Serial Experiments Cybernetics Layer 05: von Foerster

Objectivity is the delusion that observations could be made without an observer.” – von Foerster

Heinz von Foerster was born in Vienna in 1911. Two of his grandfathers (Emil and Ludwig) were architects, and Ludwig Wittgenstein was an uncle and frequent visitor. Heinz himself often quoted the “Tractatus” at age 11.

Von Foerster remained in Austria after the Anschluss. His employer hid his ancestry during the war, enabling him to work in weapons research. He later came to America. According to Beer, McCulloch asked him to be the secretary of the Macy conferences because von Foerster did not speak much English at the time, and McCulloch wanted him to learn.

Von Foerster picked up on various Indo-European roots, and obtained insights from them, for example the connection between “manage” and “manacle”, and the connection between “science” and “schism”. Von Foerster, like all other cyberneticians, hoped that cybernetics would disentangle management from manacles, and replace reductionist science with a more holistic systemics.

Their goals are laudable, but my contention is that elites have used their work to further slip manacles onto us, and reduce human beings to the point where our varieties are only superficial, e.g. which of the 9,031 flavors of gender would you like to neuter yourself with? The establishment’s teleology is singular, and we are offered many choices to herd us into their goal.

Von Foerster went on to start the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which lasted from 1958 until 1974, a year before his retirement. Ashby (among many others) had a professorship there. The work at the BCL was inspired by biology, and sought to analyze and implement biological processes in computing. Their impact reaches far beyond their recognition.

The BCL was funded not only by medical and other scientific organizations, but also in part by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. As the Vietnam War began to break down on the American side, this funding shifted to areas with more direct military applications, which did not include the BCL. If I have piqued your interest, I recommend this “Brief History of the BCL”, which can be found here, which has much more information than I shall relate today.

In a 1975 lecture titled “The curious behavior of complex systems: lessons from biology“, he devoted much of the lecture to questions about “the observer”, known as second-order cybernetics. Von Foerster references the psychedelic author Carlos Castaneda to illustrate the difficulty of observing without interpreting, and thereby influencing his own observations. This is a natural expression of a person’s noetic faculties, which exist to help a person discern right from wrong and avoid danger. The psychedelic method uses ego death in ways which diminish the nous, and make a person more vulnerable to ideas that they’re better off without[1].

Von Foerster chose to conclude this lecture with a discussion of morality. He contrasts the “old morality”, thou shalt not, with a “new” paradigm, thou shalt – more specifically, thou shalt “always act to increase choice”. At first glance, it smacks of Crowley’s “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”.

Furthermore it ignores the freedom found in alignment with Who I believe to be God, but many others believe to be nature (i.e. Gnon): As long as we refrain from the horrors of what we “shall not” do in word, deed, and thought, then we are free to do anything else.

We could make a fuss about the times he was living in – not only the “Atom Bomb”, but the “Population Bomb” loomed overhead, and therefore the impetus to create a system that would increase choices and become more robust in order to survive was very much present in public consciousness. Indeed, von Foerster published a “Doomsday equation” in 1960, twelve years before “The Limits to Growth”. This is not to say that he was the first to address overpopulation – the inspiration for the book that inspired Soylent Green was a conversation that took place in India in 1946 – but we should note “overpopulation” was present in the minds of cyberneticians.

However, as noted above, von Foerster wanted to increase choice. He wrote papers promoting “self-organizing” systems, which cyberneticians hoped would be a liberating process – but as has become increasingly plain to see, when a neoliberal talks about self-organization they mean do you want Coke or Pepsi with your last meal, before an establishment-imported refugee disembowels you and takes your wife. Neoliberals offer us only the choices which profit them (cherry, vanilla, beetle pulp, and so on).

When interviewed in the film “Das Netz”, von Foerster offers several good insights, one of which I will discuss in the eighth and final layer of this series. However, he states that one can continue infinitely to compute “in the logic”, because no one has shown him “the reality”. It is true that no one person can perceive, apprehend, or express all of reality, and I note that von Foerster rejected full-on often-called-postmodern subjectivism as “nonsense”.

In my mind, it starts to sound too much like a paper first recommended to me by a critical theorist: Feyerabend’s “Science without Experience”[2]. This paper contained the notion that scientific experiments could be conducted entirely on computers. It was published in 1969, six years after Lorenz published “Nonperiodic Deterministic Flow”, but three years before his landmark “butterfly effect” paper, which brought home the drawbacks of working on computers and models and letting them run ad infinitum. Although a science “without experience” is indeed conceivable, it might not be effective. Mental models require a touchstone in objective reality to assess their truth and their usefulness.

For next week, I would like to undertake a personal recollection of digital art in the 1990s.


[1] For reference, read up on Sir Roger Scruton’s “Endarkenment”, as well as the ultimate trad dad writers, the Church Fathers.

[2] I have yet to read “Against Method”. I first tried to on an airplane, which was a mistake.

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