Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Cybernetics of History (and the History of Cybernetics)

History as an activity is a feedback system: the past feeds back into the present; the present becomes the past. But it does this through the reflexivity of people who think and write about history: that's another feedback system. The historian is in the present. But it is a present constituted partly by narratives of the past. The existence of the historian is situated in the 'history system' - the academy of historians, who (like all academics) compete for their narrative accounts to become the dominant story. History as a social system is very complex.

It's striking that Luhmann wrote voluminously from a historical perspective about various social systems, from law to economics, from art to love. But he never critiqued the basic paradigm within which he operated: that of writing historical narrative. He preferred to use his powerful system tools to redescribe historical narratives rather than look at the process and pathology of narrative writing itself.

What we end up with is a kind of neo-historicism. And it's not much better than the old-fashioned historicism  which was so vigorously critiqued by Popper, Berlin and Hayek. Historicism lies at the root of idealism. Idealism sits uneasily on the road to fascism.

Cybernetics itself has a history. It's become popular to tell the story of cybernetics within the frame of conventional historical narrative. First there were the Macy conferences, and so on. It's great the first time you hear it; but after that it all gets a bit dull and predictable. With stories that lead into the present in this way, there is always a hope that they end by saying "and then we finally managed to save the world!". Anything less is a let-down. And in the case with cybernetics (as many other intellectual movements), we would have to say "eventually it bifurcated, with factions splitting off in all sorts of directions, and everyone disagreeing about what it was all about." That's a fairly miserable ending. Which is a shame because the tools of cybernetics are very powerful indeed.

But let's turn the tools of cybernetics on this whole process of writing a history - even the history of cybernetics. What emerges?

The first thing that we notice is that this move transforms the focus away from diachronic sequential movements towards synchronic structural conditions: what are the regulating mechanisms of writing a history?  Here I am tempted to say that there's some mechanism of viability within a historian (a viability mechanism like any other human being), and there is a special 'game' that the historian has to play within their 'history' environment to maintain their viability. How might all this work? Well, we can start to put some flesh on this kind of mechanism... [but I won't go into detail about all that here]

A cybernetics of history is about suggesting synchronic conditions and comparing the dynamic of their emergence with what is known of diachronic movements. This is not a million miles away from agent-based modelling. But there is more to it than this.

Any history is, ultimately, about teaching a narrative. Historicist narratives can be dangerous precisely because of their teachability. It is the teaching of a history which changes the world, not the narrative per se.

If we are to escape diachronic historicism by moving to synchronic analysis, how is the teaching different?

To understand (to teach) the synchronic structural conditions of something is to teach the characteristics of a game - say a game of chess. Each player has their qualities, each their position, each their interactions. The moves of each can be understood, their options at any point assessed. But understanding in this way is also allegorical. Each player represents some dynamic aspect which has a relation to other dynamic aspects. The personification of virtues and sins shows their dynamic in much the same way as a cybernetic mechanism might characterise the different levels of regulation. I find it fascinating that allegories played such a major educational role in the medieval church.

But a synchronic understanding invites participation rather than spectatorship. Its goal is insight gained through activity. This is a move away from storytelling to community performance; from books to games.

There are some remarkable advances being made in technological areas which relate to this kind of synchronic exploration. Agent-based modelling on the one hand can allow people to explore hypothetical situations, and explore the qualities of agents. Data analytics and sophisticated regression techniques can reverse-engineer reality to help construct more sophisticated models, which can then be further explored. But technologies for shared experiences in engaging in these activities are even more interesting.

The problem with historicism is that the approach to teaching a historical narrative held the narrative as sacrosanct, to be absorbed (albeit discussed and critiqued) by its readership. What was never appreciated was that the learning of a historical narrative was never the 'absorption' of that narrative; it was the learning by a student of a historian-teacher's personality.

Our challenge is not now to come to know professional historians who tells convincing stories. It is to come to know each other. Of course, we all tell stories. But we need a means of inspecting each others stories and finding an accommodation between us for the sake of effective decision and control in our society. Cybernetics gives us the conceptual tools for producing synchronic characterisations; Technology gives us the means whereby those characterisations may be explored together. 

No comments: