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Cybernetics - or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine
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Read: 2018-02-26
Last Update: 2018-02-26

Five Sentence Abstract:

General systems theory, often called cybernetics, is concerned with, most generally, mathematically modeling feedback loops in mechanical, biological, ecological, economic, and other kinds of systems. The idea was birthed by the author, Norbert Weiner, with collaboration of his colleagues around Princeton University. These scientists, recognizing the importance in what they were only beginning to understand, employed the assistance of a plethora of other scientists through various venues, the most famous being what are today known as the Macy Conferences, a multidisciplinary conference where ideas, hitherto unrelated, were unified. On the biological front, man is viewed through the lens of cybernetics as a clockwork automata, a biological machine, a golem, that can be manipulated by varying social and environmental conditions. The social implications of such a view are all pervasive today in the realm of media, religion, education, and any other aspect of life one might consider; from the benign advertiser to the power hungry politician, cybernetics, for better or worse, has been and will continue to shape the world around us.

Thoughts:

General

This was a wonderful read. It was extremely insightful when it comes to the early development of modern cybernetic theory and how it paralleled the construction of the first modern computing machines.

The word cybernetics is derived from the Greek word for steersman, which is derived from the corrupt Latin for governor. This stands in stark contrast to the way it is thought of by many people today. The cyber- aspect of it leads many to believe it has some connection with computers, as in cyberspace, and technology in general. While it is, in our modern time, quite prevalent to see cybernetic concepts applied in the technological realm, it is of the utmost importance to realize that it is a GENERAL systems theory and can, was, and is applied as correctly to biological, ecological, economic, and any other kind of system.

One of the core concepts in general systems theory, or cybernetics, is feedback, both positive and negative. While positive feedback is rare, leading to runaway systems, negative feedback is used by our thermostats, cruise control, and even our very own nervous systems.

I find it interesting that phrases like "you're pushing my buttons" are probably derived from the kind of thinking put forth in this book. While this phrase usually means someone is making you angry, it could easily be interpreted that, by pushing the right buttons on the human organ you can make it play whatever tune you desire. The pied piper comes to mind.

Alice in Wonderland is presented no less than three times throughout the book. This is mentioned only because Carroll was a friend of Salisbury who worked with Milner and Rhodes to establish what Quiglley called 'The Round Table'. This might seem unrelated to cybernetics, but The Round Table and Milner Groups are the epitome of using the press as an input to control the social systems of their day. These ideas are still used presently. Additionally Weiner is a self proclaimed "student of Russell and owe much to his influence." There is only so much coincidence one can accept give the nature of all of these individuals.

We see that the development of control engineering and communication were inseparable and how this revelation should give us pause when we consider modern communication techniques, like the internet, cell-phones, text messages, etc might be, in fact I would say most certainly are, control mechanisms to reign in the masses. Couple this with ideas that statistical predictions about the short term can be applied to culture, and we can see that the data we so willingly part with, in the name of being social, is being used to construct these statistical models to predict everything about our society - from the clothing we wear, the food we eat, the leaders we elect, and anything else of little or great importance.

A few chapters were heavy on math. Chapter 3 was particularly difficult for me to follow.

Macy

In the early to mid 1940s a series of meetings and conferences were held, initially informally at Princeton and later under the auspices of the Josiah Macy Foundation. These conferences came to be known as the Macy Conferences. The main thrust of these meetings, put forth by Bigelow, Rosenblueth,and Wiener, was to write a joint paper on the problems of central inhibition in the nervous system. Others that were present when this idea was formulated include Rosenblueth and McCulloch.

Dr. McCulloch and Dr. Lorente de No of the Rockefeller Institute represented the physiologists. in a joint meeting 1943-44 at Princeton.

The later meetings were organized by Dr. Frank Fremont-Smith, included at around twenty people, and consisted of two all-day series of informal presentations, discussions, and meals.

McCulloch and Fremont-Smith quickly understood the psychological and sociological implications of the subject and have since called forth a number of leading psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists to contribute towards understanding the importance of information and communication mechanisms of organization that goes beyond the individual and into the community.

One of the first problems the group was to tackle was that of Gestalt, or of the perceptual formation of universals. For example, how are humans able to identify a square, no matter its size, color, or orientation, without difficulty. Kluver, Ericsson, and Lewin were among the psychologists enlisted to solve this problem.

Morgenstern was the main advisor of social economic theory, while Bateson and Mead were brought into the group to explore how the communication system of the individual, for example the nervous system, could be extrapolated to understand the communication in other social systems, such as games or economics. At the time, Weiner did not believe that there was enough long term statistical analysis of society to make much progress. This can no longer be said to be the case.

