Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Human Use of Human Beings, Chapter 7


Summary of Chapter 7: Communication, Secrecy, and Social Policy

In this interesting little chapter Wiener turns the cybernetic lens to organizations, particularly nation-states, to address the issues of scientific advance, and of secrecy in the name of military advantage or national security. Essentially, secrecy is the enemy of communication and progress, and is typically based on an outdated or incorrect understanding of information and how it works. The US and USSR have brought back the Machiavellian politics and subterfuge of the Italian Renaissance; however, we now have a much more sophisticated scientific understanding of communication, and we can use this to analyze the present moment and see what we could do better.

One big problem that comes under Wiener’s scrutiny is the American propensity for judging the “value” of any thing by its value on the market. This is tied also to old-fashioned ideas, such as the idea that information can be treated like private property. He starts with the example of patent law; this made sense in age when inventions were made by skilled artisans working alone, but not today. He goes into the history of the changing relationship between artisan/inventors and groups of scientists.

He describes the qualities that make a thing a good commodity:

What makes a thing a good commodity? Essentially, that it can pass from hand to hand with the substantial retention of its value, and that the pieces of this commodity should combine additively in the same way as the money paid for them. The power to conserve itself is a very convenient property for a good commodity to have. (116)

A very cybernetic definition! He notes that gold makes a good basis for currency, because it is relatively stable (take that, bitcoin!). One presumes Wiener is not a big fan of markets, because of course these can cause even the value of gold to fluctuate wildly.

Information, in contrast, makes a bad commodity because it is subject to entropy – indeed, it is the opposite of entropy: “just as en­tropy is a measure of disorder, so information is a measure of order.”

He gives an example of competing measures of value: the value of a piece of jewelry has two parts: the gold, and the "façon" or workmanship [unfortunately I can't find other internet sources using this latter term, an interesting name for the imprint of labor on an artifact]. The latter leads to artificial markets such as stamp collecting, which depend on the existence of a group of buyers, and thus is open to dramatic swings in value, because “there is no permanent common denominator of collectors' taste.” A reasonable point so far as it goes, but can't even gold swing greatly in value? or more importantly, bread? It seems to me that trying to distinguish between “stable” and “unstable” commodities based on inherent qualities (derived from the theory of information) is not going to be successful.

“The problem of the work of art as a commodity raises a large number of questions important in the theory of information” (117). He moves into a discussion of art markets, noting that “the physical possession of a work of art is neither sufficient nor necessary for the benefits of appreciation which it conveys” [this is pretty much what Lady Philosophy tells Boethius regarding beautiful natural countrysides: you don't need to possess it to enjoy it]. Reproductions can give you a lot of the experience of the originals (even more so with music) – it is interesting what Wiener might have said about Benjamin’s theory of aura, perhaps this is relatable to his information theory of art? Reproduction is good because it spreads the enjoyment, though it also undermines the value of the original, and is furthermore lossy. (Wiener’s treatment of information here could benefit from some of the insights of the Innis school regarding space-binding and time-binding media). He derides derivative and second-rate copies.

 [The cybernetic theory of information may not be so good at explaining the value of art:]

What has been said before may not be worth saying again; and the informative value of a painting or a piece of literature cannot be judged without knowing what it contains that is not easily available to the public in contemporary or earlier works. It is only independ­ent information which is even approximately additive. The derivative information of the second-rate copyist is far from independent of what has gone before. (119)

[Scarcity of information = value, here. I thought Wiener was critical of such an idea? Or maybe he is not advocating such market reductionism, just describing it. And yet he seems to be taking it for granted as an aspect of the value of information.]

… a piece of information, in order to contribute to the general information of the community, must say something substantially different from the community's previous common stock of information. Even in the great classics of literature and art, much of the obvious informative value has gone out of them, merely by the fact that the public has become acquainted with their contents. (119)

If the value of art can be reduced to “information” in this sense (and furthermore, simply novel or new information), then schoolboys who detest Shakespeare are quite reasonable to do so (until they are trained to see beyond the expected and cliché), and artists like Picasso can be seen as a "destructive influence" because they use up the available future positions for art [based on his later discussion of science, he is perhaps seeing art history as “path-dependent” here, an interesting idea but it seems just as easy to say that explorers like Picasso spur others to innovate as well. Then again I have actually made this argument myself, that the avant-garde is really about seeking out and pre-emptively using up possible future positions, in order to sort of suck the power out of these possible futures].

An interesting disquisition on what Wiener believes that the "man in the street" thinks about "Maecenas" (an ancient Roman art collector whom, imho, the “man in the street” has almost certainly never heard of) leads into his criticism of the idea that information (including artistic value) can be stored. This in turn leads to a discussion of weaponry and military tactics, which cannot be reasonably stored (at least not in modernity) but must be updated: storage, as antithesis of the process of change, is destructive and wasteful. England and New England are given as examples of regions which are economically hampered by being over-invested in older models (because they were first to develop), while later adopters easily move ahead.

Quite apart from the difficulties of having a relatively strict industrial law and an advanced labor policy, one of the chief reasons that New England is being deserted by the textile mills is that, frankly, they prefer not to be hampered by a century of traditions. (121)

[A.E.J. Morris makes a similar argument, in his History of Urban Form, regarding the ascendancy of Birmingham over the older artisanal center of Coventry; though he then notes that "with hind sight" this resulted in Coventry being spared many of the ravages of the Industrial Revolution (Morris, p. 290).]

Thus, from cybernetic viewpoint, law, “advanced labor policy” (as in, worker’s rights and protections) and traditions are examples of “storage:” once again cybernetics takes the form of a deeply functionalist way of looking at culture. Now Braverman, who I am reading at the same time in part specifically as a contrast with Wiener, might actually agree about this storage idea; but the overall role would have to be understood within the context of struggle over who has knowledge, and whose interests technology and production serve. I am reminded also of Braverman’s observation that the theory of management could have developed differently in a society run by workers themselves, as opposed to the current society in which workers are a problem to be “managed” – the same holds true for Wiener’s cybernetics. Perhaps there could be a more subtle and complex conflict theory cybernetics, or conflict theory/agonistic view informed by the insights of cybernetics, but going beyond Wiener’s functionalist assumptions – such as that the country that will be most successful is "the country in which it is fully realized that information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it." (122)

This, in any event, brings him back to the question of military secrecy: there is no need or use for "storing" information using secrecy.

An example of the sort of description that must have influenced Silvan Tomkins:

I repeat, to be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts on the outer world, in which we are merely the transi­tional stage. In the figurative sense, to be alive to what is happening in the world, means to participate in a continual development of knowledge and its unham­pered exchange. (122)

International relations involves bluffing, similar to litigation which was discussed in a previous chapter (and bluffing and misrepresentation is a bad thing, according to Wiener). Scientific military advance ends up being a paradox:

I have already said the dissemination of any scien­tific secret whatever is merely a matter of time, that in this game a decade is a long time, and that in the long run, there is no distinction between arming ourselves and arming our enemies. Thus each terrifying discovery merely increases our subjection to the need of mak­ing a new discovery. (129)

He ends with demonic images, such as summoning demons, and the "Gadarene swine" from the Bible. The link between military development and evil is two-fold, because this will increase entropy (which he has equated with evil, before), besides literally resulting in the world being blown up.



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