Feineigle.com - Out of Control - The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World

Home · Book Reports · 2017 · Out of Control - The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World

Published: December 20, 2017 (6 years 3 months ago.)

The book in...
One sentence:
An amalgamation of cybernetics, evolution, and engineering wrapped up in an optimistic 'you can be a God' package.

Five sentences:
It begins by describing various distributed natural ecology systems, like a swarm of bees and their beehive, as vivisystems that which can be the understood as the basis for designing artificial systems. The evolutionary systems of Darwin lead into the artificial evolution of Dawkins' Biomorph Land, computer viruses, and genetic engineering. Finally we get to see some of the ex-WIRED editors techo-utopia by exploring things like virtual worlds and e-money. While the title of the book leads you to believe one thing, the truth is that the entire book hints immodestly at cybernetic, bottom up, herded, predictive, Macy Conference inspired control. Overall it feels like a rough outline of all-too-likely technocracy of the future that employs novelty and pleasure to conceal its true oligarchical totalitarian control behind a smile.

designates my notes. / designates important.


“A short-hand synopsis of Out of Control would be to say it is an update on the current state of cybernetic research.”

This is a very interesting book. It covers a gamut of topics that are all related to systems and control. The symbol of droning slavery, the beehive, is considered initially at great length. It is given as an example of a decentralized democracy where every bee has a part to play. In contrast to this beekeeping is discussed. From the start the author wants you to think the bees are in control, when really it is the beekeeper who is in charge. Again and again you will read examples of systems with no central authority that are juxtaposed against statements like “a flocked guided by a shepherd”. A flock of sheep is not a decentralized democracy. It is a totalitarian dictatorship under the shepherd’s crook and dog.

There is also an enormous amount of Darwin and evolution mentioned. This leads into such topics as natural and artificial evolution, social Darwinism, economics, computer simulated life, computer viruses, parasitism, Gaian theory, and almost countless others. To say Darwinian evolution, even when Lamarckian evolution is treated in depth as well, is a foundational tenet of this work would be an understatement.

Beyond Darwin, some of the other major players that those familiar with the various MK-Ultra-like programs would recognize include, but are not limited to, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Marshall McLuhan, Stewart Brand (the founder of WIRED, where the author was once editor), and even the grand-daddy of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner.

One view, that communication between agents of a system occurs through the world is fertile ground for showing how a decentralized system can still confer top down control. Consider the intelligence community and the oligarchy that, while often seen as completely centralized (CENTRAL Intelligence Agency), are actually a number of cells of agents working independently. The operations of one group are seen by the other groups which can adapt their strategy. With only a few contact points between agencies, a yearly meeting at a Bohemian Grove, Century Club, or a United Nations conference, and the pervasive feedback of seeing what the other groups do, both successfully and unsuccessfully, you can develop a shepherding system of control that is quite decentralized. A perfect example of this decentralized control can be seen in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when the English Empire re-branded itself as the Commonwealth. In England and in far off lands like India and Australia you had many individual agents working in their own independent manor, but each was deftly directed by London. Not overtly, but by instilling particular values in the future leadership of these colonies by another name. Each part of the commonwealth was free to act independently, as long as they were moving in the same general direction. This is kind of like letting out fishing line, giving the fish a chance to wear itself out on the false illusion of freedom, before reeling in your catch.

Many comparisons to environmental engineering being like machine engineering bring about a blurring of biological and mechanical (a clearly stated recurring theme). This reminds me of permaculture, succession, guilds, and assemblages. There is actually a lot of what I learned studying permaculture present in this work. “Happy accidents” are mentioned, and the idea of seeing how something works by simply trying it are both strong beliefs of many permaculturists.

While not front and center to permaculture, Lovelock’s Gaia theory is occasionally mentioned and most certainly a staple in this book. I make the connection to permaculture because, although it sounds great on the surface, could it be another cybernetic input to pacify those fed up with the status quo? If you are out gardening and planting trees, you are not combating the oligarchical fraud. If you are not starting families, who are you improving the environment for?

