In 1948 Norbert Wiener published his book “Cybernetics or Control and Communication in animals and machines,” a treatise in which he postulated the creation of science Cybernetics. On the basis of Gibbs’ statistical mechanics, to which he attributes the revolution over Newtonian physics long before Einstein and quantum mechanics, Wiener compares the performance of self-regulating machines to that of living beings through the fundamental notions of information, feedback, homeostasis and freuquency correlation (or resonance), among others. Many of his results arise from the application of his knowledge of electrical circuits to the animal nervous system, others from the understanding of organic processes as schemes of self-regulation, translatable to automata. A number of technical challenges and the subsequent proposal of a new agenda of scientific problems were made possible through intensive collaboration between Wiener and experts from many different fields (biologists, engineers, computer scientists, anthropologists …), whose landmark were the conferences at the Macy Foundation between 1946 and 1953.
But Wiener, who knows if by reason of scientific modesty or prudence, was not quite precise when he called cybernetics as a new science. Because, rather than a new science, what Wiener, Bateson, Shannon or McCulloch were conceiving at the Macy Foundation meetings was a entire new form of scientific work, more interdisciplinary and concerned with the integration of knowledge, and with a new emphasis on organization and stability processes operating in bodies treated as closed entities, as well as on the relationship and communication between these very bodies, now open to their environment. Simondon, who would extend the cybernetic thought to his remarkable ontogenetic thesis on “Individuation in the light of the notions of form and information,” goes so far as to say that Wiener’s “Cybernetics and Control […] is a new Discourse on the Method written by a mathematician who teaches at an institute of technology”. Cybernetics promises a whole new generation of technical projects, and countless lines of scientific inquiry based on its principles and concepts. Simondon believes that cybernetics, for the first time in science, is capable of fixing the ends and simply proceed onto the execution of any concrete project. “Cybernetics gives to man a new kind of majority, which penetrates in relations of authority and spreads in the social body, discovering, beyond the maturity of reason, the reflection that gives, besides the freedom to act, the power to create organizations by instituting teleology”. Cybernetics can solve what used to seem unsolvable if it can understand the importance of relations, regulations and communication between people departing from its work in communication between the sets of machines (1).
In this post we will try to explain briefly some of the essential concepts of Wiener cybernetic thinking, contrasting its original formulations to their reception by Gilbert Simondon. All this will we done in order to prepare ourselves properly for the next post, which will elaborate on the translation and the use of these concepts in Gregory Bateson’s anthropological and social investigations. The cybernetic concepts to which we refer are given in pairs: feedback-homeostasis, entropy-information, and frequency correlation-resonance. Tentatively, we will also link up with the latter with the “cutoff frequency”, a very fertile concept which we introduced in the previous post. However, because of the need to limit the extension to each publication, we will now make a discussion only about the first two pairs, leaving the definitions of resonance and cutoff frequency for the next post.
Feedback and Homeostasis – Feedback is the way that a closed loop works when it transmits a sequence of the output information to the input, thus modifying the circuit input values according to the output. This principle was used by Wiener in building anti-aircraft artillery to defend the British in World War II. With the use of feedback in electronic circuits, these guns were capable of correcting its position parameters helped by algorythms that would predict likely paths of the German fighters; this algorythms were based on the computation of past experiences and technical details known from the German aircraft models.
Imagine a string of variables A, B, C, D … N, connected in closed loop, in such a way that A makes B to increase or decrease, and similarly with B and C, …, M and N, N and A. In a system with negative feedback, at least one of the elements of the loop will work in a way that X-1 will reduce X, and that element may be known as regulator or inhibitor. This was the type of feedback used by Wiener in the anti-aircraft artillery against German aircraft, and is the same function, for example, which is present in our thermostats, and also accurate to explain how our appetite is regulated by hormonal signals. This type of feedback is able to generate stability or homeostasis in a closed loop system (2).
In contrast to the negative feedback we have the positive feedback. In a positive feedback system, it could be said that all variables in the loop make the next to each to increase, lacking a regulatory or a functional inhibitor; or that the value of some variables -to the effects of the system taken as a whole- exceed a certain threshold which leads the system to an increasing oscillation, thus to systemic instability. An example of this kind of feedback is found in the imbalances taking place in the interaction between the hormones leptin and ghrelin in the obese, that cause the so-called yo-yo effect (3). Another notable example of positive feedback (of a nonlinear second-degree type) is what Korotajev postulates as a model for the relationship between technological development and population growth:
A more simplified scheme would look like this (4):
With regard to the concepts of feedback and homeostasis, Simondon believes that Wiener assumes too quickly the analogy between self-regulating machines and animal organisms, in particular between those machines and the human body. Firstly, Simondon understands that man is a perfectly concrete individual, whileas machines and technical sets always retain something abstract, yet to be concretized and individuated, and therefore they are subject to immediate change at any time.
