Technics and Society

From 5. – 8. of Juli 2013 we held a Neocybernetics Workshop in Nago-Torbole at the Lake Garda in the North of Italy. The workshop was organized by Ursula Damm, Lasse Scherffig and myself. In perparation for the workshop I wrote a little paper and spread it around between the participants. Here it is. To understand its title »The Sicilian Rangers« one has to read quite far.

(PDF)

Many a book has borne the title “Theory of Machines”, but it usually contains information about mechanical things, about levers and cogs. Cybernetics, too, is a “theory of machines”, but it treats, not things but ways of behaving. It does not ask “what is this thing?” but “what does it do?”. (Ross Ashby, An Introduction to Cybernetics, 1957)

Not only from nature but also from our technologies we have learnt that we will never be ably to completely understand and control complex systems. Regardless of wether they are natural or man-made, sufficiently complex systems will always be able to suprise us and contain some residual risks.

If we take this fact seriously, what does this then imply for a responsible treatment of nature, technology and society? How are we supposed to act while the consequences of action are impossible to predict? What strategies can we follow – apart from retreating respectfully – if the problems are apparent but the possible courses for action are obscured? How can we make plans for a world that may always surprise us? What are possible roles for us in a world where sufficient knowledge and sustainable control are absent? What can a steersman (Cybernetician) do, if there is no port of destination?

Post Scriptum: The workshop was hosted in the beautiful house of Kris Krois in the hills of Nago-Torbole. We had agreed about the expenses, but because of difficult tax rules in Italy he never managed to issue an invoice. (Sorry about that Kris, but we all loved the place.) And here we are back to the title of the paper and the italian way of handling things.