All of these vectors of social change steeped in cybernetic theory lead to worldwide single living system that feeds back on itself with “obligated cooperation”, which sounds a lot like justification for manipulation of the masses.

Several times the ubiquity of parasitism and symbiosis in natural systems is noted and increasing as more species evolve to interact with one another in novel ways. When applied to the social human world, what will it look like? It seems more justification for an oligarchy that is completely parasitic in its behavior.

Von Neumann’s games are discussed in fleeting generality, but more interesting is that the idea of a zero-sum game is discounted continually. The network effect, the more telephones there are the more valuable a telephone becomes (1 telephone is all but worthless), is heavily promoted instead of the zero-sum effect. While this sounds appealing, everyone can win, it is unrealistic. In terms of wealth, which is nothing more than a particular arrangement of (finite) earthly resources, it (life) is a zero-sum game. Things like the economy can exhibit non-zero sum characteristics (the stock market goes up and up and up), but that is an artifact of their artificiality. Money is a construct of man’s mind, a tool for measuring perceived wealth akin to inches measuring length. There is no limit to the amount of inches or dollars, but there is a definite limit to things we can measure with each.

Although some links become hardwired and nearly symbiotic, most species are promiscuous in evolutionary time, shacking up with a different partners as the partners themselves evolve.” This struck me as interesting because it promotes promiscuity as an absolute. At least from a social human society standpoint, promiscuity erodes families. If the goal, as I submit it to be, is to break down society to the helpless individual, adrift in the virtual worlds, then this promotion is not at all out of place and simply another key being pressed to make the human organ sing the tune of submission.

At one point the book begins to talk about an omega-point where ecosystems tend toward. I immediately thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the originator of this omega-point theory. Pierre, a priest, combined science and religion in some really novel ways. Omega-point theory basically stated that everything in the universe was moving toward a single point, God. A few paragraphs later the largest bomb in the book was dropped. A quote from John Perry Barlow that mentions Pierre and The (Masonic) Great Work:

“Computers-the gizmos themselves-have far less to do with techie enthusiasm than some half-understood resonance to The Great Work: hardwiring collective consciousness, creating the Planetary Mind. Teilhard de Chardin wrote about this enterprise many years ago and would be appalled by the prosaic nature of the tools we will use to bring it about. But I think there is something sweetly ironic that the ladder to his Omega Point might be built by engineers and not mystics.”

In my opinion this one quote simultaneously summarizes and betrays both this book and the whole of the technocracy/cybernetic vision of the future. “Hardwiring collective consciousness” equates to plugging everyone into the (online, social media) matrix.

Further, the book goes into great detail of what we would call virtual reality. It covers simulated war games for the Department of Defense and simulation games like BattleTech. I find it interesting that there is such a crossover between gaming and war. Consider that the modern drones use controls eerily reminiscent of X-box game pads.

There is a whole chapter on e-money. Remember that this was written in the mid 1990s, long before things like bitcoin were even a glint in Satoshi’s eye. It portends the omnipresence of things like debit cards, club cards, and cards that use a small microchip to store reloadable value years before they became fashionable. The words you hear today surrounding bitcoin are all there: crypto-currency, libertarianism, crypto-anarchy, anonymous, and verifiable. Again, the chapter on e-money is pretty damning evidence that the oligarchy was either behind crypto-currency or at least had their finger on the pulse of the crypto-kids and therefore would not be shocked at the rise of something like bitcoin.

South American fiction master J. L. Borges and his Library are talked about at great length. Borges’ library is called back to many times subsequently after its introduction. Dawkin’s Biomorph Land and the various artificial evolutionary systems are compared to wandering through Borges’ library.

