Monday 7 November 2011

An Allegory of Time

If cybernetics is stuck it is possibly because there was some unfinished business at its inception. Norbert Wiener must have had an inkling of this because on the one hand, he knew he was founding a discipline that was concerned with emergent phenomena over time, whilst at the same time he was introducing a method of analysis of time-series which was based on a particular way of looking at time which owed more to the thing he wished to overturn: the Newtonian classical view of time as 'clock time'. His attempt to grapple with the issue is contained in the first chapter of his book "Cybernetics" where he addressed the issue of "Newtonian and Bergsonian" time. Drawing on Bergson's description of time, which concerns evolution and psychology more than the clocks of Newton, he argues that
"the modern automaton exists in the same sort of Bergsonian time as the living organism; and hence there is no reason in Bergson's considerations why the essential mode of functioning of the living organism should not be the same as that of the automaton of this type. Vitalism has won to the extent that even mechanisms correspond to the time-structure of vitalism; but as we have said, this victory is a complete defeat, for from every point of view which has the slightest relation to morality or religion, the new mechanics is fully as mechanistic as the old. Whether we should call the new point of view materialistic is largely a question of words: the ascendency of matter characterizes a phase of nineteenth-century physics far more than the present age, and "materialism" has come to be but little more than a loose synonym for "mechanism". In fact, the whole mechanist-vitalist controversy has been relegates to the limbo of badly posed questions"

For Wiener Newtonian time is 'reversible' because it is an abstraction. Bergsonian time, related (for Wiener) to evolution, is not reversible but continually emergent. (Bergson himself would have had something to say about this, but he was dead by this stage and his work was quickly being eclipsed by the phenomenologists). Wiener argues that Cybernetics is much more closely associated with Bergsonian emergent time rather than the Newtonian time of classical physics. In a way, this can be seen to be an attempt to make a clear distinction between the classical enlightenment thinking and the 'new age' that Wiener wanted to draw attention to, and an age of thinking about complex systems with feedback. The problem that Wiener didn't address was that the methods of analysis of his Bergsonian time were still inescapable Newtonian, and this set up a contradiction which was well buried within a discipline which had enough early and important successes in technology, communications and computing to allow this contradiction to be unexplored.

The fact that within it there lurked a problem became apparent with Von Foerster's identification of a need for a 'Cybernetics of Cybernetics', or 2nd order cybernetics: the cybernetics of observing systems. Supported by a philosophical critique of Wiener's 'engineering cybernetics', the question of observation and the psychological factors involving the feedback between the making of distinctions about the world and the unknowable nature of the world itself, led to a renewed theoretical effort in the 1960s and 70s. Spurred on by biological cybernetic theories and philosophical constructivism, this led to developments in psychological theory (from family therapy to Neuro-linguistic programming), pedagogy and teaching machines (Pask and Von Glasersfeld), groupware and workflow (Winograd and Flores), and many of the theories that have underpinned the development of the web.

But whilst the biological theories and Von Foerster's constructivism critiqued Wiener's focus on cybernetics and engineering (and certainly acted as a necessary corrective to engineering hubris!), it didn't critique the underlying paradox of time which Wiener himself was aware of right at the beginning.

Of the cyberneticians who were aware of the problem, I think Stafford Beer is the most perceptive. He resisted 2nd order cybernetics because, he argued, the issues it drew attention to were always in cybernetics deep down from the beginning. It concerned the nature of models. Beer understood models not as metaphors or analogies, but as ways of understanding the world. In effect, they were ways of telling stories about it. The essence of the model was in the story-telling, not in the universal isomorphism of its parts to the world (1st order cybernetics), or in the personally-constructed isomorphism of 2nd order cybernetics. It is the stories that change the world, and that was what Beer was interested in.

In this way, we can understand models as more like allegories than analogies or metaphors. Seen as allegories, there is no reason why the Newtonian conception of time needs to remain at all. But what we need is an allegorical view of time, rather than an analytic one. But what would this look like?

I think an allegory of time must concern at the very least 'beginnings' and 'endings': birth and death. Between birth and death is the thing that matters. For this we have to think of that "thing that really matters" which only concerns the bit between being born and dying (so 'life' won't do). The best I can think of is 'love'. So birth, love and death are the constituents of an allegory of time. But also it is worth considering that the cycle birth, love and death is recursive: that within the love of any one, is the birth love and death of many others. Moreover, love appears to us as a movement towards something - it has an object, and that there are many myriads of other objects "moving-towards" something within any "motion-towards" of any particular object: it is recursive. Moreover, the "motion-towardsness" of other objects within the horizon of love are themselves part of that horizon. Finally, love has a strong family resemblance (to use Wittgenstein's idea) to beauty, as beauty in turn is related to symmetry. So all of this "motion-towardsness" has a harmony and a symmetry about it.

But this is getting a bit poetic! More concretely, cybernetics has given us powerful ways of telling stories through the logic of mathematics and systems. The problem is that these "systems" have hidden their treatment of time. I think the time is right for time to be made explicit, and that this will reveal a different sort of cybernetics which will allow for a way to be found out of the impasse. The question to ask is how this new mathematics and logic of cybernetics relates to the ways which cyberneticians think at the moment, which they've inherited from Wiener, Shannon, Ashby, Bateson, etc.

There is much more work to do on this, but to begin with a simple mapping is a useful beginnning.
First, DIFFERENCE can be seen to correspond to 'BIRTH'. In this way, difference is still an 'event', but it is not an event on a horizon of time, but on the horizon of another entity which is similarly between birth and death: difference is an event on the horizon of love.

The biology of love itself is something which has already drawn the attention of the cybernetics of living things (notably Maturana). Autopoiesis and Structural coupling are good starting points for thinking about love. But they suffer from the inherent time-laden mechanicism where time is uninspected. I've always thought that regarding love, Luhmann got closer. And indeed, Bowlby's attachment theory provides a rich way of thinking about the inter-relationship between inner and outer worlds. There may well be ways of expressing these without using time, or explicitly formulating time where it isn't glossed over.

Finally, DEATH is generally not inspected, apart from the understanding of the pathological processes of system oscillation. I think death is key to understanding time: there can be no understanding of time without an understanding of death. And what death represents is ABSENCE.

I see these working together. ABSENCE creates a motion towards, and as such is a driver for LOVE (through maintaining attachments and establishing balance between inner and outer worlds), and within that process gives rise to BIRTH. I think this process can be expressed in terms of symmetry, and that fractals may be the best mathematical foundation for doing this.

...that's all a bit intense!
... I guess I won't really know until I really get stuck in to try and do it!

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