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 NOT 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.