Moving beyond the gradual evolution Darwin, a new theory of saltationism (from Latin saltare, to jump) is pondered to describe how “hopeful monsters” appear suddenly. “The clues I present here of symbiosis, directed mutation, saltationism, and self-organization, are far from conclusive.” This, to me, reads as nothing more than mysticism masquerading as science, the modern religion.

The Macy conferences are mentioned as a great collection of minds sharing cutting-edge ideas since 1942. “Among the several dozen visionaries invited over the nine years of the conference were Gregory Bateson, Norbert Wiener, Margaret Mead, Lawrence Frank, John von Neumann, Warren McCulloch, and Arturo Rosenblueth. This stellar congregation later became known as the cybernetic group for the perspective they pioneered- cybernetics, the art and science of control.

The book closes with a few pages on being a god. The godlike feeling one experiences when poking around in the world of artificial evolution or life mimicking games like SimCity is mentioned many times. It seems that god has taken on new meaning, acceptable to be bandied about haphazardly in the scientific community: to be the creator of a world, virtual or ecological. This is the last piece of evidence that shows where these peoples’ hearts and minds are. They see themselves as gods. All the matter of the world, including you and I, are to be subsumed into their artificial control mechanisms.

The constant restating of the title, “out of control”, is counter positioned to a less overtly stated “under control”. The entire book vacillates between the two contrary positions. Even when expressing such concepts of control being “bottom up” or as a shepherd herding sheep, control by any other name is still control.

Exceptional Excerpts

It’s an election hall of idiots, for idiots, and by idiots, and it works marvelously. This is the true nature of democracy and of all distributed governance. At the close of the curtain, by the choice of the citizens, the swarm takes the queen and thunders off in the direction indicated by mob vote.

Guiding a swarm system can only be done as a shepherd would drive a herd: by applying force at crucial leverage points, and by subverting the natural tendencies of the system to new ends (use the sheep’s fear of wolves to gather them with a dog that wants to chase sheep).

In the human management of distributed control, hierarchies of a certain type will proliferate rather than diminish. That goes especially for distributed systems involving human nodes-such as huge global computer networks.

One of the tenets in the gospel of American pop culture is the widely held creed of transferability of mind. People declare that mind transfer is a swell idea, or an awful idea, but not that it is a wrong idea. In modern folk-belief, mind is liquid to be poured from one vessel to another. From that comes Terminator 2, Frankenstein, and a huge chunk of science fiction.

Many evolutionary biologists in the last century such as T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Darwin, too, understood it intuitively-that the physical environment shapes its creatures and the creatures shape their environment, and if considered in the long view, the environment is the organism and the organism is the environment. Alfred Lotka, an early theoretical biologist, wrote in 1925, ‘It is not so much the organism or the species that evolves, but the entire system, species plus environment. The two are inseparable.’ The entire system of evolving life and planet was coevolution, the dance of the chameleon on the mirror.

Chess, elections, races, and poker are zero-sum games: the winner’s earnings are deducted from the loser’s assets. Natural wilderness, the economy, a mind, and networks on the other hand, are nonzero-sum games. Wolverines don’t have to lose just because bears live.

Although some links become hardwired and nearly symbiotic, most species are promiscuous in evolutionary time, shacking up with a different partners as the partners themselves evolve.

Cybernetics. As has been noted by many writers, cybernetics derives from the Greek for ‘steersman’-a pilot that steers a ship. Wiener, who worked with servomechanisms during World War II, was struck by their uncanny ability to aid steering of all types. What is usually not mentioned is that cybernetics was also used in ancient Greece to denote a governor of a country. Plato attributes Socrates as saying, ‘Cybernetics saves the souls, bodies, and material possessions from the gravest dangers,’ a statement that encompasses both shades of the word. Government (and that meant self-government to these Greeks) brought order by fending off chaos. Also, one had to actively steer to avoid sinking the ship. The Latin corruption of kubernetes is the derivation of governor, which Watt picked up for his cybernetic flyball.

