source:The unlikely encounter between von Foerster and Snowden: When second-order cybernetics sheds light on societal impacts of Big Data – David Chavalarias, 2016
The unlikely encounter between von Foerster and Snowden: When second-order cybernetics sheds light on societal impacts of Big Data
Although information and communication technologies (ICT) have created hope for a shared pluralistic world, democratic principles are far from being respected in the public digital environment, and require a detailed knowledge of the laws by which they are governed. Von Foerster’s conjecture is one of the early theoretical results that could help to understand these laws. Although neglected for a long time, the advent of the overlying layer of recommendation and ranking systems which is progressively occupying the web has given empirical evidences of this conjecture, which predicts the consequences of increasing inter-individual influences on social dynamics and the susceptibility of these latter to manipulation. With both von Foerster’s conjecture and the Snowden revelations in the background, we analyse the impact of ICT on human societies and their governance, in view of the fact that they have a massive impact on the way in which people influence each other in their tastes and actions.
In 1976, at Cuernavaca, Heinz von Foerster, founder of the second-order cybernetics and precursor in the field of complex systems, intervened during a seminar given by Ivan Illich, a thinker in political ecology. According to the analysis made by the latter of his notion of counter-productivity – auto-deregulation and auto-disorganisation of a system, which becomes foreign to the elements from which it is made up1 – von Foerster made a visionary conjecture:
What you are trying to describe is the relationship of circular causality between the whole (a human community for example) and its parts (the individuals from which it is comprised). On the one hand, individuals are related to each other, and on the other hand they are related to the whole. The bonds between individuals can be more or less “rigid” – the technical term I use is “trivial”. The more trivial they are, by definition the less the behaviour of one of them provides information to the observer who already knows the behaviour of the others. I will make the following conjecture: the more trivial the inter-individual relationships, the more the behaviour of the whole will appear to the individual elements from which it is made up as having its own dynamics which escape their control.
I am aware that this conjecture is paradoxical, however it is important to understand that it has a meaning only because, here, we adopt the point of view internal to the system, of the elements concerning the whole. For an observer outside the system, it is obvious that, on the contrary, the triviality of the relationships between these parts promotes conceptual control, in the form of a model. When the individuals are related trivially (as the consequence of mimetic behaviour for example) the dynamics of the system are predictable, but the individuals feel powerless to steer or redirect its course, even though the behaviour of the whole continues to be simply the result of individual reactions to the predictions of this same behaviour. The whole appears to become autonomous with respect to its conditions of emergence, and its development to be immobilised as its destiny.
This proposal was referred to by Jean-Pierre Dupuy as “von Foerster’s conjecture” (Dupuy, 2006). In 1987 it was given the status of a theorem, in the context of information theory, during collaborative work with Moshe Koppel and Henri Atlan (Koppel et al., 1987).
Three years after 1984, which had not delivered on its literary promises, few individuals were inclined to accept that a mathematical theorem could account even to a small degree for social phenomena. Still today, some affirm that such generalities in the social domain cannot be founded, first of all because the notion of experimentation at the scale of a society is itself problematic. We will however show that information and communication technologies (ICT), which have become ubiquitous in our societies, provide us with an example of what von Foerster called “rigid relationships”, a terrain for experimentation and an empirical validation of von Foerster’s intuition. The implications of this conjecture are numerous, and in particular make it possible to shed original light on the recent revelations of Edward Snowden, which provide an indisputable demonstration of the fact that access to an “external” view of our digital societies has become a strategic issue for many actors.
continues in source: The unlikely encounter between von Foerster and Snowden: When second-order cybernetics sheds light on societal impacts of Big DataThe unlikely encounter between von Foerster and Snowden: When second-order cybernetics sheds light on societal impacts of Big Data – David Chavalarias, 2016
Got from Mark Johnson in this thread on Ivan Illich’s evolving thinking: