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Wiener, Shannon, & the Politics of Information (II)
Wiener sets our contemporary technological revolution in an historical frame,
“Perhaps I may clarify the historical background of the present situation if I say that the first industrial revolution, the revolution of the “dark satanic mills,” was the devaluation of the human arm by the competition of machinery. There is no rate of pay at which a United States pick-and-shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel as an excavator.”
He then concludes, computers, the latest generation promoted as AI (Artificial Intelligence) are,
“Similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. ...taking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that it is worth anyone’s money to buy. The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling. To arrive at this society, we need a good deal of planning and a good deal of struggle, which, if the best comes to the best, may be on the plane of ideas, and otherwise―who knows?”
In short, Wiener describes the necessity for a politics of technology, first with industrial technologies shaped by mass energy usage and then our new communication technologies dependent on information. A politics of industrial technology remains to this day little understood, barley formed, the politics of information, nonexistent.
Wiener's conclusions on the need for a politics of technology seven decades ago are just as relevant today:
“It gives the human race a new and most effective collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor. Such mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor, although, unlike slave labor, it does not involve the direct demoralizing effects of human cruelty. However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor. The key word of this statement is competition. It may very well be a good thing for humanity to have the machine remove from it the need of menial and disagreeable tasks, or it may not. I do not know. It cannot be good for these new potentialities to be assessed in the terms of the market, of the money they save; and it is precisely the terms of the open market, the “fifth freedom,” that have become the shibboleth of the sector of American opinion represented by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Saturday Evening Post. I say American opinion, for as an American, I know it best, but the hucksters recognize no national boundary.”
The processes we euphemistically and unhelpfully call markets are not simply at this point problematic, but become ever greatly more insufficient to in any way healthily guide technological development. Even more incapable of guiding us are our archaic agrarian government structures and a completely dysfunctional political system. If we are to “have a society based on human values other than buying or selling” these processes, systems, and institutions must be radically reformed.
From our days of hunting and gathering, politics has been a communication process. Politics is fundamentally an information system. Both Wiener's and Shannon's insights offer conceptual and process analogies on how we might reform our politics, government, and economy. We can begin with Wiener's ideas on feedback, the communication necessary for any autonomous system. Feedback creates “intelligence,” systems that dynamically adjust, such systems Wiener called “cybernetic.”
“The entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics, which we form from the Greek χυβερνήτης or steersman. In choosing this term, we wish to recognize that the first significant paper on feedback mechanisms is an article on governors, which was published by Clerk Maxwell in 1868, and that governor is derived from a Latin corruption of χυβερνήτης. We also wish to refer to the fact that the steering engines of a ship are indeed one of the earliest and best-developed forms of feedback mechanisms.”
All social systems are organized through communication, feedback plays an essential role. Indeed, Wiener writes, “The community extends only so far as there extends an effectual transmission of information.” In certain respects the role of government has always been similar to a mechanical governor, providing a mechanism for control and order through adjustment.
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“It is certainly true that the social system is an organization like the individual, that it is bound together by a system of communication, and that it has a dynamics in which circular processes of a feedback nature play an important part.”
Yet, with our politics, here I use politics’ most encompassing definition, – how society structures and determines life – feedback mechanisms are completely broken, whether looked at from a cultural, economic, technological, or environmental perspective.
Every political system has feedback mechanisms providing stability. It's somewhat misconstrued that hierarchical systems of governance, such as monarchies or other despotic regimes, were simply top-down. No centralized hierarchical system lasted long that had no effective feedback coming from the bottom back to the top. As a communication channel, the channel from the top to the bottom was much wider than the one coming back from the bottom to the top. But no centralized system, no matter how brutal, lasted long without feedback from the bottom and some corresponding response from the top.
Centralized power can be looked at as linear, “the simplest control systems are linear,” as opposed to more complex, non-linear systems, such as ourselves and all other biological organisms. Wiener writes about our just beginning understanding of the human body, “A complex additive system like this cannot be stabilized by a single feedback. …In short, our inner economy must contain an assembly of thermostats, automatic controls, governors, and the like, which would be adequate for a great chemical plant. These are what we know collectively as our homeostatic mechanism.”
Homeostasis in complex organisms is gained by numerous processes providing stability to the whole. They involve any number of actions flowing from an initial state which in turn are met by information returned from the resulting initial action — feedback. These continual actions and reactions provide a relative equilibrium helping keep the system stable. An easy example in the human body is temperature control, where innumerable processes produce and consume energy, yet the entire body remains at a constant temperature.
Centralized hierarchical systems of government are uncomplex, a limited number of concentrated systems of control receiving limited feedback necessary for homeostasis. Stability is controlled or attempts to be controlled by the top. At the other end of the political spectrum is democracy, control is more distributed, actions continuously, distributedly instigated, feedback returned from numerous sources. This constant, complex interaction provides systemic stability – homeostasis.
In looking at modern republicanism, particularly the American system, its founding saw a highly distributed system of local, state, and federal governments, atop a predominately agrarian economy comprised largely of small farms. In the course of two and half centuries, the agrarian economy was transformed into an industrial economy. Economic power became increasingly centralized in ever more massive corporations, while government power progressively centralized in DC.
Traditional political communication also centralized. The invention and implementation of broadcast media overwhelmed the more traditionally distributed newspapers, local political parties and associations mostly disappeared. Feedback, once largely provided in person, became more and more dominated by crude polling samples. Marketing and advertising crafted from these polling samples was then pushed back across centralized media to mass audiences. We are told, or more accurately sold, the internet’s ability to more personalize this process is some sort of advance. Regarding government, the citizenry had no direct input to the system, no feedback, except for every two years on election day. Political communication once complex and non-linear, became increasingly linear. Democratic action atrophied, politics grew ever more dysfunctional.
Wiener astutely accessed the situation growing in America,
“It is only in the large community, where the Lords of Things as They Are protect themselves from hunger by wealth, from public opinion by privacy and anonymity, from private criticism by the laws of libel and the possession of the means of communication, that ruthlessness can reach its most sublime levels. Of all of these anti-homeostatic factors in society, the control of the means of communication is the most effective and most important.”
“In a society like ours, avowedly based on buying and selling, in which all natural and human resources are regarded as the absolute property of the first business man enterprising enough to exploit them, these secondary aspects of the means of communication tend to encroach further and further on the primary ones.”
There are two very important things to understand from the above statements. The first is that information, beyond simple quantitative communication, needs context to in anyway be valuable. In Weaver's three components of communication theory this concerns levels B and C, how information is interpreted and then how useful it becomes. Today, at a societal level, context is overwhelmingly provided by massive established forces, monopolist corporations and centralized government institutions – “the Lords of Things as They Are,” more powerful today than when Wiener first labeled them.