Warshall sighed, ‘It would have been nice if somewhere there was a database of all known species listing their food and energy requirements, their habitat, their waste products, their companion species, their breeding needs, etc., but there isn’t anything remotely like that. We know very little about even common species. In fact, what this project shows is how little we know about any species.’

One can imagine the future shape of companies by stretching them until they are pure network. A company that was pure network would have the following traits: distributed, decentralized, collaborative, and adaptive.

Digital Money-Everyday digital cash replaces batch-mode paper money.

My friend Barlow-at least Barlow’s disembodied voice-has already connected his everything to his everything. He lives and works in a true network economy. He gives away information-for free-and he is given money. The more he gives away, the more money he gets. He had something to say about the emerging network in an e-mail message to me:

Computers-the gizmos themselves-have far less to do with techie enthusiasm than some half-understood resonance to The Great Work: hardwiring collective consciousness, creating the Planetary Mind. Teilhard de Chardin wrote about this enterprise many years ago and would be appalled by the prosaic nature of the tools we will use to bring it about. But I think there is something sweetly ironic that the ladder to his Omega Point might be built by engineers and not mystics.

We humans will be unconscious of what the global mind ponders. This is not because we are not smart enough, but because the design of a mind does not allow the parts to understand the whole. The particular thoughts of the global mind-and its subsequent actions- will be out of our control and beyond our understanding. Thus network economics will breed a new spiritualism.

Our primary difficulty in comprehending the global mind of a network culture will be that it does not have a central ‘I’ to appeal to. No headquarters, no head. That will be most exasperating and discouraging. In the past, adventurous men have sought the holy grail, or the source of the Nile, or Prester John, or the secrets of the pyramids. In the future the quest will be to find the ‘I am’ of the global mind, the source of its coherence. Many souls will lose all they have searching for it-and many will be the theories of where the global mind’s ‘I am’ hides. But it will be a never-ending quest like the others before it.

The cypherpunks also talk about using the economics of the Net for the reverse side of encryption: to crack codes. They could assemble a people’s supercomputer by networking together a million Macintoshes, each one computing a coordinated little part of a huge, distributed decryption program. In theory, such a decentralized parallel computer would in sum be the most powerful computer we can now imagine-far greater than the centralized NSA’s.

I asked Chaum what banks think of digital cash. His company has visited or been visited by most of the big players. Do they say, gee, this threatens our business? Or do they say, hmm, this strengthens us, makes us more efficient? Chaum: ‘Well, it ranges. I find the corporate planners in $1,000 suits and private dining halls are more interested in it than the lower-level systems guys because the planners’ job is to look to the future.

Eric Hughes, maintainer of the cypherpunks’ mailing list, says, ‘The Really Big Question is, how large can the flow of money on the nets get before the government requires reporting of every small transaction? Because if the flows can get large enough, past some threshold, then there might be enough aggregate money to provide an economic incentive for a transnational service to issue money, and it wouldn’t matter what one government does.’

Danny Hillis proposes setting up a swarm system which would try to evolve better software to steer a plane, while tiny parasitic programs would try to crash it. As his experiments have shown, parasites encourage a faster convergence to an error-free, robust software navigation program.

Human history is a story of cultural takeover. As societies develop, their collective skill of learning and teaching steadily expropriates similar memory and skills transmitted by human biology.

No one has yet witnessed, in the fossil record, in real life, or in computer life, the exact transitional moments when natural selection pumps its complexity up to the next level.

‘Five years ago,’ recalls Kauffman, ‘Brian Goodwin [an evolutionary biologist] and I were sitting in some World War I bunker in northern Italy during a rainstorm talking about autocatalytic sets. I had this profound sense then that there’s a deep similarity between natural selection-what Darwin told us-and the wealth of nations-what Adam Smith told us. Both have an invisible hand. But I didn’t know how to proceed any further until I saw Walter Fontana’s work with autocatalytic sets, which is gorgeous.’

