Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Through the Wayback Machine: Bateson and Mead on Cybernetics and Stuff

I’m reading a fascinating interview that Stewart Brand conducted between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. It was published in CoEvolution Quarterly in June, 1976. It oozes important intellectual history out its pores.

I’m only a partway through, but had to post a few snippits. Like this one on cybernetics (M=Mead, B=Bateson, SB=Stewart Brand):
M: They were talking almost entirely of negative feedback. By this time, Wiener and Bigelow and Johnny von Neumann of course, were members of the group, and Rosenblueth, Kurt Lewin, Molly Harrower, Evelyn Hutchinson, Leonard Savage, Henry Brosin and that Hungarian who always knew who was sleeping with who and it was the only thing he was interested in, I’ve forgotten his name. Well, the lists survive all right.

There were three groups of people. There were the mathematicians and physicists - people trained in the physical sciences, who were very, very precise in what they wanted to think about. There was a small group of us, anthropologists and psychiatrists, who were trained to know enough about psychology in groups so we knew what was happening, and could use it, and disallow it. And then there were two or three gossips in the middle, who were very simple people who had a lot of loose intuition and no discipline to what they were doing. In a sense it was the most interesting conference I’ve ever been in, because nobody knew how to manage this things yet.

SB: So you had one group of people that was to another group on a level they were not used to.

M: Yes, and shifting back and forth between these levels and keeping everything straight was very interesting. So we used the model, ‘feedback,’ and Kurt Lewin - who didn’t understand any known language, but always had to reduce them to concepts - he went away with the idea of feedback as something that when you did anything with a group you went back and told them later what had happened. And he died before anything much else happened. So the word ‘feedback’ got introduced incorrectly into the international UNESCO type conferences where it’s been ever since.

B: In the small group cult, feedback now means either telling people what they did, or answering.

M: Yes. ‘I don’t get any feedback from you,’ or ‘I can’t go on with this without some feedback.’ It wouldn’t have survived if Kurt had lived. He would undoubtedly have got it right.
And here we get gossip on the mathematics of weather prediction and war-gaming and such:
B: Yes. The next thing that followed that was ‘Generalised Foreign Policies.’ L.F. Richardson. I went back to England in ’39. Hitler had invaded Poland. Bartlett said, ‘You might be interested in that,’ throwing it across the room in contempt.

M: I’m glad I have another count against Bartlett, I didn’t know he had contempt for Richardson.

B: For Richardson and for me, you see. It was contemptible that I would be interested in the contemptible. So I ran off with that and kept it (probably it’s Bartlett’s copy of his files that we now have), and brought it back to this country.

SB: What was in that paper?

B: This is the mathematics of armaments races. How do you build the mathematics of a system in which what I do depends upon what you do, and what you do depends upon what I do, and we get into a thing. Richardson set a limit by invoking ‘fatigue.’ He started with a simple pair of differential equations in the premise that my rate of armament could be a linear function of your strength; and vice versa. That led immediately to an exponential runaway. He added a ‘fatigue’ factor representing the drain on your and my resources. The question then was whether the system could settle. Are we going to settle a mutual ... there’s a word in international relations for slapping the other people’s aggression back by threat. ...

M: You mean deterrence?

B: Yes, mutual deterrence. That word hadn’t been invented then. Then in the appendix, he had some revised equations in terms of what is your strength and what is my strength, but what is the difference between our strengths. He worked it out in terms of the relation of two nations where each is stimulated by the amount the other side is ahead. This was obviously symmetrical - latmul Sepik River schismogenesis - right? ...

M: ... Now Richardson is a very peculiar character. He was a Quaker school teacher of mathematics. He did all the basic work on weather prediction. It was used in World War II and he was never told how it worked, because of security. He died without knowing about it.

B: Richardson was responding to World War I. As a Quaker he refused to bear arms in World War I, and he became an ambulance man. He sat in the trenches waiting for the next call for the ambulance working out the mathematics of armaments races. Because he was sure that if only this could be got straight, the whole mess wouldn’t have to happen, which indeed might be true.
And now Darwin and evolution and the governor of a steam engine:
B: No, structurally related, that there was a subject matter of inquiry defined by all these. You see the fantastic thing is that in 1856, before the publication of the Origin of Species, Wallace in Ternate, Indonesia, had a psychedelic spell following his malaria in which he invented the principle of natural selection. He wrote to Darwin and he said, ‘Look, natural selection is just like a steam engine with a governor.’ The first cybernetic model. But then he only thought he had an illustration, he didn’t think he’d really said probably the most powerful thing that’d been said in the 19th Century.

M: Only nobody knew it.

B: Nobody knew it. And there it is, still in the text. Nobody picked it up. Well, there was the machinery, the governor itself. There was the mathematics of the machine with the governor, which was done by Clerk Maxwell in 1868, because nobody knew how to write a blueprint for these bloody things - they would go into oscillation. Then there’s Claude Bernard about 1890 with the milieu interne - the internal matrix of the body, control of temperature, control of sugar, and all that.

SB: Which later became homeostasis?

B: Which later became homeostasis in Cannon. But nobody put the stuff together to say these are the formal relations which go for natural selection, which go for internal physiology, which go for purpose, which go for a cat trying to catch a mouse, which go for me picking up the salt cellar. This was really done by Wiener, and Rosenblueth and McCulloch and Bigelow. And who really put the truth through, I don’t know, do you?
What’s next?

Addendum: Rather a bit further on in the interview:
SB: Margaret, an old student of yours told me you have a list of reliable sources of insight. What’s the list? 
M: I used to say to my classes that the ways to get insight are: to study infants; to study animals; to study primitive people; to be psychoanalyzed; to have a religious conversion and get over it; to have a psychotic episode and get over it; or to have al love affair with an Old Russian. And I stopped saying that when a little dancer in the front row put up her hand and said, ‘Does he have to be old?’

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