Finding viable paths

“… If you wanted to go up or down a mountain, you had to look at it rather carefully. You wanted to reach the summit – but it would have been a mistake simply to look for an easy way up. As an experienced mountaineer, you first of all figure out where you must not go. You try to see possible avalanches, ice breaks, crevasses, and other fatal constraints. Only when you have, so to speak, blocked out the treacherous parts of the mountain, would you begin to plan your way up. At this point, you do make choices, but you make them within the space left between the mountains constraints. To “know” a mountain means to know where, on its slopes, you are relatively safe; it means to have learned the viable paths.”
Ernst von Glasersfeld, “Cybernetics and the Art of Living”

Ben Copsey is a genius

Well that may be going too far, but he is certainly brilliant. Last April I wrote about how he and I were working an idea for a business. It has been a long haul from the early very simple prototype, but I am now using an application for organising your digital stuff, which is one aspect of the business, and it is a sheer delight.
Over the years I have used a number of organisation tools, but none of them fitted the way I worked. Some were better than others, but all of them had implicit notion of how I ought to work and manage my life.
The joy of what Ben has created is that for the first time I can build things that fit the way I work. So, for example, I have one thing I call “Getting stuff done”, where I can dump all things I need to back-up what I might be doing in a day – appointments, journey details, notes, contacts, things I ought to do, stray thoughts, any related documents and so on. I can add, remove or move stuff at any time and everything is easily accessible in one place.
I’ve built another, which is just about a course I will be running next term and, again I’ve got everything in one place and will be able to add student work and any administrative stuff as I go along.
The one big problem I can see is that the very flexibility of the application makes it hard to describe in a nice, simple soundbite way. It is a tool that allows people to invent different ways of organising, managing, recording, searching their digital stuff and the way it relates to the way they live and work. So it may be a bit difficult to communicate what it is. A classic problem of real innovation. We shall see. Plenty of time until we get to that point.

Craigslist Rules

The management philosophy of Jim Buckmaster
● Listen to what users want. Try to make the site faster and better.
● Hire good people. “We work hard trying to get the right kind of folks. It pays off: they hardly ever leave.”
● No meetings, ever. “I find them stupefying and useless.”
● No management programmes and no MBAs. “I’ve always thought that sort of thing was baloney.”
● Forget the figures. “We are consistently in the black, so if we do better or worse in any given quarter it is absolutely irrelevant.”
● Occasionally, give people “a very gentle nudge”. This can be done over lunch or on the instant messaging boards.
● He doesn’t reply to any of his 100 daily messages, most of which beg Craigslist to do a deal. “I’m not real chatty on e-mail.”
● Put speed over perfection: “Get something out there. Do it, even if it isn’t perfect.”
● “Don’t screw it up by doing things that make people feel worse about their work.”

(From a slightly baffled interview in the FT)

Clinging to vague notions

“The sociological imagination, I remind you, in considerable part consists of the capacity to shift from one perspective to another, and in the process to build up an adequate view of a total society and of its components. It is this imagination, of course, that sets off the social scientist from the mere technician. Adequate technicians can be trained in a few years. The sociological imagination can also be cultivated: certainly it seldom occurs without a great deal of often routine work. Yet there is an unexpected quality about it, perhaps because its essence is the combination of ideas no one expected were combinable – say, a mess of ideas from German philosophy and British economics. There is a playfulness of mind back of such combining as well as a truly fierce drive to make sense of the world, which the technician as such usually lacks. Perhaps he is too well trained, too precisely trained Since one can be trained only in what is already known, training sometimes incapacitates one from learning new ways; it makes one rebel against what is bound to be at first loose and even sloppy. But you must cling to such vague images and notions, if they are yours, and you must work them out. For it is in such forms that original ideas, if any, almost always first appear.”
C.Wright Mills, “The Sociological Imagination” pp232-233

Getting funky

The late Claudio Ciborra had an interesting take on the world and his book “The Labyrinths of Information: Challenging the Wisdom of Systems” is worth setting aside some time to read. The taster I have chosen is, fittingly enough, from a chapter focused on drift:
“System development methodologies maintain that applications should be aligned with their initial specifications. They are horrified by fluctuations and deviations; therefore, they strive to keep them in check through systematic monitoring, fedback, and learning. Somehow, though, shift and drift in systems development and use always succeed in creeping in, and subtract value from the methodologies, contributing to the frustration and scepticism among conscientious practitioners. We choose, instead, to be funky once again and celebrate deviations and mismatches: looking at them positively as a source of innovation, or simply as that existential dirt which is destined to corrupt the neat but idealized picture of any systems development project. Chapter 3 showed that the use of applications is always shaped by hacks, short cuts, and twists, or punctuated through unpredictable processes of re-invention. Drifting is the result of these processes – ranging from sabotage, to passive resistance, to learning-by-doing, to astonishing micro discoveries and radical shifts – or plain serendipity. In these processes, usage, maintenance and redevelopments, and continuous, or sometimes fortuitous, improvements take place simultaneously. In a corporate world without drifting, service technicians would have no war stories to swap, coffee machine chats would only deal with football, cars, and dirty jokes, and office automation ethnographers would be out of work.”

An unprecedented triumph of stupidity?

