Thursday, March 26, 2020

Cybernetic Democracy

An enchanting interview on NPR with Mayor Betsy Price of Fort Worth on the Covid-19 response in Texas carries the headline "Coronavirus Guidance Across Texas Is Not Consistent" at their website,  but that's really not accurate. It's pretty consistent, just at odds with governor Greg Abbott and of course the suicide volunteer lieutenant governor Dan Patrick; Abbott's been resisting calls for him to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, and the mayors and executives of the state's largest cities and counties have reacted by creating the situation that Abbot's order would have created, without his assistance.

That is, they've gotten together (by Zoom, presumably, they're practicing social distancing) and coordinated the issuing of orders of their own, covering 70% of the Texas population, and the other counties are coming on board one at a time, so it's going to be as if Abbott had issued a timely order. And indeed Abbott is now suggesting he might do it after all:

"It's clear to me that we may not be achieving the level of compliance that is needed," Abbott said during a news conference in Austin. "That's why I said before I remain flexible in my statewide standard.
We will continue to evaluate, based upon all the data, whether or not there needs to be heightened standards and stricter enforcement," Abbott added.
Abbott had been explaining his resistance in traditional Republican terms of not wanting to employ a heavy centralizing hand or a one-size-fits-all approach and the folks on the ground knowing best and so forth—
"We need to see the level of effectiveness of the executive order," Abbott said. "What... may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point of time for the more than 200 counties that have zero cases of COVID-19."
—but that was clearly wrong. What Texas needed was a uniform approach from the authorities that would, no doubt, enforce itself differently in different places, because that's how people are, and that's what the action of the mayors and executives has given them.

Behind that typical conservative "small-government" fetishism is a kind of authoritarianism we don't usually notice, a negative kind, a reluctance to make demands on the subjects that the subjects won't universally blindly obey (see under conservative attitudes to auto speed limits) because they want to preserve the magic quality of the authority. They nearly say so outright when objecting to gun control measures that "this won't stop all school shootings" etc., as if preventing most of them would not be a good outcome.

What's in fact going on in this case, I find myself thinking, is a happy example of what you could call "cybernetic" democracy, by which I don't mean using computers (though that clearly helps), but the broadest sense of cybernetics as originally used:
Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary[1] approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine."[2] In other words, it is the scientific study of how humans, animals and machines control and communicate with each other.
Cybernetics is applicable when a system being analyzed incorporates a closed signaling loop—originally referred to as a "circular causal" relationship—that is, where action by the system generates some change in its environment and that change is reflected in the system in some manner (feedback) that triggers a system change. Cybernetics is relevant to, for example, mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive, and social systems.
The basic idea of that feedback mechanism is that of the ship's pilot (the word comes from ancient Greek κυβερνάω (kybernáō), originally "steering"), who watches the behavior of the ship (feedback) and doesn't do anything as long as it's going in the right direction. Little kids imagine that you have to be moving that wheel constantly, like Trump in the famous fire truck GIF, but the real rule is that you wait for a reason.

Human cognition is a cybernetic control system, a vast network of feedback loops within feedback loops structured in the opposite way from a computer, in which the operation is top-down starting from the instructions typed in by an external executive: in the brain, demands bubble up from the bottom level (sensory perception and body awareness) and are handled at the lowest level that can take care of it. The executive (which for me dwells in the language system, which monitors everything holistically, in the form of a constantly updated autobiography) responds to threats and temptations directed at the whole person and doesn't, when it's functioning properly, get bogged down in the details.

(Most cognitive science back in my time failed to recognize that difference between computers and humans, and I don't know how much better it may have gotten in recent years, but the development of machine learning suggests that computer science is doing a much better job than it was.)

Human society is a collection of control systems that can't be controlled at all, obviously, in control-theoretical terms—that is, you can make people do things, but you can't change their internal systems to make them a subordinate part of your system. Cartesian political science, like Cartesian cognitive science, drawing an ontological line between soul and body, executive and implementers, leader and people, sees the system upside down and that is where it goes wrong. However, people can indeed act as a single thing, however half-assed, and actually do in certain ways much of the time, through an arrangement of distributed power, very roughly similar to an array of computers in parallel processing but, as I say, motivated all from their own bottom desires and fears; think of the members of an orchestra working together not because they're ordered to but because they want to be parts of this thing, it gives them a deep emotional satisfaction, and voluntarily accept the conductor's guidance as a precondition (over the weekend I was watching some Daniel Barenboim and enthralled by what a cybernetic conductor he is, hardly moving much of the time, just enjoying how well it's going, and then flicking a warning finger as the musicians approach a danger spot).

I'm not going to try to work this out in any detail—it's perfectly possible that there are people who know how to do that or have done it already and not gotten enough glory for me to hear about it yet—but I wanted to say something about what the idea of democracy looks like in this conception: a network in which executive power is distributed as widely as possible, and driven in response to those deepest hopes and fears of "the least of these".

What we're seeing in the Covid crisis is a kind of compensated dysfunction in which the highest executive in the US, the White House, is utterly failing, but there are things going right thanks to the lower levels of the governor's offices in some states—California and New York, Michigan and Massachusetts, and others—while other governors in Florida, Mississippi, and Texas, are more or less delinquent. In the mayors and county executives of Texas we see yet another flourishing of democracy in spite of the fecklessness of the capitol in Austin. It's better—more efficient—if the work in a gigantic crisis like this is done at the highest level possible, it's the historical moment when we really wish there was a world government to call on, but this is another occasion for a surge of hope.

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