Cybernetics: Floatation, Navigation …
@ K. 1998 06 10

Cybernetics: The Science of

More important (I say):

Cybernetics is the science of staying afloat.


At any given time there will be those in the world who think that beauty is blond; others brunette, others black. That’s good: a sustainable population needs genetic diversity.

There are those who think God has a beard and speaks Hebrew; others Arabic (or some other language). That was OK so long as we couldn’t get at each others’ throats too easily. The last several hundred years, we’ve had to calm down a bit.

Once Galileo was arrested because he found satellites circling Jupiter. The Church had said that everything circles the Earth, that the Earth was the only
center. They had their authority from the God with the beard, so Galileo and his empirical observation had to be wrong.
I’ve never heard of the Church arresting anyone who thought our own moon was made of green cheese.

The American Revolution went yards toward promoting tolerance. Not that we tolerated the Cheyenne. Or the Jews. Or Catholics. But we did tolerate the Baptists. That was a step.

Now we have five billion people, all standing in each other’s face. Covering a tennis match for the tube, England’s Virginia Wade observed, “Chris throws up so beautifully.” Everet wasn’t competing publicly at puking; she was tossing the tennis ball above her head for the serve. That chasm between English-English and American-English just got a chuckle. But now we can fly to Addis or Sri Lanka or Azerbaijani without knowing dick about local manners. note (If they need our money, they won’t stone us. We don’t even know how far we tempt them.)

England & US
divided by a common language

If we care about any real possibility of having a future, I think it’s long past time to upgrade our maps of reality. My first novel opened with a young girl suffering an experience all too common to the gifted: she found herself agreeing with her teachers that she was stupid. They all understood how the sun rose; she thought the earth turned. They talked about seven seas; her satellite views showed her continuous ocean. They talked about Europe and Asia as separate continents; how? Why where North and South America thought of as separate? Because we dug a canal? The step to asking how a history of slavery and genocide equals a history of lawful liberty is a bit steeper: but let’s stay simple. Why was Greenland thought of as connected?

Because our thoughts are based largely on our language and our language is based largely on reality maps outdated long ago. The Greeks sailed to Asia; scholars have long revered the Greeks, attributing everything to them except sliced bread; therefore we still say it’s a separate continent. The schools, like parents, like churches, like governments, teach things known to be wrong for centuries. If not millennia. They show you an updated map, but teach it with outdated words (and worse: outdated concepts). You’ll do best (in the short-run) if you don’t notice, if you don’t mind.

How about being right for a change?

Sorry. That’s not an option. note The law still talks about “proving” things. Scientists, at least the best of them, gave up that dream long ago. Ilya Prigogine demonstrates that probability is a higher, potentially more accurate, state of “truth” than “certainty.” The churches are all certain. Political parties are typically certain. They’re certainly wrong. (Forgive me: English is a “natural” language: you can’t tell the truth in a natural language. And perhaps not in any artificial language either.)

Well what can we do? We can approach the truth. Ever and ever closer.


People hear the word cybernetics and think of computers. They’re not coextensive, not synonyms. Computers developed rapidly because of cybernetics and information theory as developed in the early ‘Forties.

I’ll start with my teacher, Gregory Bateson’s example. You set the thermostat at sixty-eight degrees. You monitor the room with a sensitive thermometer. The furnace goes on. The temperature rises to sixty-nine or seventy! The furnace goes off. The temperature falls to sixty-seven or sixty-six. The furnace goes on.

Why can’t it get it right? The furnace salesman told you it would hold the temperature at your setting: what Bateson calls, “a small epistemological lie.” The truth is, the thermostat is designed to hover around your setting. That’s the best it can do. And that it does.

The example I had my Dr. Pickering use in my first novel, comes from the golf I learned to love after reading Bateson. I’ll update it here. You’re playing golf with Tiger Woods. You’re on your course. You arrive at a par four, 375 yards, dogleg left. He has the honor. With his driver he can whack the ball past the green. He takes his 2 iron and draws the ball 312 yards in line with the narrow little entrance to the green between the two big sand traps. You take your driver and slice your ball 180 yards into the scrub between your fairway and the one adjoining to your right. His was nearly as good as he could do. But perhaps so was yours. He might chip or pitch in for an eagle. You’ll do well to get onto the fairway even only 60 or 75 yards closer to the hole.

Tossing out bad theories
and zeroing in on the truth …

David Brin

It is only by exploring the extremes
that we learn to locate the center.

Yehudi Menuhin

And that’s the point. Even in the scrub, you’ve gotten closer to the hole. Not 180 yards closer, because your ball curved the wrong way. But closer nevertheless. On you next shot you’ll be closer still (unless you ricochet the ball off the tree in front of you). Even if you never break 100, you’ll get better at it. But you have to persist.

Being right would be like never shooting anything but a hole-in-one. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution wasn’t right. But it was like the “drive” I imagine for Tiger Woods (one of many who’ve actually hit plenty just like it.) Darwin handed the pitching iron to his successors. OK, we botched a couple of chips. I’m not sure we’ve even putted in yet. But we’ve been around the hole.

A man walking is never in balance
but always correcting for imbalance.

Gregory Bateson

Once we get the ball into the hole, it’s still not a perfect fit. Science, like golf, would be impossible if that were the requirement.

