From Versailles to Cybernetics
Last Update: 2017-08-07
Five Sentence Abstract:
The most important things in Bateson's life, as he tells it, were the Treaty of Versailles and the cybernetic "breakthrough". All mammals, and thus humans, are concerned only with the patterns of relationship that give rise to abstractions like love, hate, and trust. The Treaty of Versailles was full of deceit to demoralize the Germans and should have been seen to provide the foundation for with WW2 sprung from. We must understand how we got to the present to have any chance at understanding the present. The "rules of the game" that were laid down with the Treaty of Versailles and the advent of cybernetics need to be changed before the computers lead us into a more rigid world.
Bateson uses many analogies to make what I see as one central point in his speech: human relations can be fiddled with in such the same way as you set the bias on your house thermostat. He, like many of his kind, couch their views as warnings that computer dictated decisions may have unforeseen consequences and could be leading us to a maladjusted world. He concludes that, in spite of these dangers, cybernetics may allow for a "more human outlook". Nothing could be farther from the truth in a world where the human organ is played masterfully by an oligarchical class.
(Lecture, April 21, 1966, to the "Two Worlds Symposium" at Sacramento State
"The fathers have eaten bitter fruit and the children's teeth are set on
"The sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children even to the third
and fourth generation of those that hate me."
"He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General
Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer."
... in my lifetime, it seemed to me that I had really only seen two moments
that would rate as really important from an anthropologist's point of view.
One was the events leading up to the Treaty of Versailles, and the other was
the cybernetic breakthrough.
// A cat purrs when you open the refrigerator, she is
saying: "dependency, dependency, dependency.", but you translate that to
"milk" or "liver".
- If, therefore, we really want to know what are the significant points in
history, we have to ask which are the moments in history when attitudes were
changed. These are the moments when people are hurt because of their former
//George Creel drew up the 14 points President Wilson
delivered, the deceitful groundwork for the Treaty of Versailles.
If you are going to deceive somebody, you had better get an honest man to
carry the message. President Wilson was an almost pathologically honest man
Whenever Wilson would wonder about those Fourteen Points of his, they took
him out into the war cemeteries and made him feel ashamed of not being angry
with the Germans.
This was one of the great sell-outs in the history of our civilization. A
most extraordinary event which led fairly directly and inevitably into World
War II. It also led (and this is perhaps more interesting than the fact of its
leading to World War II) to the total demoralization of German politics.
It's not only that World War II was the appropriate response of a nation
which had been treated in this particular way; what is more important is the
fact that the demoralization of that nation was
expectable from this sort of treatment.
// Those born after such things as world wars are born
into a "crazy" world they do not understand. Those that were there from the
beginning understand how they got here.
To take a dose of LSD is alright, and you will have the experience of being
more or less crazy, but this will make quite good sense because you know you
took the dose of LSD. If, on the other hand, you took the LSD by accident, and
then find yourself going crazy, not knowing how you got there, this is a
terrifying and horrible experience.
- A little hypocrisy and a little compromise oil the wheels of social life.
But after the great deception, this philosophy is untenable. You are
perfectly correct that something is wrong; and that the something wrong is of
the nature of a deceit and a hypocrisy. You live in the
midst of corruption.
The general good smells of hypocrisy to the rising generation.
I don't doubt that if you asked George Creel to justify the Fourteen Points,
he would urge the general good. It is possible that that little operation of
his saved a few thousand American lives in 1918. I don't know how many it cost
in World War II, and since in Korea and Vietnam. I recall that Hiroshima and
Nagasaki were justified by the general good and saving American lives.
... cybernetics, or communication theory, or
information theory, or systems theory. The ideas were generated in many
places: in Vienna by Bertalanffy, in Harvard by Wiener, in Princeton by von
Neumann, in Bell Telephone labs by Shannon, in Cambridge by raik,
You will notice that everything I said about history
and about Versailles is a discussion of organized systems and their
properties. Now I want to say that we are developing a certain amount of
rigorous scientific understanding of these very mysterious organized systems.
Our knowledge today is way ahead of anything that
George Creel could have said. He was an applied scientist before the science
was ripe to be applied.
One of the roots of cybernetics goes back to
Whitehead and Russell and what is called the Theory of Logical Types.
We now have a lot of cybernetics, a lot of games theory, and the beginnings
of understanding of complex systems. But any
understanding can be used in destructive ways.
I think that cybernetics is the biggest bite out of
the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the last 2000
years. But most of such bites out of the apple have proved to be rather
indigestible— usually for cybernetic reasons.
Cybernetics has integrity within itself, to help us to not be seduced by it
into more lunacy, but we cannot trust it to keep us from sin.
The question is not that is the best thing to do within the rules as they are
at the moment. The question is how can we get away
from the rules within which we have been operating for the last ten or
twenty years, or since the Treaty of Versailles.
And, of course, there are other dangers latent in cybernetics and many of
these are still unidentified. We do not know, for example, what effects may follow from the computerization of all
But this much is sure, that there is also latent in cybernetics the means of
achieving a new and perhaps more human outlook, a
means of changing our philosophy of control and a means of seeing our
own follies in wider perspective.