Dr. F. C. S. Northrup was interested in assaying the philosophical significance of the work.

Biology Machines

Cybernetics theory has built on the view that engineering and biology can be seen in the same light. Organic machines if you will. There are some diseases that affect the brain's feedback mechanism that end up producing wild oscillations that can appear as seizures of sorts. Consider how much feedback you get when trying to do something as simple as picking up a pencil. Beyond the visual feedback, you will be able to sense where you arm is in relation to the target pencil. As you get closer you automatically slow down your arm and use the more intricate mechanism of you fingers. When you finally make contact with the pencil you unconsciously receive feedback telling you how hard or soft to grip.

This view of the biological system gives rise to the comparison of the brain being like a computer to that runs continuously, without ever reseting. This is even more acceptable a comparison in an age when simple learning machines were finally produced (checkers playing computers that could defeat their programmer within about 20 hours of 'learning'). Both computers and animals can now learn from their environments and adjust their actions accordingly within their individual lifespans.

The human and animal nervous system is subsequently seen as a computation and control system, with neurons being mimicked in the computer's mechanical relays. In both cases it is a binary signal.

These perspectives, for better or worse, have opened up a whole new world of tinkering with the nervous system and brain. "The various forms of shock treatment-electric, insulin, metrazol-are less drastic methods of doing a very similar thing [pre frontal lobotomy]. They do not destroy brain tissue or at least are not intended to destroy it,but they do have a decidedly damaging effect on the memory."

A less invasive, but still jarring conclusion can be seen in the fact that flickering lights and alternating currents can induce rhythms in the body. "If a light is flickered into the eye at intervals with a period near 1/10 second, the alpha rhythm of the brain is modified until it has a strong component of the same period as the flicker." Additionally, "some direct evidence that a purely electrical flicker may produce an effect similar to that of the visual flicker. This experiment has been carried out in Germany. A room was made with a conducting floor and an insulated conducting metal plate suspended from the ceiling. Subjects were placed in this room,and the floor and the ceiling were connected to a generator producing an alternating electrical potential which may have been at a frequency near 10 cycles per second. The experienced effect on the subjects was very disturbing, in much the same manner as the effect of a similar flicker is disturbing."

Social, Psychology, Sociology

A comparison between the individual and the community which they are apart of has been put forth. While the individual is essentially permanent with respect to their nervous system and sense organs, the community has a far more mutable topography. Where the nervous system acts to coordinate and communicate inside the body, the relationships between individuals coordinate and communicate within the community. In terms of the commonly used example: "All the nervous tissue of the beehive is the nervous tissue of some single bee. How then does the beehive act in unison, and at that in a very variable, adapted, organized unison? Obviously, the secret is in the intercommunication of its members." These would-be gods do love their beehives as a symbol for a regulated society.

By observing each others reactions to what the are interested in. "[the] social animals may have an active, intelligent,flexible means of communication long before the development of language."

The common man, herein called the fool, has been studied thoroughly enough to, as of the 1940s, be understood as acting in a completely predictable manner - like a rat in a maze. The manipulators use, not lies but, non-truths to guide the fool this way or that. The tools of the manipulator include religion, pornography, pseudo-science, wheedling, bribery, intimidation, radio fan ratings, straw votes, opinion samplings, statistics, and more. While these techniques had not yet been mastered, by fast forwarding to the present day we can see that they have progressed stunningly, if not to the level of mastery.

When these concepts are applied to larger swaths, communities, by the "Lords of Things as They Are" (oligarchy), entire societies can be brought to bear. Through wealth the oligarchy obtains a monopoly on the means of communication. These means of communication, the press, both as it concerns books and as it concerns news-papers, the radio, the telephone system, the telegraph, the posts, the theater, the movies, the schools, the church, and all of the more modern outcropping of these, can be seen collectively as the sole channel by which information is transmitted. The control of this channel is how the oligarchy maintains and extends its influence.

Once the proverbial ball gets rolling, momentum exerted by economic forces keeps it in motion. The book that does not sell will not get printed. The radio depends on advertisers and, "as everywhere, the man who pays the piper calls the tune."

This confluence of forces, the favoring of profitable communiques, the control in the hands of the wealthy class, and lastly that this power in and of itself attracts those ambitious, unscrupulous, individuals who would wield it. Thus, the public channels of communication end up being one of the most manipulative forces in the community, whereas they should, theoretically, be a source of illumination for those within the community.

Conclusion

These studies are governed only by the period they are studied in. Magic of yesteryear has given way to empirical science of today. Where once the Golem was described, now the general system is expounded.