I was asking about predicting because a prediction is a form of control. It is a type of control particularly suited to distributed systems. By anticipating the future, a vivisystem can shift its stance to preadapt to it, and in this way control its destiny.

We have the technology now to forecast many social phenomena…

The Limits to Growth model is woven out of an impressive web of ‘stocks’ and ‘flows.’ Stocks (money, oil, food, capital, etc.) flow into certain nodes (representing general processes such as farming), where they trigger outflows of other stocks. For instance money, land, fertilizer, and labor flow into farms to trigger an outflow of raw food.

The all-star lineup who presented papers at the 1959 conference was a public rendezvous of scientists who had been convening in smaller meetings since 1942. These intimate, invitation-only gatherings were organized by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, and became known as the Macy Conferences.

Among the several dozen visionaries invited over the nine years of the conference were Gregory Bateson, Norbert Wiener, Margaret Mead, Lawrence Frank, John von Neumann, Warren McCulloch, and Arturo Rosenblueth. This stellar congregation later became known as the cybernetic group for the perspective they pioneered- cybernetics, the art and science of control.

Table of Contents

· Reviews:

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· Self selected quotes:

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· Chapter 2: HIVE MIND

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  1. Incremental construction-grow complexity, don’t install it
  2. Tight coupling of sensors to actuators-reflexes, not thinking
  3. Modular independent layers-the system decomposes into viable subunits
  4. Decentralized control-no central planning
  5. Sparse communication-watch results in the world, not wires

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· Chapter 5: COEVOLUTION

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· Chapter 12: E-MONEY

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…The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be traded freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion. Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of CryptoNet. But this will not halt the spread of crypto anarchy.

Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions. Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.

Timothy C. May, Crypto Anarchy: encryption, digital money, anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero knowledge, reputations, information markets, black markets, collapse of government.

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· Chapter 13: GOD GAMES

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· Chapter 17: AN OPEN UNIVERSE

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Morphological plasticity
(An organism can have more than one body form.)

Physiological adaptability
(An organism's tissues can modify themselves to accommodate stress.)

Behavioral flexibility
(An organism can do something new or move.)

Intelligent choice
(An organism can choose, or not, based on past experiences.)

Guidance from tradition
(An organism can be influenced or taught by others' experiences.)
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Symbiosis-Easy informational swaps that permit convergence of distinct lines

Directed Mutations-Nonrandom mutation and crossover mechanisms with direct
communication from the environment

Saltationism-Clustering of functions, hierarchical levels of control,
modularization of components, and adaptive processes that modify a cluster all
at once

Self-organization-Development biased toward certain forms (like four wheels),
which become pervasive standards


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· Chapter 21: RISING FLOW

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· Chapter 24: THE NINE LAWS OF GOD

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Distribute being
Control from the bottom up
Cultivate increasing returns
Grow by chunking
Maximize the fringes
Honor your errors
Pursue no optima; have multiple goals
Seek persistent disequilibrium
Change changes itself.
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· Bibliography

