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.

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7 Comments

  1. Totally and strongly agree about telling (different) utopian stories. We can learn and tweak and try again and aim for incremental improvement. We will hit what we direct our attention towards, so it really is imperative that we work hard to direct our attention towards something better, no matter how difficult it is to imagine or believe in.

  2. Thanks for posting about the book and doco. Looking forward to giving both a go. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so excellent timing! I too agree that utopian stories outside of the realm of “traditional”, and dare I suggest confected, communal living (shudder) are very worthwhile.

    Don’t get me started on algorithms.

  3. I’ll be greatly looking forward to more of your thoughts on our obsession with dystopia vs utopia. The increasingly “apocalyptic everything” focus of our culture’s entertainment has been making me more and more disappointed and discouraged. I’d like some hope and sparkle and stories about how we could get it right, rather than all the ways we can get/are getting it wrong.

    • I too have been wondering why everything in pop culture is “dark.” Been thinking about this a lot ever since reading William Morris’ utopian book News From Nowhere which presents a hopeful future.

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