Man studies himself and might conclude that the complex of abilities the brain is capable of might be nullified in part by considering it highly specialized nature. Compare the extremely developed brain to the great nose horns of the titanotheres, whose effectiveness waned to the point of encumbrance and eventual extinction. Could the human brain be following this same boundless path of self destruction?

The weakness of the human, intrinsic or psychological in nature, can be overcome, Weiner believes. "It is thus advantageous, as far as possible, to remove the human element from any elaborate chain of computation and to introduce it only where it is absolutely unavoidable, at the very beginning and the very end." Essentially offloading the performance to the machine and saving ourselves from overspecializing or irrational conclusions. Still, it seems that the overspecialization would continue, in the creation and understanding of the very machines we hope to create.

Many scientists hope that this field of study might lead to societal contributions that will outweigh the glaring abuses it will [has] wrought when placed in the hands of those that strive for control. Weiner concludes by stating, "I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope."

These scientists, driven by either curiosity or benefactor, laid the foundations of what can, in no uncertain terms, be called mind control.

Misc

Is Dr. John S. Barlow of the Massachusetts General Hospital any connection to John Perry Barlow?

Is Dr. F. C. S. Northrup, who was interested in assaying the philosophical significance of our work connected to the firm Northrup Grummen? (sp)

Books of interest

Exceptional Excerpts:

Now that the concept of learning machines is applicable to those machines which we have made ourselves, it is also relevant to those living machines which we call animals, so that we have the possibility of throwing a new light on biological cybernetics.

The central nervous system no longer appears as a self-contained organ, receiving inputs from the senses and discharging into the muscles. On the contrary, some of its most characteristic activities are explicable only as circular processes,

control engineering and of communication engineering were inseparable, and that they centered not around the technique of electrical engineering but around the much more fundamental notion of the whether message, this should be transmitted by electrical, mechanical, or nervous means. ... The prediction of the future of a message is done by some sort of operator on its past, whether this operator is realized by a scheme of mathematical computation, or by a mechanical or electrical apparatus.

We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics, which we form from the Greek XVI3Epvl]T'YJ or steersman.

First, the ideas of the joint paper by Bigelow, Rosenblueth,and Wiener were disseminated by Dr. Rosenblueth at a meeting held in New York in 1942, under the auspices of the Josiah Macy Foundation, and devoted to problems of central inhibition in the nervous system.

As to sociology and anthropology, it is manifest that the importance of information and communication as mechanisms of organization proceeds beyond the individual into the community.

For the similar problems of human organization, we sought help from the anthropologists Drs. Bateson and Margaret Mead; while Dr. Morgenstern of the Institute for Advanced Study was our adviser in the significant field of social organization belonging to economic theory. His very important joint book on games with Dr. von Neumann, by the way, represents a most interesting study of social organization from the point of view of methods closely related to, although distinct from,the subject matter of cybernetics. Dr. Lewin and others represented the newer work on the theory of opinion sampling and the practice of opinion making, and Dr. F. C. S. Northrup was interested in assaying the philosophical significance of our work.

one of the directions of work which the realm of ideas of the Macy meetings has suggested concerns the importance of the notion and the technique of communication in the social system. It is certainly true that the social system is an organization like the individual, that it is bound together by a system of communication, and that it has a dynamics in which circular processes of a feedback nature play an important part. This is true, both in the general fields of anthropology and of sociology and in the more specific field of economics; and the very important work, which we have already mentioned, of von Neumann and Morgenstern on the theory of games enters into this range of ideas.

There is no rate of pay at which a United States pick-and-shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel as an excavator. The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions.

This desire to produce and to study automata has always been expressed in terms of the living technique of the age. In the days of magic, we have the bizarre and sinister concept of the Golem, that figure of clay into which the Rabbi of Prague breathed life with the blasphemy of the Ineffable Name of God.

We have already seen that it is the run rather than the entire existence of the, mechanical structure of the computing machine which corresponds to the life of the individual.

The degree of integration of the life of the community may very well approach the level shown in the conduct of a single individual, yet the individual will probably have a fixed nervous system, with permanent topographic relations between the elements and permanent connections, while the community consists of individuals with shifting relations in space and time and no permanent, unbreakable physical connections. All the nervous tissue of the beehive is the nervous tissue of some single bee. How then does the beehive act in unison, and at that in a very variable, adapted, organized unison? Obviously, the secret is in the intercommunication of its members.

community extends only so far as there extends an effectual trans-mission of information.