Your church tells you it has the Truth. Here it is. (How come that Truth can’t be verified?) The judge says the jury will find the truth. The foreman should announce it within a few hours. (How would you verify that truth? You don’t: you stick him in the chair.) Three months, or six years, or twelve decades after a discovery, your news anchor announces that scientists have found some cure, some sure-thing, some certainly or other. But did the scientists say that? Not likely. Check the actual literature.

The drowned don’t make landfall.

I’ve already started to say a few things about the nature of hypotheses, theories, and evidence.

2005 02 01 Richard Wall responded:

Cybernetics describes what it takes for “requisite variety” to be generated. That is to say, you have a state or condition of things tending to disequilibrium (for example: too hot, too cold, too turbulent, too still). Cybernetics offers to measure what ‘variety ‘ is requisite (required) for balancing or counteracting the existing ‘variety ‘ – what it will take, and how fast and what obstacles that process will encounter, in order for the equilibrium to be restored. The thermostat is going through an inanimate process of generating the requisite variety to get the temperature back up or down again. As an inanimate (mindless, conscience-less) object, it has no idea of whether it is ‘doing its best. ‘

That equilibrium is similar to your notion of “staying afloat” – if you do not generate the requisite force to stay afloat, you will drown.

By the same token invasions and occupations will eventually generate what are **euphemistically** called “insurgencies”. So we see and hear government-speak of “insurgents” and “terrorists” all the time. This blinds the sheeple to any understanding or awareness of process. The insurgency is nothing less, nothing more than a rising up of the indigenous people against the invader. But it may take a while for that rising up to happen. You have the shock of invasion first, the ‘magnified wave ‘ if you like. The initial reaction is to be stunned. Only when the initial shock is lifted (a certain frequency is reached, perhaps) can the process of generation/regeneration begin.

Mr. Wall has also responded to pk’s nonconfinement by normal boundaries. Notice his step from cybernetics to insurgency! No passports should be required for patterns that connect.

I’m glad I added that last comment, not just because it quotes Bateson, but because to it Richard responded:

… in a typical example of Illichian corruption of what is good and free, human beings move from the legitimate endeavor of detecting, understanding and appreciating patterns to controlling them by means of things like passports and gates (which in turn give employment to gatekeepers), and even of provoking new patterns by means of coercion and force …

1999 07 21 I just scribbled something on cybernetics in my biography section. Rather than add a link, I’ll just repeat here:

It’s all so cybernetic. Long before the word was coined in English, sailors used cybernetics in navigating: port tack past your target; starboard tack past your target: landfall at your target. Columbus didn’t have a compass point much more specific than “west” when he embarked. We’ve never finished correcting his mislabelings. He connected, for good and ill, two worlds just the same. No one else.

One more relevant “digression” on cybernetics: what’s hardest of all to understand is that before you can have a port to tack toward, you first and foremost have to use cybernetics to learn to stay afloat. Where your nostrils can find air.

2003 04 23 Everything I’ve been touting and iterating about cybernetics since 1979 comes from Gregory Bateson. I’m now reading The Mechanization of the Mind On the Origins of Cognitive Science by Jean-Pierre Dupuy which gives a history of the term much closer to the (loathed) popular understanding. I don’t doubt that I’ll have to return to this file and revise some of what I’ve said above before developing the topic further. Nevertheless, I insist (in my admitted ignorance (to other ignorances, whether admitted or not)) that the above is a good view: the valuable view: whether its historically representative or not. Screw von Neumann; hail Bateson.

from 1998 06 10


Local Manners: cultural relativism
Reading Piers Anthony’s Isle of Woman, I come upon a fine example from the British India of the 1860’s. A young Englishman, raised in India, befriends a newcomer. He informs his friend that cultural astonishment and disgust is mutual on the part of the natives:

“… They view some of our customs with similar disdain.”
“Oh? What —”
“We don’t regard the cow as sacred, or the pig as unclean.”
“Oh, yes. That triggered the Sepoy Mutiny eight years ago. Because the grease of the cartridges for the Enfield rifle contained tallow which was said to come from a number of animals, including pigs and cows, and they had to bite into it to open the end and release the powder. No one at the time clarified that the source was actually mutton fat. That was certainly a mistake.”
“It was more than a mistake,” Wood said. “Suppose you had to bite into a cartridge heavily smeared with polluted sewage and excrement? So that you feared dysentery as well as being absolutely disgusted? To a Muslin pig’s fat is similarly disgusting, and to a Hindu the touch of cow’s fat on the lips would be worse. In fact it would be an abomination for which we have no parallel, because of the sacredness of the animal. Imagine eating fat rendered from your own deceased father, perhaps. I would damn a person spiritually. Our disregard for such sensitivities brought much mischief.”

Not an Option: semantic laziness vs. deliberate falsehood
The piece on cybernetics concentrates on the impossibility of man ever achieving pure truth as the map can never be the same thing as the territory. It isn’t that the truth is imperfect; it’s just that our symbol systems are just that: symbol systems.
Institutions, like parents, are semantically lazy, especially if they think things are going well. They have to be goaded to do better. Teaching deliberate falsehoods is another matter which I deal with separately at pk domains.
Lazy falsehoods also get their own treatment. All of it is still just getting started. Regard anything you see as on an important track but hardly more than a first draft.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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