Back in the mid Nineties I wrote a piece for Nick Routledge’s World3 called “As We Might Learn: Vannevar Bush where are you now?”. And, among a whole lot of other stuff, I wrote this:
“… the only large scale attempt to apply cybernetic insights into running a national economy in real time, under the Allende government in Chile in the early seventies, was ruthlessly crushed as a side effect of the US-backed coup 1973. Destroying a democratically elected government, torturing, killing and disappearing thousands of people and installing a military dictatorship is the kind of crime that the forces of organised stupidity have committed for years, in both the East and the West. But destroying an experiment from which we could have learned much, whether it succeed or failed, without even realising they were doing so, is an almost unprecedented triumph of stupidity. I am using ‘stupidity’ here in a very precise, even technical way. In this definition it is the inability of the brain or any other part of nature to accept useful information, learn from it, and act intelligently on it.
The mystery of the comparative neglect of cybernetics is only one example of our failure to try out the ideas, concepts and hard won knowledge that have been developed over the past fifty years, preferring instead to cling on to the mishmash of survival techniques from the savannahs and the half remember ideas of long dead theorists that we confuse with practical commonsense. How often have you presented a new idea to a suit and met a blank quasi-religious face unthinkingly, but triumphantly, chanting the mantra ‘But where’s the bottom line?’ as if it really meant something?”

Stumbling around the web a few nights ago I found this piece, “Santiago dreaming”, by Andy Beckett, written about four years ago, that reconnected my rage. It also led me to this fascinating essay by Eden Medina, “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation : Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile”. Beer, himself, has written extensively about the Chilean experiment, which clearly affected him deeply. As Andy Beckett reports Beer was in London at the time of the coup:
“The Chilean military found the Cybersyn network intact, and called in Espejo and others to explain it to them. But they found the open, egalitarian aspects of the system unattractive and destroyed it. Espejo fled. Some of his colleagues were not so lucky. Soon after the coup, Beer left West Byfleet, his wife, and most of his possessions to live in a cottage in Wales. “He had survivor guilt, unquestionably,” says Simon.” (Simon being Stafford Beer’s son)
But what makes Eden Medina’s essay so intriguing is that, while Beer inevitably discuss some of the tensions involved in realising the project, as a disinterested outsider, Eden Medina is able to explore the tensions and contradictions more fully and, as she explains in this, one of her concluding paragraphs, why this is a history still worth exploring:
“The history presented here demonstrates, moreover, the singular nature of Chile’s socialist experiment. Not only was this project unique in the manner in which it applied cybernetic science to economic regulation and state governance, but its emphasis on decentralised control also resulted in a technology that reflected the distinguishing features of the UP government. Although we may question the exact magnitude of the contribution made by this system in staving off Chile’s mounting political, social and economic upheavals, its history does offer a new perspective on the Chilean experience. In contrast to the chaotic images of shortages, strikes, and protests that have come to characterise the era, Cybersyn presents an alternative history. Here we see members of CORFO, INTEC, ECOM and their British interlocutors struggling to realise a different dream of socialist modernity, technological capability and regulated order. It would be a dream some Cybersyn team members continued to pursue up until the day the military imposed a very different form of order on the Chilean people and members of the project team fled CORFO headquarters with project documents tucked under their arms in order to preserve them for the future”
Postscript 1: After writing this piece I found this letter from Simon Beer that challenges a number of aspects of both Andy Becket’s and Eden Median’s account and includes this moving comment about his father:
“For Stafford it was no experiment, it was life itself. After his disappointment in Britain working with the Labour government of the 1960s, he was indeed frustrated with British politics. In Chile, Stafford was working with people who believed that what they were doing really would make a difference.
But despite everybody’s hard work and commitment, 9/11 (1973) saw a democratically elected government overthrown by American foreign policy. Stafford undoubtedly did suffer from survivor guilt. Had he not been back in England when Allende was killed, he would unquestionably have died in Chile, alongside the president he so believed in.”

Postscript 2: While trying to find out a bit more Simon Beer, I found this excellent site, CYBERSYN/cybernetic synergy, created by Catalina Ossa, multimedia artist, and Enrique Rivera, film maker and audiovisual artist. The site, which is a great resource, is part of a much larger project to reclaim CYBERSYN, which they outline here.

Time to stand and stare

Regular readers will probably be aware that I sit at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Samuel Brittan. But curiously I often find myself warming to him when he expresses his sympathy for ideas like a land tax or a basic citzen’s income. See if you can get which bits of the following two paragraphs I responded to positively:
“The world is not yet one single economy, but it is moving in that direction. The integration of nations such as China and India into it is the equivalent of multiplying several-fold the amount of unskilled labour relative to the supply of skilled labour and capital. The conventional response is to say that US and European industry needs to move continually upmarket, developing new products and processes, to maintain its position. There are limits to how far this can go. Not everyone can be retrained to undertake high- technology jobs.
Moreover, is it really desirable that everyone all the time should be engaged in non-stop reskilling (misleadingly called “lifelong education”). “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”? The western response should surely be to keep its own frontiers open to gain the benefits of trade but redistribute income to those who would otherwise lose out. My longtime slogan, coined before the word “globalisation” was invented, has been: “Redistribution yes, equality no.””