnotes
1
N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 7.
2
Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, “Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: The Macy Conferences on Cybernetics as a Case Study in Multidisciplinary Communication,” Cybernetica 37 nos. 3-4 (1994): 360.
3
Leeds-Hurwitz, Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries, 361.
4
Steve Joshua Helms, The Cybernetics Group (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 2.
5
Helms, The Cybernetics Group, 9.
6
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 63.
7
Leeds-Hurwitz, Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries, 354.
8
Leeds-Hurwitz, Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries, 357.
9
Helms, The Cybernetics Group, 54.
10
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 51.
11
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 75.
12
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 359.
13
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 73.
14
Helms, The Cybernetics Group, 76.
15
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 56.
16
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 63.
17
Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
18
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 56.
19
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 63.
20
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 66.
21
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 68.
22
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 69.
23
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 70.
24
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 12-13,18-19.
25
Jeffrey Wicken, “Thermodynamics, Evolution, and Emergence: Ingredients for a New Synthesis,” in Entropy, In formation, and Evolution: New Perspectives on Physical and Biological Evolution, eds. Bruce H. Weber, David J. Depew, and James D. Smith (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 139-69.
26
N. Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990); and Bruce Clarke, “Systems Theory,” in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science, eds. Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (New York: Routledge, 2011), 214-25,229-30.
27
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 109; and John Bruni, “The Miseducation of Henry Adams: Fantasies of Race, Citizenship, and Darwinian Dynamos,” in Darwin in Atlantic Cultures: Evolutionary Visions of Race, Gender, and Sexuality, eds. J. E. Jones and P. B. Sharp (New York: Routledge, 2010), 276-77.
28
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 75-76.
29
Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 133-34.
30
Bruce Clarke, “Systems Theory,” 220-22.
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