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Roger John Harnden (Wales, UK)

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Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile
Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile
by Eden Medina
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £24.95

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The messy world we find ourselves living, 8 Mar. 2012
The topic of this book is the interplay between technological and political ideology. The particular case study is Project Cybersyn during the years of the Marxist experiment in Chile, ending with the assassination of President Allende on September 11th (YES, September 11th!!), 1973. Project Cybersyn was the name given to the attempt to more formally structure aspects of the Chilean economy in line with the Viable System Model of Stafford Beer.

I find the book to be of particular value because Eden is talking from the sidelines, both in terms of the politics and the technology. Because of this, her account is without the sometimes absurd and hysterical tone of much writing on such matters. Instead, she captures and conveys the sheer exhilaration, confusion, hopes and despair which accompany such events. This mood of chaotic ups and downs is generally absent from 'more sober' historical accounts which (as Foucault cautioned us) tend to unfold the narrative of the historian's 'present' rather than uncover the way of actual happenings in their intrinisic messiness!

As Russell Ackoff, Peter Checkland and others have noted, our social and political world is perhaps best described as intrinsically messy. The 'best laid plans of mice and men' retain their integrity and original elegance only in the world of ideas. As we attempt to embody such ideas and models in actual practice, strange things are wont to happen (both to the `real world' itself; and to the integrity of the models we use. This book is a wonderful account of such messiness in its happening.

There are several potential audiences for the book:

1. Perhaps, the historian.
2. Definitely the political historian of Latin America (and Chile).
3. People interested in Stafford Beer.
4. People interested in management cybernetics (in particular, the Viable System Model).
5. All those interested in the practical application of intellectual models to the 'real world'.

The book fails to focus on any single one of these audiences, but this is perhaps its strength in appealing to a more general readership and instigating further research in a variety of areas. Medina makes one WANT TO KNOW MORE - whether about the cybernetics ideas, the historical background to Allende's presidency, or the paranoia of the West (primarily in the case USA) regarding communism and all matters perceived as 'soviet'.

In addition, the author captures the anomalies in the character of the key protagonist, Stafford Beer. We catch sight of glimpses and flashes of the man, behind a 'smokescreen' of fat cigars and whisky, as we almost inadvertently accompany him on a strange personal journey. From a rather complacent, smug, arrogant and rather impersonal and indifferent `suit' at home in London's stockbroker belt; Medina traces Beer as he stumbles, and perhaps begins to question his lifestyle, direction and as he finds himself an unwitting pawn in the game of international politics and manipulation - the world that is NOT a pampered existence in the stockbroker belt, but a flesh and blood world in which people live and die and bleed.

Those of us who knew him in later years know what a profound effect this all had on the man, and this Book is particularly informative here.

As for the practice........ the application.....the experiment.............Well, the jury remains out. In other words, it is very difficult - even reading between the lines - to make a guess as to which aspects of the cybernetic modelling were actually tested, and which showed signs of validation and which didn't.

The project (both Cybernsyn and the Chilean experiment with Marxist democracy - we should remember that this was the ONLY Marxist government that achieved office through democratic vote), was doomed from the start because of the perception of US and UK (and France) that success for such a government would hasten the 'domino effect' and the imperial claims of USSR. From the very first election won by Allende, it is clear that US (and others) would do everything in its power to destabilize matters and install a puppet dictatorship as had been done in most other Latin American nations of the time. This `squeeze' indeed presented the opportunity offered Beer, as desperate times require desperate remedies, and Chile very quickly found itself in desperate times. There are interesting indications that aspects of the model did have an impact and, for instance, did allow the government to survive two massively disruptive national strikes backed by `the West'. But the overall momentum was towards chaos, disruption and revolution to replace Allende with a military junta.

The one weakness of the book arises on the subject of the entailed cybernetic ideas. I don't feel it is overly harsh to state that Medina is no cybernetic expert (indeed, hence the strength of the book, as I mention above), and she does not quite manage to clearly explain what VSM sets out to achieve in terms of metrices and new structural forms in the political and economic space. On the other hand, had this been her focus it would have been a different (and perhaps a lesser) book.

Her primary focus is not, after all cybernetics (or a critique thereof), but the uneasy fit of political and technological ideologies. And this she conveys superbly. Surely, a good, down-to-earth read and much food for thought!

Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science)
Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science)
by H.R. Maturana
Edition: Paperback
Price: £78.50

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars paradigm change, 31 May 2010
This small volume is a seminal work. It is made up of four papers, each of which can be read in its own right: Humberto Maturana wrote the Introduction and the essay 'Biology of Cognition' (1970); while together with Francisco Varela he co-authored 'Autopoeisis: the organization of the living' (1973). Stafford Beer contributes an enthusiastic and clear Preface for the joint paper, in which he described its historical importance.

The significance of this book has not lessened since the time of its first publication in 1980. In all this time, there have been no substantive refutations as to the authors' claims, that autopoiesis represents a ground shift in our understanding of the molecular dynamics which realise living. Many readers might be reading this review from the context of other disciplines than biology: such as cognitive science, A.I. artificial life, social theory, philosophy, law, family therapy, in all of which this work has had a major impact over the past forty years. The reader from neurophysiology and biology is likely to have a somewhat different experience, in that the authors describe a radically new approach to living, one which has important statements about the biological bases for the evolutionary emergence of so-called higher human functions such as cognition, mind, and language.

The original investigations described here provided a key component for the development of reflexive approaches whether in the arts, philosophy or psychotherapy.

The long term implications of this new paradigm are still to be decided, but this foundational work is enormously relevant to the contemporary debate concerning sustainability and the emergence (or not) of a truly global community.