Where the knaves assemble, there will always be fools; and where the fools are present in sufficient numbers, they offer a more profitable object of exploitation for the knaves. The psychology of the fool has become a subject well worth the serious attention of the knaves. Instead of looking out for his own ultimate interest, after the fashion of von Neumann's gamesters, the fool operates in a manner which, by and large, is as predictable as the struggles of a rat in a maze. This policy of lies-or rather, of statements irrelevant to the truth-will so the party hopes, induce him to vote for a particular candidate-any candidate-or to join in a political witch hunt. A certain precise mixture of religion, pornography, and pseudo science will sell an illustrated newspaper. A certain blend of wheedling, bribery, and intimidation will induce a young scientist to work on guided missiles or the atomic bomb. To determine these, we have_our machinery of radio fan ratings, straw votes, opinion samplings,and other psychological investigations, with the common man as their object; and there are always the statisticians, sociologists,and economists available to sell their services to these undertakings.

It is only in the large community, where the Lords of Things as They Are protect themselves from hunger by wealth, from public opinion by privacy and anonymity, from private criticism by the laws of libel and the possession of the means of communication, that ruthlessness can reach its most sublime levels. Of all of these anti-homeostatic factors in society, the control of the means of communication is the most effective and most important.

One of the lessons of the present book is that any organism is held together in this action by the possession of means for the acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information. In a society too large for the direct contact of its members, these means are the press, both as it concerns books and as it concerns news-papers, the radio, the telephone system, the telegraph, the posts, the theater, the movies, the schools, and the church. Besides their intrinsic importance as means of communication, each of these serves other, secondary functions. The newspaper is a vehicle for advertisement and an instrument for the monetary gain of its proprietor, as are also the movies and the radio. The school and the church are not merely refuges for the scholar and the saint: they are also the home of the Great Educator and the Bishop. The book that does not earn money for its publisher probably does not get printed and certainly does not get reprinted.

The radio depends on its advertisers for income, and,as everywhere, the man who pays the piper calls the tune.

Thus on all sides we have a triple constriction of the means of communication: the elimination of the less profitable means in favor of the more profitable; the fact that these means are in the hands of the very limited class of wealthy men, and thus naturally express the opinions of that class; and the further fact that, as one of the chief avenues to political and personal power, they attract above all those ambitious for such power. That system which more than all others should contribute to social homeostasis is thrown directly into the hands of those most concerned in the game of power and money, which we have already seen to be one of the chief anti-homeostatic elements in the community.

a study of reaction times for visual signals. As is well known, when a visual signal arrives, the muscular activity which it stimulates does not occur at once, but after a certain delay. Professor Lindsley has shown that this delay is not constant, but seems to consist of three parts. One of these parts is of constant length, whereas the other two appear to be uniformly distributed over about 1/10 second. It is as if the central nervous system could pick up incoming impulses only every 1/10 second, and as if the outgoing impulses to the muscles could arrive from the central nervous system only every 1/10 second. This is experimental evidence of a gating; and the association of this gating with 1/10 second, which is the approximate period of the central alpha rhythm of the brain, is very probably not fortuitous.

If a light is flickered into the eye at intervals with a period near 1/10 second, the alpha rhythm of the brain is modified until it has a strong component of the same period as the flicker. Unquestionably the flicker produces an electrical flicker in the retina,and almost certainly in the central nervous system.There is, however, some direct evidence that a purely electrical flicker may produce an effect similar to that of the visual flicker. This experiment has been carried out in Germany. A room was made with a conducting floor and an insulated conducting metal plate suspended from the ceiling. Subjects were placed in this room,and the floor and the ceiling were connected to a generator producing an alternating electrical potential which may have been at a frequency near 10 cycles per second. The experienced effect on the subjects was very disturbing, in much the same manner as the effect of a similar flicker is disturbing.

The pulling together of these short-time oscillations into a continuing oscillation has been observed in other bodily rhythms, as for example the approximately 23 1/2-hour diurnal rhythm which is observed in many living beings.[2] This rhythm is capable of being pulled into the 24-hour rhythm of day and night by the changes in the external environment.

Notes:

Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition
Introduction
01: Newtonian and Bergsonian Time
02: Groups and Statistical Mechanics
03: Time Series, Information, and Communication
04: Feedback and Oscillation
05: Computing Machines and the Nervous System
06: Gestalt and Universals
07: Cybernetics and Psychopathology
08: Information, Language, and Society
09: On Learning and Self-Reproducing Machines
10: Brain Waves and Self-Organizing Systems

Preface to the Second Edition

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Part 1

Introduction

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01: Newtonian and Bergsonian Time

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02: Groups and Statistical Mechanics

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03: Time Series, Information, and Communication

04: Feedback and Oscillation

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05: Computing Machines and the Nervous System

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06: Gestalt and Universals

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07: Cybernetics and Psychopathology

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08: Information, Language, and Society

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Part 2: Supplementary Chapters (1961)

09: On Learning and Self-Reproducing Machines

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10: Brain Waves and Self-Organizing Systems

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