Cybernetics, planning and situated action

I have been reading this very interesting post on the relation between anarchism and cybernetics. I got sent the article through the Radical AI network. It took me back to my undergraduate years when I was very interested in cybernetics and read a lot about it.

The central concept in cybernetics is “Control – the planning that gives the basic activities a common goal”. I have always had problems with the term control and especially when it is explained using the words ‘planning’ and ‘goal’. Control, planning and goal were of course the key terms that lead cybernetics into classical cognitive science, where a ‘mind’ would be overviewing the body in action in the environment, and all of the action taking place would be ‘planned’ by the mind in advance, in order to lead the body to ‘the goal’, and this together would constitute the mind as having control. Which supposedly was what the mind and cognition were all about.

While cybernetics has many interesting things to say, they never really escaped this frame of the mind and therefore it is no surprise that some of the more fun and exciting things discussed at the first Macy Conference‘s were soon to be replaced by a dry, functional, rational engineering style, effectivity and optimization based idea of the brain as a central planner that has to represent the world accurately in order to maximize profit – oops I mean to ‘attain its goals’.

In the article I was reading now it in fact states clearly that the old cyberneticists had much more interesting and less restricted ideas about ‘control:

“the control at work here is not hierarchical command. It is, in the words of cybernetician Allenna Leonard, “the control of a skier going down a hill.”15 It has more to do with finding collective balance than it does compliance with a higher authority, and could be thought of as the kind of control a group of musicians exert when they improvise.”

But if you want to emphasize that, then why still use the word ‘planning’?

What is wrong with ‘planning’

The word planning seems wholly incompatible with ““the control of a skier going down a hill….finding collective balance … a group of musicians .. when they improvise.” To understand my issues with the term ‘planning’, first consider this. What cybernetics does not take into account (but second order cybernetics is more aware of) is that the very act of the cyberneticist who is becoming aware of the structural principles of cybernetics, immediately makes the holder of that awareness become a potential actor in the control, whereas before, whatever ‘control’ happened, it did so without that awareness – unreflectively. That is: if I become aware of some of the control mechanisms in systems that I am part of I can start to try and *deliberately* exert control over those same systems by making interventions into that system. However, note immediately that while classic models always assume that control becomes *better* (more succesful, more optimal, more goal-directed) with more knowledge and more conscious awareness of ‘what is going on’ – in real systems, this is not at all guaranteed. Try to walk the stairs while being deeply conscious and aware of what your feet are doing: you stumble. So the question is what such awareness is actually going to do in terms of the action, that is already happening regardless of what you think of it.

This moment, where I step back to reflect on what is going on and then consciously decide to intervene into the unfolding events, in the hopes of steering those events into a desired direction, is the moment where the term planning usually comes in. However the term planning is an older word that comes from traditional rational models in which the analysis comes first and the action comes later: in these traditional theories of planning, all action comes from planning: action that does not come from planning is not intelligent or just random and therefore not part of cognition. In this case however we are ‘building the plane while flying it’ – we are already in action and our ‘planning’ that is then ‘executed’ is not the stepwise process that the term is associated with. It is not ‘first think then act’ – it is rather – what can thinking add to the action, if anything at all? How does a skier ‘plan’ a descent? How does a group of musicians ‘plan’ an improvisation? First off, while in the action, they do not plan at all, there is no time. They may have short-lived moments of reflection (reflection-in-action of Donald Schön) where they try to push back the system onto a course that they have a vague idea about as being better than what is currently going on, but there is simply no time to so much else. (A tangential topic relevant here is that of skill: for a beginner, this phenomenon is very different than for an expert, indeed it may be that the expert does have time to think while in action – even so, the action itself is the starting point and any ‘planning’ necessarily has to evolve quickly and respond and adapt in realtime to the events as they are already underway. For example, one cannot make a plan and then simply ‘will’ the interaction with the world to adjust to the plan – plans are very loose suggestions that may ‘fit in’ with the situation – and then be executed – but also just as easily should be dropped in order to attend to what the situation literally needs at that moment. So while skiing one may entertain the idea of wanting to make a nice jump over a ramp ‘if the opportunity presents itself’ but that plan may be immediately dropped in favour of: “avoid that person in front of me – NOW”, and then completely forgotten because other ideas and opportunities arise afterwards and the whole ‘jump ramp’ idea never returns.). In general, every decision is a ‘split second’, gut feeling decision.

