Mind in Matter
Scott McLemee reviews Daniel Belgrad’s The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in ’70s America.
By Scott McLemee
January 17, 2020
Somewhere on its way to entering the vernacular, the word cybernetics took on connotations of high technology, with tremendous computational power almost as a given. But the quintessential cybernetic system is humble, indeed, and very much simpler than any computer. It is the thermostat.
Just to be clear, the “cybernetic system” in this case consists of not just the device on the wall with its dials or buttons, but also a temperature sensor as well as whatever apparatus heats or cools the room. When the sensor registers that the room’s temperature has fallen below, say, 70 degrees (to use a season-appropriate example of a likely setting), the thermostat translates that information into a command to turn the heat on, then off again, once the sensor reports that the target temperature has been reached. Framing this a little more abstractly, we have here a system engaged in posing a question to its environment, generating a binary (yes/no) answer and then, as necessary, taking action to cause change in a certain determinate direction.
Not much computational power is required. Then again, “cybernetics” derives from an ancient Greek word referring to the pilot of a ship. Navigation, not calculation, is at its root.
To the best of my recollection, I first came across the thermostat as quintessential example of a closed feedback system in a wildly interdisciplinary volume by Anthony Wilden called System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange (1980). Wilden in turn adopted it from Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), an even more category-defying volume. Besides the anthropological fieldwork he had carried out (some of it carried on with Margaret Mead, his wife for a time) Bateson pulled together his research into schizophrenia, evolutionary theory and biological symmetry — besides which he had participated in the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics held between 1946 and 1953. Among the papers in Steps to an Ecology of Mind is Bateson’s analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous as a cybernetic system — one more adaptive and functional than the alcoholic’s personality, which otherwise remains trapped in a short-circuiting feedback loop of trying to establish its own power over the bottle.
Through Batesonian lenses, the world looked like one huge array of self-regulating systems. Some were at cross purposes (imagine two thermostats in the same room, at different settings) and some just did not work very well.
“An entirely new epistemology must come out of cybernetics and systems theory,” wrote Bateson in the alcoholism study. It would require “a new understanding of mind, self, human relationship and power.” Daniel Belgrad’s The Culture of Feedback: Ecological Thinking in ’70s America (University of Chicago Press) finds much the same set of priorities reflected in the work of artists, musicians, activists, film directors and the makers of public service announcements that ran on TV.