Secondly, it might seem that, ideally, machines or technical self-regulated sets would function homeostatically just as the human body does. But Simondon understands that, for this analogy to work, man should be conceived as a Leibnizian monad, disconnected from its social and environmental outside, as well as from the pre-individual world from which he can experience; that is, humans should be reduced to the status of a closed-off organism, with no windows. And all of this would impoverish the concept of homeostasis substantially, limiting it to a few specific physiological functions. For Simondon, however, an exact analogy between the self-regulating machines and men should be more comprehensive of the notion of man as an individual-in-the-world, and would also require to conceive human communities that are perfectly regulated within its environment, as well as with its external relations -human, environmental, … – just as technical elements are smoothly adjusted to each other within a self-regulating system-. According to Simondon, social communities are long way behind the techniques with regard to notions of regulation, and that if humans should “make resonance” with the self-regulating machines or, as Deleuze calls “making machine”, “becoming machinic “(5) -, they would regain a cultural feature that was destroyed in the application of modes of social organization which are autocratic and enslaving both to machines and to humans, such as those characteristic of human societies during the nineteenth century, in the development of industrial civilization, and that are still working today.
This reshaping of culture, which proceeds by expansion and not by destruction, could restore to today’s culture the real regulatory power that has been lost. Foundation of meanings, means of expression, justifications and forms, a culture establishes between those who share it a regulatory communication; when leaving the community life, it encourages the gestures of those who secure the functions of command, providing them with forms and schemes (6).
Entropy and Information. Wiener introduces a definition of information which is restricted to the field of information theory developed by his colleague Shannon. This notion contrasts the sending of a message to the presence of white noise on the transmission channel, or an “entropy” -indiscernibility- present in communication. Thus, while entropy is a measure of the disorganization of a system, or of an amount of energy which is not transformable, information is just the opposite, a measure of their organization, “being one merely the negative of the other.”
But Wiener, from the very beginning, authorizes us to think the meaning of the binomial entropy-information in the broader context of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, in which the entropy of an isolated system increases irreversibly with time, while in a local -and not isolated- system, just as it is the case of the earth, it is possible the propagation of information and its correlative contribution to the crystallization of certain physical and biological ordered patterns. Information is, here, possibility of order and organization.
From this vaguely ontogenetic conception of information on which Wiener relies, at least three key considerations can be highlighted for their future treatment:
The cybernetists, system theorists and other scientists will hereinafter make the distinction between entropy and information- or chaos and order- the cornerstone of their ontogenetic considerations.
- Simondon retrieves and extends the value of the concept of information for in hisontogenetic theory, but he focuses the becoming of the being -and even its very essence-, in the more complicated notion of transduction, which must be explained, while Deleuze bases his philosophy of individuation on Simondon’s, supplementing it with new certainties and concepts from biology or geology, which he accomodates to his own understanding of becoming as desire.
- As it can be inferred from Wiener and Shannon’s mathematical proofs, the greater the likelihood of a message is, the greater entropic it will be; and the less likely message, the infinitely particular and original message is, reversely, that which contains the greatest amount of information. This opposition should lead us to an in-depth semiotic study, particularly over the flows of information in the Grand Event, understanding in this the ‘meaning-founding event’ (the Führer’s voice on the radio, the goal or the politic ceremony, the war trumpet, the sacrament), as the most massive and specific exchange of information-affection, the less likely and most outstanding in the higher order of the human-collective . Here, we can not ignore that it is precisely in the grand event where the a priori immediate contraposition between chaos-entropy and order-information seems to fail, since it is in these events where and when collective forces of such a kind are mobilized in such a way that the event, all too often, is destructive of order and propagator of chaos. We will try to ask ourselves how and why this happens; when an event turns from being a great creation to the most fabulous destruction; and, therefore, what status can the human creation claim about such and such limits, such and such features, contexts and settings, of the human sources of the grand event.
In this post we have introduced the reader to a handful of definitions of key concepts in the thought of twentieth century science, such as feedback, homeostasis, information and entropy. We have reflected on some of the points of contact between technological development, the qualities of self-regulating machines and the complex development of human communities. Meanwhile, we are trying to bring about some of the most appropriate reflections by Gilbert Simondon, a referent thinker in the philosophy of techniques, and through all this we are building useful conceptual networks for the study of specific social problems. We believe that, in the following, it will be possible to contrast these problems with further reads and studies, providing an understanding and a constructive treatment of technological and human problems with an holistic approach that bridges up cybernetics, philosophy and social sciences.
(1) Simondon, Gilbert. On the mode of existence of technical objects. 1st edition. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. p. 61.
(2) Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. 2nd edition. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1961.
(4) Korotajev A., Malkov A., D. Kalthourina. Introduction to Social Macrodynamics. Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends. Moscow: USSR, 2006.
(5) Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 5th edition. Valencia: Pre-texts, 2002.
(6) Simondon, Gilbert. On the mode of existence of technical objects. 1st edition. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. p. 35