on 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.
on 5 May 2010
Nothing daunting about this book, despite the rather intimidating title.I was afraid it would be technical but it was a pleasure to read. The scale of Pickerings research is astonishing. He seems to have entered the lives of the cyberneticians, explaining their thinking through their actions and interactions. What a labour! The sense of creative endeavor comes through clearly - the energy of those early masters and the fun they shared is apparent - Im recommending to all my mates who are into cybernetics.