The draw of cybernetics

The draw of cybernetics

I had a spare Audible credit so I listened to Dan Davies' new book about Stafford Beer a few weeks back. It chimed with some thoughts I've been having since listening to the last General Intellect Unit, which I've been listening to (on and off) since it started in 2017. (I could've sworn it was older than that!) I've been interested in cybernetics for years—I think possibly since I read Matt Webb talking about the anecdote in The Cybernetic Brain about using a pond to control a factory in 2011.

Something that brought into stark relief why I find it such a compelling way of looking at the world is (and I swear I'll get to the point soon and stop just linking to things) Leif Wenar's piece in Wired about the problems with Effective Altruism, Even The Mosquito Nets. Wenar's criticisms are all very valid and extremely sad, and I found myself feeling a vague despair at the possibility of much positive change bigger than that we can achieve interpersonally.

But then I remembered problem is not that no large-scale positive change is possible: the problem is that actions have second-order effects and unintended consequnces and they can and should be thought about and mitigated rather than just shrugged off or ignored. What better way to do this than to try and build systems in a way that accomodates them? Absent that accommodation, effective altruism is just a way for a bunch of California techno-hippies to poison African watercourses; as the man himself said, the purpose of the system is what it does.

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