However, in our practices, there are also moments when things are less time critical and we can ‘stop to think about what to do and how to do it’, such as when we stand at the top of the hill before the descend, or before we start playing, tuning the instruments, and chatting with our fellow musicians. Lucy Suchman describes exactly this phenomenon (using canoeing instead of skiing). She holds that we do in fact make plans at such quiet moments before we dive into the action again (I emphasise the ‘again’ here: there was always already improvised action before the reflective moment occurred, so the reflection never comes out of nowhere and is never an ultimate zero starting point, it is itself always already a response or effect of previous embodied activity). However the plans that Suchman describe do not prescribe the action that follows, they rather reorient our attention in such way that we may be more likely attend to certain features of the situation, once we are back in the middle of the action, than others. And this ‘lens’ or ‘frame’ through which we approach the action, while in action, may indeed have a controlling effect (any musician or sports person knows that it does have an effect to really consciously focus on something before the action starts, for example by imprinting a certain mantra: “watch the knees, keep weight on the lower leg, watch the knees, keep weight on the lower leg, listen to the horns, prepare for the break, listen to the horns, prepare for the break), but this kind of ‘planned attention bias’ is nothing like the ‘planning’ of an organisation or system in the traditional sense.

Embodiment and materiality

Another thing I miss in cybernetics has to do with the fact that it is essentially a disembodied functionalist theory: anything is a ‘similar’ cybernetic system and therefore the theory has little to say about how actual concrete things relate to one another. That is, it has no tools to describe the way concrete situations and the materiality of affairs has influence on its unfoldings.

Cybernetics effortlessly scales between levels of reality (say: cells, brains, living bodies, groups of people, cities, countries, planets), as if their concrete reality as being one thing and not another thing does not matter — they only differ in terms of scale, not in terms of the underlying principles at work that make them exist in the way they do. There is no material grounding in the cybernetic explanation of why things happen the way they do. So, a brain, a small group of humans, a local community, a state, or a planet, or even a solar system can all be analysed using the same basic principles – thereby suggesting that ‘they all basically work the same way’. Of course it is possible to describe some common principles that would show how all of them contain some form of coordination and control in response to an ‘environment’ – which is what cybernetics does indeed. But if that is the only thing we will say about it it would completely neglect the fact that these systems are also real and in their material reality they relate to one another. People live on planets, and not the other way around. Large societies consist of smaller groups of people and not the other way around. This is by the way to advocate reductionism – smaller groups of people may be influenced by the larger collective that they are part of and so we may very well need a circular causality to describe how parts and wholes interact (and perhaps do away with the words part and whole).

The point to make is rather that each of these phenomena in reality have particular concrete structures and characters that are local, situated and material in their being. While at some level of description we might compare ‘the city’ to ‘the brain’ – in many other very important senses these two systems are completely different and cannot be equated. And so explaining how cities work, even if we wish to take cybernetics as a starting point, would need theory that is specific to cities and has nothing whatsoever to do with brains, simply because these are very different things. Any theory that takes cities seriously for what they are would have to have a story that *cannot* be used also for brains. Furthermore, ultimately there would need to be a story that relates brains to people and people to small social groups and groups to communities and communities and other kinds of smaller structures relate to entire cities – and it needs to explain how this works in particular, so for example how neighbourhoods, community work, schools, the bigger companies in the area, the city government bureaucracy, the city health care, its public transport system, parks, crime, police, food supply and so on, relates concretely to ‘the city’ – and not just in general by saying: systems can collectively form larger systems.

Gezocht: co-design deelnemers voor inspirerend studentenproject. Jij staat centraal!

