Neocybernetics Workshop: Technics & Society, Nago-Torbole (Italy)

Technics & Society

From July 5 to 8, 2013, we held a Neocybernetics Workshop in Nago-Torbole on Lake Garda in northern Italy. The workshop was organized by Ursula Damm, Lasse Scherffig and me. In preparation for the workshop, I wrote a little paper and passed it around among the participants. To understand its title, „The Sicilian Rangers“, you have to read pretty far.

Here it is! (german)

»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 learned that we can never fully understand and control complex systems. Regardless of whether they are natural or man-made, sufficiently complex systems will always be able to surprise us and carry some residual risk. If we take this fact seriously, what does it mean for a responsible approach to nature, technology and society? How should we act if the consequences of our actions cannot be predicted? What strategies can we pursue – apart from respectful retreat – when the problems are obvious but the options for action are unclear? How can we make plans for a world that can always surprise us? What are possible roles for us in a world where there is insufficient knowledge and no sustainable control? What can a steersman (cyberneticist) do when 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.