Serial Experiments Cybernetics Layer 07: Bogdanoff

“Bonjour, Mr. McDonald. It is time. Activate technological unemployment.”

This article is not about the French brothers who rule the cryptocurrency markets from the shadows, but rather about a proto-cybernetician who took on their surname to usurp a fraction of their power.

Born Alexander Malinovsky, he took on a pseudonym when he got involved in Bolshevik agitation. With Lenin and Stalin, he helped organize the 1907 Tiflis (Tbilisi) bank robbery, which was one of several robberies used to fund Party activities. There is a famous picture of him playing chess with Lenin as Maxim Gorky looks on, well before Bogdanoff would challenge Lenin for leadership of the Bolshevik faction.

The interest Bogdanoff has for our exploration of cybernetics is his development of “tektology”, which is regarded as a precursor to systems science. Indeed, I’ve seen it suggested by George Gorelik, a translator of Bogdanoff’s work into English, that German editions of Bogdanoff’s work (published 1926) could have reached and influenced Wiener.

The difference in terms used by Wiener and Bogdanoff is interesting: as noted before, “cybernetics” is from the Greek word for steersman, which is also the root for “governor”. “Tektology”, on the other hand, derives from the Greek word for builder. What Bogdanoff sought to built was a holistic science, without walls between different disciplines – a project carried forward by cyberneticians from the outset. Bogdanoff viewed specialization and compartmentalization as a “tool invented by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat”.

Gorelik also draws another parallel between Bogdanoff and the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, for their shared “concepts of wholeness, transformation and self-regulation”. Please note that Piaget was a considerable influence on the educational theories of Papert. However, Gorelik may only be drawing this parallel due to Piaget’s popularity and thereby emphasize Bogdanoff’s importance. I have not seen him suggest that Piaget read Bogdanoff.

A lot of Bogdanoff’s work on systems analysis is still available online. However, he was also an author of propagandistic fiction. I shall not take the time to read his most famous work, the 1908 novel “Red Star“, about how people who moved to Mars were able to reach a much higher standard of living through Communism, and how much freer and happier it made them. Suffice it to say that transparent Red propaganda predates Hollywood.

Bogdanoff is not only recognized as a pioneer in systems theory, and a “pioneer” of Bolshevism, but also a pioneer in blood transfusions. He began experiments in 1924, in the hopes of finding some fountain of youth in the veins of his students – somewhat more humanely than Elizabeth Báthory, but the principle was similar. By his contemporaries’ accounts, the procedures worked to make him “7, no, 10 years younger”. His eyesight was partially restored, and his balding was halted. Lenin’s own sister Maria volunteered for transfusion experiments.

Bogdanoff died in 1928. What got him was a reaction to a blood transfusion; blood types were not yet well understood, and he may have gotten tuberculosis and malaria from the student whose blood he used. I view Bogdanoff’s demise from a technology that he expected would provide him vitality, even immortality, as a useful metaphor for our oligarchs today. They will encase themselves in ice, hurl themselves into space, upload their consciousness onto a computer – they will try anything, except to accept nature.

It all makes me feel bad for “Uncle Ted”. With a few more decades of horror and hindsight, it has become apparent that one doesn’t have to mail bombs to these people. They do so much more damage to themselves. Please join me for the next layer of this series; it will be the last.

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