Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cybernetic theory and homeostasis. Wiener's world.

Norbert Wiener delves into the world of nature, science and mathematics to find support for his cybernetics theory. A child genius, Wiener was very intelligent and was very knowledgeable in a number of different fields including mathematics, medicine, engineering and sociology. He was one of the first to see the coming of the computer age and the importance of information as it deals with not only the means for education, but also the means for social control. Here in lies the duality of the advancement of artificial intelligence; the ability for good and evil simultaneously. Wiener warned that just as the Industrial Revolution had replaced the hand in a factory with a machine, so would the next mechanical revolution replace the human mind with a machine.

Wiener defined cybernetics as "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine."  An important fact or tenant to the field of cybernetics is that merely studying or observing a population has an effect on this said population which can in turn be observed as feedback. This is commonly referred to as the "circular causal relationship".

An important part of control and maintaining the status quo in any animal community is homeostasis. Essentially, Wiener makes the point that such things as a free market capitalistic society and ultimately greed and self-interests do not allow for homeostatic state in humans.  He argues that animals communicate in certain specific ways with one another to ensure that the best interest of the community are achieved. For example, ants send out certain smells that alert the colony if there is danger. One ant cannot differentiate one ant in its own colony from another, but it can surely tell the difference in an ant from another colony.

But with humans, the means of communication are controlled and thus we will never reach this homeostatic state. Essentially, our ability to communicate on a mass scale is in the hands of the rich and powerful who do not have the interest of the whole of human nature in mind when making decisions.  It's the pursuit of profit that controls not only the newspapers, TV, movies, etc but even the schools and churches.

Weiner says that current forms of communication limits us in three ways. First, less popular and thus less profitable ideas are often not conveyed to the public. Secondly, these means of communication are in the hands of the rich and powerful and thus reflect their needs and opinions. Finally, communication attracts those thirsty for such power. He also says that is a problem that we need to reign in, but how? He likens the situation to that of a mouse faced with the task of placing a bell on a cat. While having the bell as a warning in place to protect the mouse would inevitably aid in its survival, how would it accomplish such a task?

While Weiner has accurately described communications problems that exist still to this day, I believe that the advent of the internet and the availability of so much information ultimately has shifted this dynamic slightly.  By some regards, much of what is put online is still in the hands of some gatekeepers but the seeming impending doom that he has forecast is too negative and pessimistic.  While I do agree that the control and persuasive manner of the media has led to a stifling of human ability to reach homeostasis, in doing so we have almost created a perverse and mutated form of homeostasis in the form of apathy and general malevolent attitude which perpetuates an uninformed and lazy person, an idea that Wiener argued the common man was not "the idiot nor the knave".

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