This is not an easy book, nor should it be. But it is fascinating and enormously rewarding for the serious reader in whatever the domain. It explains the theoretical grounding for recent studies concerning the origins of humanness in the biology of love, by Gerda Verden Zoller and Maturana.

Both Maturana and Varela in somewhat different ways, were to go on to indicate reasons to seriously question the notion of genetic determinism and any biological bases for inequality in human affairs, demonstrating how and why humanness itself in its more benevolent aspects can be shown to emerges from the biological autonomy of organisms, which when braided in their recurrent coordinations of actions to other autonomous individuals through the mechanisms they describe, realise an ethics of personal responsibility and love.

The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love
The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love
by Humberto R. Maturana
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.95

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new way forward, 27 May 2010
This is an important and exhilarating book by two authors from quite different backgrounds - the one a therapist, the other one of the foremost biologists of the last half a century. Together with Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana formulated the theory of autopoiesis - the self-production and self organising that characterises living. This has been massively influential in a range of disciplines - biology itself, cognitive science, artificial life, the law, social sciences, therapy, management science, philosophy. What the discovery of autopoiesis signalled for Maturana in addition to its fundamental biological implications at the molecular level, was the critical role of reflexivity in our making sense of the world we inhabit and the living we constitute through our recurrent coordinations of actions with other reflexive beings.

The book - which has a wonderfully informative and concise introduction by Pille Bunnell - celebrates the collaboration of Maturana with Gerda Verden Zoller in identifying the critical role of prolongued intimacy in the evolutionary emergence of humanness, and indeed for the arising of language. There is a convincing case that it was the emotional predisposition for living together in long-term relationships of mutuality that led to languaging as an intrinsic feature of human evolution. Alongside this is a strong and compelling claim that it is such mutual affection (expressing the fundamamental emotion, love) that distinguishes us from our immediate evolutionary predecessors (chimps). The latter, in spite of their genetic proximity to human kind may be characterised in their social living as devious and manipulative rather than loving.

Of course, we see in present-day humankind an unfortunate mix of the legacy of our chimp ancestry competing with the uniquely human. What this book does is provide a powerful affirmation of an optimistic insight into our future, with important lessons for our co-existence with each other, different cultures and the environment. It unfolds a narrative of how it is the quality of our recurrent interactions with each other as autonomous but responsible beings that lays down both the ethics of our present and the direction of our future.

The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future
The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future
by Andrew Pickering
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £49.35

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars dealing with exceedingly complex systems, 10 May 2010
Andrew Pickering seeks to rescue cybernetics from the margins and to make it more widely available. Writing from outside the cybernetic camp, he is able to approach the subject matter in an impartial way. Counting myself as a member of the cybernetic community, I believe he has met his aim with great success.

He makes a convincing case for a cybernetic worldview that is quite distinct from the traditional worldview of physics. Pickering argues that the latter rests on the assumption that everything is in principle knowable, and that if we know enough about things in themselves, it increases our control over them. Distinct from this, he describes cybernetics as having emerged with what he calls a `performative' worldview. This is complementary to the approach of physics, with a focus upon human interaction with the phenomenal world, rather than striving to understand it `out there' without reference to the observer of it. In this performative worldview, the basic assumption is the essential unknowability of things. Human knowledge is then seen as a`process of becoming' which arises through the cycle of doing followed by reflection on the effects of our doing. Such a cycle entails a view of human knowledge as a capacity to understand a dynamic and changing reality through our engagement with it over time - hence 'performative'.

There is no rejection of a physics-orientated view (after all, the background of the author is physics). But, during and immediately after the Second World War, in response to the huge challenges posed by increasing rates of change and complexity, certain individuals developed an approach intended to more effectively tackle indeterminate and massively complex dynamic systems. This innovative work in what became known as cybernetics, has far-reaching implications for our present understanding of global issues including climate change, ecology and the financial system.

Pickering describes particular implications of such a worldview for human knowing and society. Knowledge is surely about the way things are and how they behave in response to our interactions with them. This is quite distinct from the more traditional notion that knowledge is gained from taking things apart and analysing them in greater and greater detail. In passing, he relates this to both continental philosophy and the pragmatism of William James without getting bogged down in philosophical issues. He also touches on ways in which this approach combines the spiritual/experiential on the one hand, and the rational on the other. The author uncovers intriguing material on all the key protagonists. The accounts of experimentation with cybernetic machines such as Ashby's `Homeostat' or Pask's `Colloquy of Mobiles', give clear and concrete examples which clearly convey the meaning of this `performative ontology' (Pickering).

There is excellent original material on Ross Ashby, Stafford Beer, Gordon Pask, Grey Walter and others. Pickering also makes a convincing if provocative link between the endeavors of such individuals with the emergence of the so-called counter-culture of 1960's (e.g. R.D. Laing), and the insights of Gregory Bateson.

On a more general note, the book provides wonderful insight into the creative process of such a performative ontology - how this disparate group of highly original thinkers 'ran their intuitions past reality' as it were, through the conception and construction of physical artefacts, artefacts whose behaviours embodied a radically novel insight into life and human experience of it, enabling further new realities to emerge in a range of new disciplines.

In summary - the book is a very rich account of how such early work in cybernetics impacted upon our contemporary intellectual landscape. It clearly and succinctly describes how the work and ideas of seminal British figures in cybernetics impacted on the emergence of major new disciplines. This is a must for anyone interested in the provenance of complex adaptive systems (CAS), artificial intelligence, cognitive science and artificial life as well as for students of cybernetics itself.

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