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Systems thinking

Official_portrait_of_Chi_Onwurah_crop_3.jpgThere's a TV ad currently running on MSNBC that touts the services of a company that makes custom T-shirts to help campaigns raise funds for causes such as climate change.

Pause. It takes 2,700 liters of water to make a cotton T-shirt - water that, the Virtual Water project would argue, is virtually exported from cotton-growing nations to those earnest climate change activists. Plus other environmental damage relating to cotton; see also the recent paper tracking the pollution impact of denim microfibers. So the person buying the T-shirt may be doing a good thing on the local level by supporting climate change activism while simultaneously exacerbating the climate change they're trying to oppose.

The same sort of issue arose this week at the UK Internet Governance Forum with respect to what the MP and engineer Chi Onwurah (Labour-Newcastle upon Tyne Central) elegantly called "data chaos" - that is, the confusing array of choices and manipulations we're living in. Modern technology design has done a very good job of isolating each of us into a tiny silo, in which we attempt to make the best decisions for ourselves and our data without any real understanding of the wider impact on wider society.

UCL researcher Michael Veale expanded on this idea: "We have amazing privacy technologies, but what we want to control is the use of technologies to program and change entire populations." Veale was participating in a panel on building a "digital identity layer" - that is, a digital identity infrastructure to enable securely authenticated interactions on the Internet. So if we focus on confidentiality we miss the danger we're creating in allowing an entire country to rely on intermediaries whose interests are not ours but whose actions could - for example - cause huge populations to self-isolate during a pandemic. It is incredibly hard just to get a half-dozen club tennis players to move from WhatsApp to something independent of Facebook. At the population level, lock-in is far worse.

Third and most telling example. Last weekend, at the 52nd annual conference of the Cybernetics Society, Kate Cooper, from the Birmingham Food Council, made a similar point when, after her really quite scary talk, she was asked whether we could help improve food security if those of us who have space started growing vegetables in our gardens. The short answer: no. "It's subsistence farming," she said, going on to add that although growing your own food helps you understand your own relationship with food and where it comes from and can be very satisfying to do, it does nothing at all to help you gain a greater understanding of the food system and the challenges of keeping it secure. This is - or could be - another of Yes, Minister's irregular verbs: I choose not to eat potato chips; you very occasionally eat responsibly-sourced organic potato chips; potato chips account for 6% of Britain's annual crop of potatoes. This was Cooper's question: is that a good use of the land, water, and other resources? Growing potatoes in your front garden will not lead you to this question.

Cybernetics was new to me two years ago, when I was invited to speak at the 50th anniversary conference. I had a vague idea it had something to do with Isaac Asimov's robots. In its definition, Wikipedia cites MIT scientific Norbert Weiner in 1948: "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine". So it *could* be a robot. Trust Asimov.

Attending the 2018 event, followed by this year's, which was shared with the American Society for Cybernetics, showed cybernetics up as a slippery transdiscipline. The joint 2020 event veered from a case study of IBM to choreography, taking in subjects like the NHS Digital Academy, design, family therapy, social change, and the climate emergency along the way. Cooper, who seemed as uncertain as I was two years ago whether her work really had anything to do with cybernetics, fit right in.

The experience has led me to think of cybernetics as a little like Bayes' Theorem as portrayed in Sharon Bertsch McGrayne's book The Theory That Would Not Die. As she tells the story, for two and a half centuries after its invention, select mathematicians kept the idea alive but rarely dared to endorse it publicly - and today it's everywhere. The cybernetics community feels like this, too: a group who are nurturing an overlooked, poorly understood-by-the-wider-world, but essential field waiting for the rest of us to understand its power.

For a newcomer, getting oriented is hard; some of the discussion seems abstract enough to belong in a philosophy department. Other aspects - such as Ray Ison's description of his new book, The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking, smacks of self-help, especially when he describes it: "The contention of the book is that systems thinking in practice provides the means to understand and fundamentally alter the systems governing our lives."

At this stage, however, with the rolling waves of crises hitting our societies (which Ison helpfully summed up in an apt cartoon), if this is cybernetics, it sounds like exactly what we need. "Why," asked the artist Vanilla Beer, whose father was the cybernetics pioneer Stafford Beer, "is something so useful unused?" Beats me.

Illustrations: Chi Onwurah (official portrait, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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