September 22, 2008

Lessons Forgot

Filed under: cybernetics — Bricoleur @ 10:47 pm

40+ years ago the cyberneticist Stafford Beer forecast that computerization would be a disaster if this “new” prescription of Shirky’s was not followed [Clay Shirky ( It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure delivered at the Web 2.0 Expo last week].

In a later radio broadcast summarizing some of his concepts (CBC Radio 1973; later published as “Designing Freedom” Anansi) Beer summarized the need this way:

“Now I am saying that we don’t really use them [computer, teleprocessing, and the techniques of effective organization], whereas everyone can assuredly say: ‘Oh yes we do.’ The trouble is that we are using them on the wrong side of the variety equation. We use them without regard to the proliferation of variety within the system, thereby effectively increasing it, and not, as they should be used, to amplify regulative variety. As a result, we do not even like the wretched things.”

It was just yesterday I drove to Vancouver to pick up a copy of “Designing Freedom” (I’d been looking for it since 80’s when I first read several of Beer’s works) and then today I saw Shirky’s post; synchronicity ! Shirky only has a small part of it though, and the lessons of cybernetics go much further than a simple analysis of filter needs.

As it happens, I’ve been  (re) Reading my Beer recently:

(First “Heart of Enterprise“; next “Platform for Change“; and I’m currently in the middle of “Designing Freedom” and now will probably go back to read  “Brain of the Firm” and his Operations Management classic “Decision and Control” for good measure).

I first read some of Beer’s works in the early to mid 80’s and constantly go back to it – its amazing to me how many of the most current ” great understandings” of current day prognosticators that I reflect on are actually things that I’ve crossed the path of decades ago – things that were introduced to me by this great intellect.  Unfortunately, Beer’s lessons mostly go unnoticed by those in charge of our governance systems, and even when someone trips upon reality they usually pick themselves up, dust themselves off and go there way in blissful ignorance. I’ve been going back through these tomes simply because I’ve recognized how many falsehoods are being spewed by both sides of both elections that are currently underway (ie. the USA Presidential run and the Canadian general election).  One example?

Well, I can flatly state (without any fear that the future will prove my prognostication wrong):

the current financial bailout being negotiated in Washington WILL BE A FAILURE regardless of which candidate wins the presidency

Simply put, the executive branch proposal ignores cybernetic truths and thus is doomed to failure before the “signature” ink is even put to page.  And the world will suffer for it.


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