Serial Experiments Cybernetics Layer 03: Ashby

Only variety can absorb variety.” – Ashby

The nexus between cybernetics and psychiatry runs deep. Indeed, R. D. Laing used a quote from Wiener’s “The Human Use of Human Beings” as an epigraph for part of the last chapter in “The Divided Self“. One of the progenitors of the science, who gets far less credit than he deserves in the popular conception, is the psychiatrist W. Ross Ashby.

William Ross Ashby was an Englishman, born in London in 1903. He went to Cambridge, and worked in various hospitals, before joining the Royal Army Medical Corps. He served in India from 1945 to 1947 – the same time as Stafford Beer was in India with the Gurkhas, but apparently they did not cross paths until later.

After returning to England he became Director of Research at Barnwood House Hospital, where he would stay for twelve years. It was during this time that he wrote several groundbreaking works in cybernetics, including “Design for a Brain” which began as an article in 1948 before becoming a book in 1952, which was then expanded in 1960.

I have skimmed this book and some of Ashby’s correspondence[1]. It is clear that he was using machines to try to understand men, to further his psychiatric work and to provide models for neurological processes.

Contrast this with John Brockman, who was interviewed in the film “Das Netz“, which is about not about cybernetics per se but rather one of Montana’s more famous residents. After reading about a theory in evolutionary biology, which stated that man adapts to the tools he makes, Brockman concluded that “the heart is not like a pump, the heart is a pump!”

As you can see, Brockman has put the cart before the horse, which is where the man-machine nexus goes awry. We shall expand on this point in future.

For now, we would do well to examine Ashby’s most famous contribution to cybernetics and managerial thought: the law of requisite variety, with a brief version quoted above. A system must be able to “absorb” variety, and become robust, by having more variety and degrees of freedom than its internal or external factors.

“Again, if a fencer faces an opponent who has various modes of attack available, the fencer must be provided with at least an equal number of modes of defence if the outcome is to have the single value: attack parried.”

We see this every day in the actions of woke capital: if they can absorb it, they tolerate it. If they cannot absorb it, they work to stamp it out.

Heinz von Foerster, the subject of a forthcoming article, argued that the new paradigm was to increase degrees of freedom. However, I think von Foerster was mistaken.

Ashby himself, in a 1958 paper titled “Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems“, Ashby showed that regulators can reduce degrees of freedom for the regulated in order to increase control by reducing variety.

It’s not Ashby’s fault directly, but I think his mathematics is why the establishment has taken great pains to polarize people into rainbow-flag-waving “liberals” who insist upon committing sodomy in public or Israeli-flag-waving “conservatives” who insist upon committing their sodomy behind closed doors. Everyone else gets deplatformed.

Ashby also wrote an “Introduction to Cybernetics“, which is freely available online. It is a good primer on how to model change, following a cybernetic logic. After Barnwood House, he was Director of the Burden Neurological Institute for a year before leaving to become a professor of Biophysics and Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois. He died in 1972.

One final item of note: much of Ashby’s work and correspondence is available from a digital archive lovingly created by his son, Mick[2]. Mick is an accomplished professor of materials science, but he has worked on how to apply his father’s models of regulation within an ethical framework.

I find it moving, and frankly rather enviable, that Ross Ashby was able to inspire his son to preserve and continue his life’s work. I expect that is something that we all aspire to here.

Next week, we shall encounter a blacksmith.


[1] including a dispute with Alan Turing about the purposes of computer architecture.

[2] with some resources hosted by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

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