A great book about the parallels between evolution and the mind. Of particular
interest is the chapter on "The Role of Somatic Change in Evolution."
Bateson stresses and stretches the similarities between mind and evolution in
A memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson that is more than a memoir.
Written by daughter Mary Catherine, who is an intellectual of equal caliber to
her parents, this is a book of cybernetic family stories.
Interwoven between the final writings of Gregory Bateson--completed
posthumously by his daughter Mary Catherine--are dialogues between father and
daughter that convey Gregory's deep ideas of sacrament, communication,
intelligence, and being.
For many years this was the cybernetic bible.  It's still one of the few books
on whole systems or "systems in general." But it seems to me to be vague even
in the places I agree with. And Bertalanffy's signature idea--equifinality--I
think is wrong, or at least incomplete.
Shows how very simple circuits can produce the appearance of complicated
behaviors and movement. The experiments were eventually implemented in
tiny model cars.
A curious, small book that is pleasantly two-faced. One-half is the first
published report on computer hackers playing computer games, and the other is
Gregory Bateson talking about evolution and cybernetics.
Although about media future, there are enough gems of insight about the future
of interconnectivity to keep this rich book ahead of the curve.
Excellent study of the new sociology of teenage obsessives building and playing
online MUDs.
Highly detailed explanation of how an ID-less electronic money system works.
Very readable and visionary. A revised version is even clearer. Worth seeking
Pure pleasure. Wonderful prose in a short book on the intricacies and
complexities of ecological relationships. Based on the author's own naturalist
experiences. Seeks to extract ecological principles. Best book I know of about
the cybernetic connectiveness of ecological systems.
The fountainhead of all books on evolution. Darwinism reigns in large part
because this book is so full of details, supporting evidence, and persuasive
arguments, all so well written, that other theories pale in comparison.
A wholly original idea (that genes replicate for their own reasons) and
brilliant exposition. Dawkins also introduces his equally original secondary
idea of memes (ideas that replicate for their own reasons).
Perhaps the most neodarwinian of all books. Dawkins presents the case for a
"universe without design" based entirely on natural selection. And he writes so
well and clearly that his forceful ideas are hard to argue with. At the very
least, this book is probably the best general introduction to orthodox
evolutionary theory anywhere. Full of clever examples.
The key essay in this compendium should be required reading for all Americans
graduating from high school. It's about the real, the fake, and the hyperreal.
A short chronology of the Macy Conference and the participants at each meeting,
and an introduction to the seed idea of emergent "telos" or goal and purpose.
An anthology of von Foerster's papers. These range from mathematical treatise
to philosophical rants. All point to von Foerster's law that observers are part
of the system.
An incredibly thorough history of the agenda and flavor of the Macy Conferences
and vignettes of some of the illustrious participants.
A very accessible summation of Kauffman's important major ideas, with nary an
equation in it. Read this one first.
No critic of Darwin in modern times has been as literate or influential as the
brilliant Koestler. He spends the latter third of this book summing up his
objections to Darwinism, and offering some suggestions for alternatives. His
agile thinking on the subject loosened up my mind.
Bateson was interested in all things mysteriously complex. This biography of
him and his interests illuminates the range of complexities that might be
understood by looking at language, learning, the unconscious, and evolution.
The best treatment of ecosystems as cybernetic systems.
A dense summary of the first three Macy conferences, which covered an amazing
range of topics, all before they hit upon the term "cybernetics."
In 270 very readable one-page essays, Minsky presents a society of ideas about
the society of mind. It is true Zen. Every page is a mob of astounding and
mind-changing ideas. And at every point in thinking about complex systems I
would come back to Minsky. This is the book that eventually led me to write
this book.
Pimm treats food-webs as if they were cybernetic circuits, and out of both
simulated and real food-webs has derived some of the freshest ecological news
in a decade.
Tiny universes created by simple rules as a means to explore world-making.
This is the most comprehensive text on the science of cellular automata.
An early follow-up to Hebb's original experiments in sensory deprivation at
McGill University, Vernon did his at Princeton University during the late '50s
in a soundproof room in the basement of the psychology building.
Science fiction has enlarged the thought space for imagining cybernetic
possibilities, which science proper can later fill.
Perhaps the best book on modern cybernetics. Works well in a classroom because
it includes cybernetic exercises.
The germ of all cybernetic texts. Except for the preface, it is unexpectedly
technical and mathematical. But worth delving into.
A compendium of survey articles reviewing the literature of sensory deprivation
up to 1969, when this topic was fashionable. The effects of SD are about as
elusive as those of hypnosis, and all the hopes for the field have evaporated
as uneven data piled up.
The fascinating proceedings of a major conference with an all-star line up of
principal cybernetic pioneers. After each paper is a revealing record of the
panel discussions, where the true learning happens. Why don't other books do
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'The Nine Laws of God': Kevin Kelly's Out of Control TechnoUtopic Program for a

by William Grassie
Temple University