Provocation 3: The Human Servomechanism

For the last several months, I have been researching the field of cybernetics in preparation for a thesis that I will be preparing throughout the course of the next academic year.  At the current time, this research is admittedly broad, and I have adopted an inclusive approach, with the expectation of narrowing the field as my interests become more specifically focused.  I have decided to take my time, leisurely reading through a broad spectrum of material, more or less focused on this particular topic, but ranging through biology, ecology, psychology, technological history, architecture, etc.  In my meandering route, I have recently picked up two books by the historian of technology David A. Mindell:  “Between Human and Machine” and “Digital Apollo.”

I must confess that, at first, I was a bit put off by Mindell, who I would consider a more traditional historian, of sorts.  I am used to highly theoretically inflected historical analysis, having cut my teeth on the writings of architectural historians, the likes of Siegried Giedion, Lewis Mumford, Reyner Banham, Mark Wigley, Beatriz Colomina and Hadas Steiner (under whom I have studied for the past three years).  Unlike these writers, Mindell’s prose is slow, lucid (in a plodding sort of way) and quiet, as opposed to the punchy, edgy prose of the other historians mentioned; the theory is more implicit than explicit, and he spends a long time winding up, building his argument(s), and bringing you through the biographies of the various players whose contributions are integral to his ultimate argument(s).  He is not a fast starter, but he does have long-distance legs.

This said, biography has never been a big interest of mine; I find matters of personality and personal history largely irrelevant to the historical achievements of people, which are better read through their work than through any form of hagiography, which is bound to include at least some hints of romanticism and anecdote, smacking too much of Piranesi’s “Lives” for my tastes.  What I missed in my immediate reaction to Mindell’s work was the relevance of the human; his biographies are not unintentional, they describe intellectual interpenetrations, resonating across the technological innovations that he is describing.  Furthermore, they focus the reader’s attention on a topic frequently underemphasized in traditional accounts of technological development – people.

What I initially failed to realize in reading Mindell’s work was that his interests lay predominantly in the field of Computer Human Interaction; but that, unlike other CHI historians and theorists, Mindell was representing this field from the position of integration, giving equal weight to what are generally and abstractly called “users” in most accounts, and the technology that they used.  Thus, while the technology does play a large part in his analysis, so too do the specific people for whom this technology was developed; including, not only its developers, but the sailors and airmen who ultimate completed the technological loop into which they became embedded.  Furthermore, what I gradually (if not somewhat densely) came to realize is that because, for Mindell, the “user” is not an abstraction, their biographies are integral to the development of the technology, because the individual can no longer be divorced from the machine of which they are a part.

There seems to me a tendency in overtly technological discourse to overemphasize the machine and to approach the human element of technological design and implementation in an overly solipsistic way.  Mindell’s writings remind us that all technological systems are ultimately anthropocentric in orientation, and rely on human input to realized optimal output – that humans are an integral “component” in any technological system, or set of systems, designed, specifically, to complement human requirements.  Furthermore, they remind us that, ultimately, terms like “human” and “user” obfuscate the fact that what we are really talking about is “people.”

Perhaps the best example of this condition is the penultimate exemplar of cybernetic design, the thermostat.  In almost any book on cybernetics, you will find this device invoked; after all, in its way, it is the foundation of one of the most important designs in cybernetic history – the homeostat.  The fundamental difference, however, between the homeostat and the thermostat is that the homoestat is a hermetic device, interested only in maintaining states of internal homeostasis, and entirely divorced (functionally) from human conditions.  However, the thermostat requires an additional input for optimal use – the person, who sets it to function within his/her conscious expectations of comfort.  Thus, the thermostat, while claiming no broader theoretical ends (like modeling the human brain) integrates the human (as many second-generation cybernetic designs by Gordon Pask and Stafford Beer would) as an important part of the feedback loop that it creates.

The depressing aspect of this realization however, came (for me) with the simultaneous realization that all of the proto-cybernetic developments described in “Between Human and Machine” were designed with the intention of killing people in the interests of preserving the lives of other people – up to an including the early research of Norbert Weiner, who eventually renounced the military application of cybernetic designs.  As a result of its history and vernacular (in some respects, via the antiseptic connotations of “control” for democratically inclined societies), the science of cybernetics finds few apologists and fewer active adherents today; one can only wonder what the state of this science might be were it brought to theoretical maturity in Nazi Germany, as opposed to Post-War America and England.  This said, the Post-War developments of cybernetics (particularly in England) were, perhaps consciously, divorced from specific military application, focused as they were on issues of psychology and neurophysiology (Grey Walter, Ross Ashby), psychology and anthropology (Gregory Bateson), management (Stafford Beer) and communication, education and architecture (Gordon Pask).

However, cybernetics is not the only technological trend confronted with the task of divorcing itself from its military roots.  Today’s Internet, after all, is little more than a derivative and ubiquitous form of the ARPANET system designed for the American military, in large part by MIT and the Rand Corporation; and is exponentially more invasive and coercive than the cybernetic systems developed by Stafford Beer (most notably the VSM) which caught so much flack for their observational and fascist potential, even if that was never their original intention.  As long as the military-industrial complex against which President Eisenhower warned us remains the most committed source of funding for technological research, this will always be the case.

If we are to move beyond these conditions, then a good place to start might be by emphasizing the human element of contemporary technological design by working with the understanding that people play an integral part in regulating technological systems; that we are not cyborgs (via Mitchell) even if we are intimately integrated within the technological fabric that we have built around us, nor should we become cyborgs in any uncritical way; that our humanity is a fundamental aspect of the proper functioning of technological systems, pulling us from the inhumane brink of dystopian visions that have, for more than half a century, plagued the popular imagination.  We must work with the understanding that technology does not develop as a stand-alone; that the interest in technological advancement does not negate the human element, nor subsume humanity in a mesh of unregulated systems.  We must understand that humanity, and much derided “humanism,” is not the “enemy” in a system of polarization strangely reminiscent of the roots of many contemporary technologies; but a much coveted factor in technological regulation and operation.

To continue the trend of previous provocations, the questions that this raises, are:  How do we integrate people into the contemporary technological fabric in ways that both respect and rely upon them as regulators, or steersmen, of the technologies into which they are interfaced?  How do we work towards a model that doesn’t prefer some people to others, either militaristically, or economically/socially?  How do we incorporate people into technological complexes in ways that don’t reduce them to simplistic servomechanisms, or sensorial regulators?  How do we decouple aberrant notions of control, from healthy ones, or refocus our interests on communication in ways that support technological democracy on a global scale; or how do we disperse control in ways that it is no longer centralized or hegemonic?  In other words, how do we emphasize the unique contributions that the infinitely complex human organism can contribute to technological advancement in ways that don’t devalue the human “component,” but rather celebrate it, and work towards our continued comfort and advancement as a species?

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