Monday, 17 February 2020

From Radical Constructivism to Dominic Cummings: What's wrong with Cybernetics?

The pro-Brexit lobby at the heart of the UK government possess a powerful arsenal of conceptual and epistemological tools which have effectively been "weaponised" in ways which would have mortified their inventors. Dominic Cummings knows his systems theory (as a cursory glance at his "Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities": Cummings is not the first to turn cybernetics to bad ends - "philosopher" Nick Land has been writing pretty odious stuff for quite a few years, and it turns out that a big fan of Land is Andrew Sabisky who is coming under pressure for his somewhat insane views on eugenics ( - something for which Cummings also has a penchant. Hayek got there first with the dark side of cybernetics, of course, but this new breed is not as intelligent and more dangerous (Hayek was bad enough!)

It's all deeply troubling. Many of the inventors of these tools were German émigrés, horrified by Nazism, helping with the war effort by developing new weapons, and wishing for a better world. Wiener however knew that what they were doing was dangerous. His "The Human Use of Human Beings" reads like a prophecy today. Wiener's immediate fear was nuclear annihilation, but the likes of Cummings and his crowd are in his sights as the enslavers of humankind.

10 years ago I was at the American Society for Cybernetics conference in Troy, NY, which was attended by Ernst von Glasersfeld - one of the last remaining figures from cybernetics's early period, and an important thinker about education. Glasersfeld,  by then very old, gave a short address which summarised his philosophy; he died a few months later. You can read it here:

It is such a clear exposition of cybernetic concepts that it invites a critical reflection: "is Cummings here?" - is there something in these ideas which opens the door to a fascism which would have mortified von Glasersfeld? I have to say, I think there is.

Von Glasersfeld made the clearest statement that cybernetics is fundamentally about constraint: as a science it is focused on "context". But as a science, it carried with it a clear conception of what is rational and what is metaphysical - and this is the main meat of the talk. Von Glasersfeld talks of the "pious fictions" of realists who insist on an external mind-independent reality. This, he states, cannot be science. Science, by contrast, exists in the rational process of coordinating understanding within constraints. As such, it cannot gain any kind of "objective knowledge".

But this sentence is the most interesting:
Only painters, poets, musicians and other artists like mystics and metaphysicians, may generate metaphors of reality, but to comprehend these metaphors you have to step out of the rational domain.
"Outside the rational domain"? What does that mean exactly? From what kind of context does von Glasersfeld make the judgement as to what is "rational" and what is not? This is framed by the existing institutional context of science and universities. Here we have embodied the problem of "two cultures" - and from there, we are on a slippery slope to Cummings.

Feelings are not rational. Social alienation is not rational. Experience itself is not rational. Yet some "rational" force allows us to make the distinction between what is and isn't rational, rejecting the irrational as a "pious fiction". This is how one can play the game of "Take back control" or "Get Brexit Done", treating feelings as if they are "rational" constructs of a communication system which is malleable to someone else's will.  It turns out that this is the pious fiction we should most fear. The artists, by contrast, speak the truth.

Where is the problem? It lies, I think, in a kind of two-dimensionality in the way that we think of communication. Cummings is quite keen on Shannon - at least insofar as it underpins data analysis.  But Shannon, lucky genius that he was, had a two-dimensional information transmission problem in front of him: a sends message to b over a noisy medium; b interprets and responds. But even in Shannon this isn't quite as two-dimensional as it seems: a and b are "transducers" with a "memory" (see Shannon and Weaver, "Mathematical theory of communication" (1951)). They were very pale representations of people. This meant that there was a limit to what could be communicated - and what could be constructed.

In Von Glasersfeld's world, the form of conversation occurred through the interaction of constraint produced through the communication of agents. Conversation and meaning emerged through a haze of "Brownian motion". It was almost arbitrary in its emergence, only recognised to be "meaningful" by us "observers". There are many problems with this view, the deepest of which is the assumption that within complex systems, the emergence of form and meaning is the result of an "arbitrary" process.

Years of attempting to simulate music from arbitrary processes have only produced bad music. It seems that the processes at work within the artist are no more arbitrary than the movements of electrons through a diffraction grating: there is an underlying pattern. But it's not the bands of the diffraction pattern that are interesting. It is the space between them: what is there? Nothing.

Appreciating this leads to a profound question about "constructivism" and indeed "radical constructivism": ok - so you can construct "stuff" in the world... but how might you construct "nothing"?

Without "nothing" there would be no pattern. Cummings, Land and co. know the deep magic. But the deeper magic is how to make nothing (channelling Narnia!)

To cut the story a bit shorter, "nothing" is mathematically realizable. William Rowan Hamilton's discovery of quaternions in 1843 was really the beginning of adventure into nothing which we have not absorbed yet. The quaternions are a 3-dimensional complex number which is anti-commutative. Hamilton's genius was to see that in order to represent the world in 3 dimensions, anti-commutativity was essential. But more importantly, the quaternion arithmetic allowed for expressions where a = 0. So 3-dimensionality and nothingness are fundamentally connected. But we knew this: ever heard of a "vanishing point"?

Von Glasersfeld had no way of constructing nothing. I asked him, a couple of years before when he gave a talk about learning in Vienna, that it was all very well to explain learning in the way that he was. But where did the drive to learn come from? He didn't really have an answer. Maybe he was tired. But I'm suspicious that he didn't want to think about it.

So Cummings and Land are exploiting a body of theory which is profoundly incomplete and two-dimensional. It's dangerous because it is two-dimensional and the real world isn't. The world of feelings, art, poetry and music are not some irrational boundary of a rational systems world. They are the third dimension in a world of natural information which cybernetics has not yet found a way to describe. It may become very important that we highlight these scientific shortcomings. 

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