Reflections on Spring 2020

May 6, 2020

Over the course of the past few months, the United States of America and the world have been ravaged by a deadly pandemic — over 100,000 people dead in the US alone;1 worldwide economic devastation — in the US, with over 20 million jobs lost2 and labor force participation rates below 61%;3 and a political uprising in response to police violence has shaken communities as far as Berlin4 and Mexico City.5 The learning communities I’m participating in during my graduate study believe that a cybernetic model can give provide tools to think critically about these issues — why must, for instance, a global pandemic lead to economic devastation; and how can we think about the police force in the US as a system in order to begin to rethink how to approach policing? If, as Beer notes, the purpose of a system is what it does,”6 now seems an apt time to think critically about what these systems — the economy, policing, public health — do and what can be done to build alternative systems. Thus, using a cybernetic model to create, analyze, and think critically about these issues has represented a growing edge” for me this quarter.

In particular, I have had the opportunity to participate in discussions in various online communities in an attempt to grow my critical engagement with cybernetics. The form of these conversations has taken have varied — text chat, podcast episodes, and reading materials have all contributed to my individual intellectual development. The centerpiece of my collaborative engagement has been a Brain of the Firm7 reading group organized by the General Intellect Unit community.8

My role in this group has largely been as an observer — I’m still very fresh at engaging with these concepts; but I have also contributed to the discussion on occasion. I don’t want to pretend I have the answers to the questions proposed above — however, our discussions have made it extremely evident that an autonomic systems model is extremely helpful in critical analysis of current political realities. What that looks like — what my approach to these questions will be — is something I am still contemplating; but reading Brain of the Firm as a group has helped me engage with cybernetics much more deeply than simply reading it on my own would’ve provided.

In this way, collaboration in this community has certainly helped in developing my own analysis. In addition — as a more concrete example — I have used this group as a sounding board for my own research this term, which has largely focused on the role of Mexico and Mexican researchers in the history of cybernetics — a member of this community, for instance, suggested there are parallels between cybernetic and Nahuatl philosophy, a thematic connection which deserves a much greater level of attention that I have had the opportunity thus far to give it; and without this engagement, this would not have been a direction I would’ve considered — using this collaborative environment to achieve collective results has already revealed itself to be a key pillar of my graduate study.

I am a bit disappointed that I have been unable to contribute to these discussions at a greater level and to use those conversations and my academic work to engage with what is happening outside the classroom at a level which is appropriate to the political reality now facing Western society. While it was certainly an effective use of my time to continue my research on the history of cybernetics in Mexico from 450(b) into 450(a), had I focused more deliberately on the pandemic during this quarter, I would likely have a piece of literature that could more concretely contribute to the broader dialogue about the fallout from the events over the past few months. While collaboration in this community has certainly been critical to my private engagement with cybernetics, I do not feel I have used this collaboration to produce an artifact to demonstrate my results.

Perhaps I am being too critical of myself — I am certainly proud of my literature review on the history of cybernetics in Mexico I produced in 450(b); and I feel that alone has made a significant contribution to unpacking the untold histories of the field. It is absolutely the case that producing that artifact — and, most importantly for this reflection, sharing both the end product of my research and the literature I encountered while doing this research with the community — has made an important contribution. Just by doing this work and sharing the research I have found, I have greatly increased the number of texts available by the community for further study of the history of cybernetics in the General Intellect Unit group library.

That being said, if faced with this exact situation again, I can’t say I would do much differently. The events of the last several months have been entirely unprecedented; I was not set up to properly address them; and I feel I have done my best given the intellectual tools and limited resources available to me to engage and collaborate at the level at which I’m comfortable. I am hopeful that over the course of my program I am able to accelerate that collaboration and engagement with this community and with these ideas. I am certainly more confident now than ever that I will have the opportunities to develop my ideas and contribute even more to these discussions — the leader and discussion facilitator of the Brain of the Firm reading group, Kyle Thompson, provides an excellent example of someone to emulate; he has masterfully lead group conversation in our informal reading group in a manner very akin to a graduate seminar.

One concrete thing I can do to continue to grow my ability to think critically about the issues brought up in this reflection is to attempt to carve out more time outside of my structured classwork to reflect on the ways in which a cybernetic framework can be used to analyze current political realities — I can certainly share these reflections with my learning communities for collaborative insight as well. To help with this, another capacity-building exercise would be to engage with cybernetic (and philosophy of science) literature in a more serious and structured fashion than I have had the opportunity to do thus far — the Brain of the Firm reading group is a great start; and this fall I will get a broader overview of the literature thanks to the class I intend to take on continental philosophy of math and science with Dr. Steeves. Both those things should put me in an excellent position to connect cybernetic and continental philosophy with the current political and social realities facing humanity.

  1. “Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count,” The New York Times, June 2020, ↩︎

  2. Ben Casselman, What to Make of the Rebound in the U.S. Jobs Report,” The New York Times, June 2020, ↩︎

  3. “Bureau of Labor Statistics Data,” May 2020, ↩︎

  4. Damien Cave, Livia Albeck-Ripka, and Iliana Magra, Huge Crowds Around the Globe March in Solidarity Against Police Brutality,” The New York Times, June 2020, ↩︎

  5. “Protests over Police Abuses Flare Again in Mexico’s Two Largest Cities,” Reuters, June 2020, ↩︎

  6. “What Is Cybernetics?” Kybernetes 31, no. 2 (January 2002): 7, ↩︎

  7. Stafford Beer, What Is Cybernetics?” Kybernetes 31, no. 2 (January 2002): 209–19, ↩︎

  8. “General Intellect Unit Is Creating a Podcast About Socialism and Technology,” Patreon, accessed June 6, 2020, ↩︎