Cybernetics: A Fatal Flaw

Still from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Last week I wrote about an archive of 1970s appropriate technology publications called Rain. I still contend that there is much to be reclaimed from this movement but it’s also healthy to look at what went wrong. A provocative and controversial book I just finished, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet makes note of what may have been the fatal flaw in the movement: cybernetics, the dream of self organizing systems as an alternative to the messiness of politics. As the author of Surveillance Valley, Yasha Levine, puts it,

Back in the 1960s, many of [Stewart] Brand’s New Communalists built micro-communites based on cybernetic ideas believing that flat hierarchies, social transparency, and radical interconnectedness between individuals would abolish exploitation, hierarchy, and power. In the end, the attempt to replace politics with technology was the fatal flaw: without organized protection for the weak, these would-be utopias devolved into cults controlled by charismatic and dominant leaders who ruled their fiefdoms though bullying and intimidation.

As an example he cites a New Mexico-based commune, known as The Family, that went particularly bad.

The Family quickly transformed into a rigid hierarchy, with men addressed with titles like “sir” and “Lord,” and women forced to wear skirts and assigned conservative gender-based work: cooking, child care, and washing. A founding member who called himself Lord Byron presided over the group and reserved the right to have sex with any woman in the commune . . . “There was constantly a background of fear in the house–like a virus running in the background. Like spyware. You know it’s there, but you don’t know how to get rid of it.”

Levine contends that this type of “cybernetic utopia gone bad,” birthed in the idealistic pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, is how we ended up with Google and Facebook’s spyware based business model. Think for a second about how absurd it is that Mark Zuckerberg seems to believe that algorithms can parse the subtleties of all the world’s languages and flag the sort of hate speech that leads to deaths in countries like Myanmar and India.

Still from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

Levine also cites one of my favorite documentaries, Adam Curtis’ three part All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Part II is about the problems of cybernetics, the failure of communes and the mistaken belief in a “balance of nature.” You can watch it here. I also recommend parts I and III.

Unfortunately it seems that what we got out of the idealistic ecotopian movements of the 1970s was cybernetics not composting toilets. Counterintuitively, I think that instead of abandoning idealism and utopian thinking, we actually need to walk away from the dystopian stories we’ve been telling each other for so many post-Mad Max years and begin to tell utopian stories again, just different utopian stories than the last round. I’ll have to develop this idea further in future posts, but in the meantime, do yourself a favor and spend an evening with Adam Curtis and let me know what you think.

Saturday Tweets: Better Late Than Never

Bottom-up Urbanism

In another great video from Fair Companies, Johnny Sanphillippo gives a tour of his Sonoma County rental property. Johnny describes himself as a “rodent who scurries about finding the opportunities other don’t recognize.” A lot of the things he talks about in the video are things we’ve done in our own very small Los Angeles house, such as adding sheds and making the garage space usable, all strategies for getting by on the expensive West Coast. The video even includes a bonus visit to a Murphy bed manufacturer.

You can follow Johnny on his blog Granola Shotgun and hear him talk more about his rental property on episode 120 of our podcast.

Rain: A Journal of Appropriate Technology

To double down on the irony this morning, as soon as I announce computer problems I discover it to be just a loose power cord and shazam we’re back with a blog post–back to discuss an appropriate technology journal from the pre-internet days.

One hopeful node in the otherwise sewage clogged tubes of the interwebs, is the work of librarians who have thoughtfully digitized old periodicals. I spent a rainy Sunday afternoon reading the delightful Rain: A Journal of Appropriate Technology, which was published between 1974 and 1996. Here’s the description on the Portland State Library website:

RAIN began in October 1974 as a publication of ECO-NET, an environmental education network funded by the Hill Foundation and an Environmental Education grant. Its office was based in the Environmental Education Center at Portland State University. With a focus on the Pacific Northwest, particularly Oregon, RAIN originally described itself as a “bulletin board” with an “emphasis on environmental/energy related and communications kinds of information” and interested in “the evolutionary possibilities of inter-disciplinary connections.” RAIN is notable for its early engagement and promotion of appropriate technologies supporting sustainability, sound ecological practices, and decentralized community action.

RAIN is kind of like the Whole Earth Catalog but with a special focus on applying appropriate technology here in the developed world. As one article put it, “You can’t sell compost toilets to others if you won’t use them yourself.”

For me, reading RAIN was melancholic. It’s hard not to think about how much better off we’d all be, from a climate change perspective, if we’d heeded the warnings and solutions offered back in the 1970s. Or for that matter, John Ruskin and William Morris’ concerns about the “dark satanic mills” of the 19th century. Hell, we even made a stab at this when we wrote our books around the time of the 2008 economic meltdown. But somehow the allure of shiny consumer objects sends us all back into destructive spasms of consumption and waste and publications like RAIN get forgotten.

Rain featured a lot of articles by E. F. Schumacher, as well as covering such topics as energy efficiency, permaculture and alternative schools. One topic I’d never thought much about, the destructive influence of tourism, seemed to be the special concern of co-editor Tom Bender. Here’s an especially eloquent passage by Bender from the May 1976 issue:

Drinking wine one recent evening with Florian Winter, an Austrian visiting us on a global survey of renewable energy developments for the U.N., we got into talking about the destruction of European cathedrals by tourism.

Each person came, he said, and took away a little of the cathedrals–in their camera, in their mind, or in the conversation–and now nothing remains.

In that absurdity there is truth.

All places live though the reverence with which we hold them–without which they crumble to pieces, unloved, unmaintained, abandoned and destroyed. That reverence is the glue that in reality binds the stones and the blood that in truth sustains the life of a place.

For the life of a place lies in its relation to the people that share it. And it is that reverence first which is taken away, tour group by tour group. Without this reverence, a place has nothing to give to those whose lives it must sustain, and they in turn lose their nourishment and fall into the same dereliction as their cathedral. It need not be so, for the visit of a pilgrim differs from that of a tourist. A pilgrim brings love and reverence, and the visit of a pilgrim leaves behind a gift of their reverence for others to share.

. . . And we lessen the soul of all places to which we go, and ourselves as well when we take without giving and come to them without reverence to life and to land, to people and to place, to ourselves and to the creation of which we are part. That is the destruction of which tourism is part and from which tourism arises, and it is there that we again can find the healing power for our land and our lives.

It’s well past time that we consider the wisdom in the pages of RAIN again.