Stafford Beer: 1973 Massey Lectures

At the time of this 1973 talk, cyberneticist Stafford Beer had just returned from Chile, where his Cybersyn project with the Allende government had ended with the military coup d’état.

“The target is to transform the whole of industrial management, and to make Chilean industry fully effective in one year,” wrote Beer. Instead, his staff destroyed the computer tapes. (See “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation” [pdf], by Eden Miller, author of the award-winning Cybernetic Revolutionaries.)

The CBC has recently opened its full audio trove of annual University of Toronto Massey Lectures, including these six talks by Beer, in whose precisely regulated speech patterns I sometimes hear bullet points.

From lecture 1:

Remember these aspects of our work together so far:

  • A dynamic system is in constant flux, and the higher its variety, the greater the flux.
  • Its stability depends on its net state reaching equilibrium, following a perturbation.
  • The time this process takes is the relaxation time.
  • The mode of organization adopted for the system is its variety controller.

With these points clearly in our minds, it is possible to state the contention of this first lecture with force and, I hope, with simplicity.

Here it goes:

  • Our institutions were set up a long time ago.
  • They handled a certain amount of variety, and controlled it by sets of organizational variety reducers.
  • They coped with a certain range of perturbations, coming along at a certain average frequency.
  • The system had a characteristic relaxation time, which was acceptable to society.
  • As time went by, variety rose, because the relevant population grew and more states became accessible, both to their population and to the institutional system.
  • This meant more variety reducers were systematically built into the system, until today our institutions are nearly solid with organizational restrictions.
  • Meanwhile, both the range and the frequency of the perturbations have increased.
  • But we said just now, the systemic variety has been cut — this produces a mismatch.
  • The relaxation time of the system is not geared to the current rate of perturbation. …
  • Hence our institutions are in an unstable condition.

From lecture 4:

The brain is a finite instrument that mediates all our experience and is therefore limiting.

As a personal aside, let me say that I am more interested in the fact that I could not recognize an angel if I met one — because my brain does not have requisite variety — than I am in the illegitimate scientific argument that angels don’t exist because I have not recognized one yet.

Returning to the main argument about the limitations of the brain, I have argued that we as individuals are the unwitting victims of a cultural process which very drastically delimits variety for us.

In the first place, our economic environment points to an increasing use of science and technology in what is allegedly the service of man, but which I contend takes this ‘service’ in a false sense.

As a result, we stand — and the innocent legatees of our policies in the developing nations yet more vulnerably stand — to be exploited by whoever wields the power of science to technocratic ends.

In the second place, the instruments of variety constraint turn out to be education and the communications media, both of which we culturally suppose to be variety amplifiers. This belief is as delusory as the belief that we can fully know reality.

It’s entirely possible to take corrective action about all this — not the biological limitations, but the societal constraints. To do so requires that the people themselves take control of the use of science through their democratic processes.

This means furnishing them and their governments with new channels of communication, and a new kind of education system, and a new kind of publishing system.

Why are these recommendations necessary? The answer is that the necessary attenuation of variety produces in us a mere model of the world. And in so far as we wish to control the world, whether as citizens or as individuals within a personal environment, our powers of regulation are cybernetically constrained by the model we hold of what needs to be regulated.

Our civilization has led us to a manifestly dysfunctional model. Then, we must equip ourselves to revise it. The power to do this, we certainly do possess.

See also: “Climate regulation and requisite variety.”

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