Serial Experiments Cybernetics Layer 02: Beer

I prefer to call it the science of effective organization.” – Stafford Beer

I would like to note about many of the early cyberneticians that these were men who still had functioning minds, hearts, and endocrine systems. Stafford Beer is a good example.

He began attending University College London at the age of 16, before UCL was moved in part to University College Wales during the Blitz. The only male student at the time, he studied philosophy under several famous professors, physics under Ingold, and psychology under Cyril Burt. He was a philosophy student so he was conscripted into the Army, where he learned how to operate artillery.

Instead of being sent to Germany, however, he was sent to India. He became a company commander in the 9th Gurkha Rifles, and worked in military intelligence. He worked on logical models of what problems to expect when the British Raj ended in 1947, and this work would help shape his later work in operational research. He then went on to perform psychological work for the Army, both in screening personnel and in exploring the link between illiteracy and psychopathology.

Beer promoted the idea of having “skin in the game”. Being a practitioner enables one to be heard, and put one’s ideas into practice, much more effectively than sitting in a university or a consulting firm. Indeed, I posit that university indoctrination is only effective on persons in whom the groundwork was laid by schools and the media.

After leaving the Army, he found himself the head of operational research in a steelworks by the age of 22. After two years there, he found a way to make the works thirty percent more efficient and was made production controller in order to implement it.

To his credit, Stafford Beer became a part of the left back when the most popular gateway to leftism was saying “hey, we aren’t getting paid enough to feed our families” instead of “hey, you need to give your kid an HPV vaccine and encourage him to wear lipstick to school”. He saw the men who helped him make the works thirty percent more efficient make but a pittance more for their efforts.

After many interludes abroad, including Sweden, Allende’s Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada, he found himself a business professor. Many of his lectures are available online. You can see and hear him, grand, sadhu-like beard and all.

Frankly, I found it all a bit disappointing, because I had gone to business school. This exciting science of cybernetics was laid bare as another iteration of Taylorism, a subject discussed rather wonderfully by the Myth crew in their 123rd episode.

It did not seem like mere Taylorism to him however. Again, he wanted to have skin in the game. After the fall of Allende, Beer was quoted: “If managers don’t start using what is after all their own science pretty damn quick, then the world is not going to survive.” Note that this was in 1973, a year after The Limits to Growth was published.

Some joy remains in Beer’s lectures, however, and that is the joy he found in the people he worked with. Unlike a typical business professor, who says “I built a firm to X million dollars of revenue,” Beer spoke about building a firm to how many people he hired.

A lot of the amusing parts I shall present in this series will come from anecdotes in Beer’s lectures. For example, I did not know last week that Wiener wrote his seminal 1948 book on cybernetics when he needed money to pay his taxes. Beer wrote many books on his life and work as well, some of them when he lived in a cottage in Wales from 1975 for about a decade. He had given up all possessions “for spiritual and political reasons”, used homemade furniture and made his own food, and gave himself only the old age pension to live off of.

It was right around this time that Stafford Beer started experimenting in memetics. He felt that people might not be reading his books, and if they were, they might not be getting the point. He came up with “The Chronicles of Wizard Prang”, which included not only cybernetics, but Eastern religion and other things dear to him. He had trouble getting it published, and I have had trouble finding it. The website where it used to be is a domain-squatting advertisement in Chinese, I think for gambling.

Another story, relevant to our sphere: for his work in Sweden, Beer was awarded a medal in 1958. The Swede handing him the medal asked him who is depicted on it. Beer replied that it was Prometheus, and the medal must be a tribute to new thinking. Smiling, the Swede replied, “Don’t believe it! He had his liver pecked out by an eagle.”

The new thinking that Beer and other cyberneticians were most passionate about was interdisciplinary, holistic thinking – taking people skilled in seemingly disparate fields and bringing them together to find new insights. The literary agent and former investment banker we met last week, John Brockman, does this with both scientists and artists.

What we see is a great swirling together of people and ideas, a great diffusion and dissolution. Although there is much that can be learned, we must also examine the costs.

The political spectrum I worry about a lot more than left or right is centralization versus decentralization. The war is not on white men per se, but on anyone of any race, sex, or creed who refuses to dissolve their minds into static and throw their bodies into vast, genderfluid puddles of serotonin and sweat.

Part of the method by which this takes place is not asking us to get in the robot, but by tricking us into thinking that we’re robots already. In the next episode we shall meet an eminent psychiatrist, examine where the man-machine nexus in cybernetics began, and ask where it may lead us.

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