Saturday 21 September 2013

The Identity Crisis in Cybernetics

At my University over the summer, we hosted the annual conference of the American Society for Cybernetics. It was really good - despite some worries I had beforehand. It seems that Cybernetics provides a space for people to play with and break the ordinary rules of disciplinary discourse. That's refreshing and good fun. But Cybernetics has an identity crisis. This can be boiled down to a question: "Can something which sees itself as transdisciplinary establish itself within the disciplinary context of the academy?"

There are a number of responses one might have to this. But judging from a rather fierce online argument currently underway, I would say the answer is "no". At our conference, there was an implicit anti-academic thread which presented cybernetics as in some way divorced from conventional discourse. This caused many of the problems that blew up before the event started. The difficulty is that the provenance of cybernetics is clearly academic: it came from physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, education, economics, mathematics, computer science and management studies. It would seem reasonable that any advances in the discipline would emerge from those discourses. And indeed they do, but (the problem for the 'subject' of cybernetics) is that as cybernetic ideas are advanced in each area, nobody refers to them as cybernetic ideas! They are now ideas in computer science, mathematics, physics, etc. Which leaves the cyberneticians sulking in a corner, feeling unloved and (frankly) short of funding.

The problem with cyberneticians is that they cannot not be cyberneticians. Cybernetics isn't a school which can process novices into experts. There is a way of thinking about the world which those who call themselves cyberneticians find within themselves and recognise in the patterns of others like them. Reading cybernetic thinkers like Bateson, Beer or Maturana (everyone has their favourites, and will defend them with fanatical passion) is a process of looking into a rather distorted mirror. Of course, that's where its weakness lies too. Cybernetics is, at root, narcissistic. There is an aspect of inwardness, of self-directed fascination, of conceitedness, of hubris and self-righteousness that also goes with the territory. And of course, with this goes the desire to establish the outward signs of a personal way of thinking as a 'subject'. As with all education, this helps people to cite chapter and verse, to show off knowledge and to make everyone else feel inferior. It is to join the priesthood.

But this attempt to establish a priesthood only serves to accentuate the most negative traits of being a cybernetician. Ferocious egos fly around frantically trying to eliminate the competition. It's not a good idea - although its the kind of idea much loved by the person who suffers from 'cybernetics'.

I am like this. I cannot not be a cybernetician, and what I see is diaspora of people like me (who I often don't like!). Perhaps we might be better off treating cybernetics as an ailment rather than a subject! I try to keep my distance from the worst excesses of being like this by becoming repentant for the sins that this dreadful condition afflicts me with! But (says my sneaky cybernetic brain) maybe THEN we'll get somewhere...

oh dear - there's no escape!

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