Design your life!
Op 1 februari begint een nieuw studentenproject, dat duurt tot april (rond Pasen). Ik zoek deelnemers met een beperking/ speciale behoefte (fysiek, zintuiglijk, of cognitief) die met een studententeam willen meedoen als ‘co-design deelnemer’. Wat wordt er van je verwacht? Studenten Productontwerpen universiteit Twente ontwerpen met jou een product dat jou kan helpen in het dagelijks leven. Jij bepaalt het onderwerp. Alles gaat dit jaar digitaal, in verband met Corona. Je hebt minimaal 3x keer met de studenten een digitaal gesprek, bv via skype, Zoom, Teams (of andere communicatiemiddelen die jij prettig vindt), en wellicht tussendoor via Whatsapp. De studenten kunnen je bijvoorbeeld ook vragen om een filmpje te maken van je eigen leven. Dit allemaal in goed overleg met jou. De studenten gaan onderzoeken: wie ben jij, waar loop je tegenaan en wat zou jou kunnen helpen? Bijvoorbeeld iets dat helpt met bepaalde taken, of juist met ontspannen en relaxen, of iets dat helpt met communicatie. Het kan van alles zijn: waar jij behoefte aan hebt. De studenten maken aan het einde een ‘prototype’. Wees je bewust, een prototype werkt meestal nog niet echt, daar is de tijd te kort voor. maar het proces zelf is vaak al erg leuk en leerzaam. Je kunt ook deelnemen samen met hulp van jouw begeleider, als je die hebt. Kijk hier voor voorbeelden van afgelopen jaar: Meer info? Stuur een email naar Alvast enorm bedankt!

Hang in there! We wish you all a healthy 2021

This has been the weirdest year ever. And unfortunately, 2021 does not seem to be the natural end of it. We probably have quite a way to go before we can beat this virus. Hopefully good things will come out of it as well. We need to – and perhaps we may now finally start to – seriously rethink our place on Spaceship Earth – and we need to find (or rediscover) how to live with our environment in a way that is based on a balanced mutual exchange, where we give as much as we take, such that the planet as a whole remains healthy and in equilibrium. For too long we have been extracting but not returning, taking but not giving. Our entire global economy is built on the idea that people can create value by extracting resources from the planet and then keeping the change. This has to stop, because a pandemic like this if obviously not just a pandemic – it is a symbol of a fundamentally broken system. I also hope we will soon be able to be intimate and close to one another and to touch one another again – in appropriate ways, of course – because human being is an embodied being, and we have bee playing this cognitivist, neo-Cartesian game, sitting behind our screens, enacting a form of contact where in reality there is none, for too long. Let’s make this planet healthy again 🙂

Succesful #vaccination starts in the mind

Governments that are thinking about how to vaccinate the population against #Covid19 should realise that vaccination is not just the physical substance of the vaccine entering the physical body: vaccination starts in our minds. If no more than 60% of the Dutch population is willing to take the vaccine, the problem of vaccination is no longer a purely medical challenge. Our society is at the present moment not just affected by a biological virus, but equally so by a virus of the mind: the conspiracy theory. People have always been susceptible to conspiracies, but internet has changed the game completely. It all the more shows us that our basic human intuitions viz a viz the world we encounter – that is, how we give meaning to the things we notice in our environment, do very much still contain the same forms of (collective) psychosis that we would associate with Medieval or even pre-historic times. We have never been modern. The task, then, of governments is not just to get rid of any virus particles hiding in our lungs – we need to think about ways to make us immune against conspiracies, and we need to start thinking about this fast, because that, I fear, is the real pandemic that could mean the end of us all.

Who knows good digital solutions for ‘walking and chatting together’?

As we are forced to transform our life into a digital version of itself, I of course like many of you have experienced the shallowness of existing dominant communication platforms. One can do a bit of chatting over twitter, or whatsapp, or linkedin. One can do full-blown meetings using Zoom or MS Teams, or any equivalent video conferencing app. But if we think about it, there are so many different kinds of communicating in person that are not captured well by the affordances and features of these tools.

For example: I would like to go out on a walk in the park, just mindlessly wandering about, and then talk with another person. But that person is miles away. Of course I can just do a phone call, in fact, that works pretty well. But if I want to chat not with one, but with two persons? Or three? Walk outside, and sometimes have a break, and chat? Sometimes walk with Peter, and chat with him, and then a while later walk next to Charlotte, and catch up with her?

I would be interested to know: what kinds of alternative communication tools have you tried out, or heard of, so far, that go beyond the standard call, Zoom call, or message chat? What is the gem we should know about that we don’t know about yet?

I found some solutions here, but the list seems not too long yet. An opportunity for designers!