“Ethical Reasoning in a Cybernetic World” – Lawrence Richards
Laurence D. Richards:
This will not be about ethics in the philosophical sense, but ethics in the practical, everyday sense applied to the question, “What is it to be human, and what should we do about it?” Norbert Wiener was particularly concerned about the technologies being developed and used, giving special attention to those technologies made possible by cybernetic ideas and reasoning. I’m going to categorize those concerns into three groups just as a framework for thinking. Which will then comprise what I will call a cybernetic world.
There are the technologies in computing, automation, and mass communication focusing on Wieners particular concern with respect to the economic implications replacing human labor both physical and mental with machines. Something that Mary Catherine alluded to. Wiener also talked about computers as communication devices rather than simply calculating machines. Something that we have since of course seen happen on a large scale with the development of global internet. We also emphasized a special concern with respect to development of machines that can make decisions. That is the application of artificial intelligence, which also makes possible technologies like robotics, virtual reality, bionics and so forth. As we know this technology is now ubiquitous.
The third category I pose as a question. This is the category of the soft technology. The technology of organization, process, and procedure. What are the implications of cybernetic thinking on human interactions, and society in general separate from the physical machines? Are there propositions that can make … That we can make about a desirable social, political, economic structure based on a cybernetic approach to communication, and control in society? All technology mediates human interaction in some way or another, and therefore determines, or is determined by the social structures in which we live. While Wiener did not propose such structures directly he definitely had thoughts on what might be desirable and undesirable.
Using this framework I’d like then to propose three ethical dilemmas. One each associated with the three categories of technologies constituting a cybernetic world current and future. There is the ongoing problem of all technology complicated now by a world of mass automation and communication. Namely the problem of insuring that such technology does not compromise human health and safety in the short run as well as the long run. Then there’s what I will call the emerging problem. Although emerging even in the 50s when Wiener wrote his book The Human Use of Human Beings, machines that can make their own decisions even though programmed by humans. The problem is with ensuring that the humans doing the programming at the interest of other humans in mind rather than their own vested interests. In particular the acquisition, and maintenance of wealth and power.
Then there is the overarching problem of society. Namely ensuring that the human social structures we design, and put in place, including the economic and political, show the best interests of all humans. Not just those with access to wealth and power. A dilemma that Wiener referenced often. The reference to Katrina could be looked at as a failure of technology.
The first problem: the ongoing problem how to prevent the neglect of the consequences of technology on human health, and safety in addition to the employment problems. Including environmental degradation in general. We might conclude that Wiener was not particularly creative in his response to this problem. We simply have to put in place, and enforce regulations that prevent negative consequences for humans. He also implied that we must have ways of ensuring that when computers, automation, mass communication replace human labor we still have something for us humans to do. We cannot let people go without the means to support themselves and their families. We cannot allow the history of treating humans as instruments of higher purpose, which we could … One could argue made the industrial revolution possible to provide the rationale for the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. Yet Wiener saw this happening even in the 50s and 60s.
With respect to the emerging problem. You may have read recently, last couple of months I believe, Stephen Hawking in an interview expressing his thoughts concerning the future of humanity, and the world as we now know it. He said that one of his primary concerns has been the emerging use of machines that can select their own targets, and then act on that selection more quickly, and forcefully than any human ever could. Does this sound familiar? This technology already exists of course. For example, reportedly used to identify and kill terrorists. Wiener had no trust in those with the power, and wherewithal to program these types of device, and therefore advocated they simply not be allowed. However he also advised that once we had the technology we can never go back. It’s now up to us to manage it wisely.
Wiener’s reference with respect to these technologies, to the small block of humans who control the resources to build, and deploy them point to the hierarchies and rewards, that is the command and control structures Mary Catherine referred to that allow, and encourage such concentration of control by the few, the so-called ruling class, to persist unchecked. Again one could say that Wiener was not particularly creative in response to this overarching problem. He was clearly an advocate of democracy, and wanted it to be practiced in it’s [fullest 00:06:12] sense. However the standard way of thinking about a strong democracy is to ensure one: a robust system of checks and balances, and two: a set of regulations that protect the people from exploitation. An approach that quite frankly seems no longer to be working, and that Wiener thought was threatened even in the 1950s. Cybernetic technologies now allow people to be treated as [voting 00:06:36] machines to be programmed. In this view of democracy, ethics derives from a right and wrong variety. Implying that it in the form of principles serves an overarching role in society plied across all social strata.
I … There’s some … Many of you probably know people who treat, if is it’s legal it’s ethical, and that I think is what Wiener would question. The implementation of such a set of principles implies a ruling class to apply the principles in a fair and just manner. Hence the dilemma who rules the rulers? While searching for quote that might reflect Wiener’s implied approach to these ethical dilemmas in a cybernetic world I came upon this one. I’ll read it. “It’s real danger, machines that can make decisions, is the quite different one that such machines, though helpless by themselves, may be used by a human being, or a block of human beings to increase their control over the rest of the human race. Or the political leaders may attempt to control their populations by means not of machines themselves, but through political techniques as narrow, and indifferent to human possibles as if they had in fact been conceived mechanically.
When I say that Wiener’s response to the ethical dilemmas he identified were not particularly creative I’m not saying they were not appropriate. In fact imagining an alternative world altogether would likely still be regarded today as dangerous, unfeasible, irrational, and therefore inappropriate. However if we are going to take Wiener’s concerns seriously, and extend this reasoning to the next step, I say we have at least to at least explore unknown territory however irrational it may seem. I’d like to suggest a thought experiment. When we take Wiener’s cybernetic concepts as sense extended to what is now referred as second order, and apply them to an imagined desirable society,
I suggest two questions as a way to frame this experiment. What would a society look like if cybernetic ideas were to be applied to the social structures of that society in a way desirable for all humans? Or alternatively, and I will propose that this is essentially the same question in an entirely different form, how can ethics be effectively removed from its explicit guiding role, and rendered [instead 00:09:18] an undercurrent of a society operating implicitly, almost without notice in all human processes and interactions? I offer that again these are perhaps identical questions.
Heinz Von Foerster who attended the latter Macy Conferences with Norbert Wiener, and who’s credited along with Margaret Mead, of creating the term second order cybernetics made this statement in his essay Ethics and Second Order Cybernetics and I quote: “I, myself try to adhere to the following rule: to master the use of my language, so that ethics is implicit in any discourse I may have. By that I mean to let action, and language ride on an undercurrent, underground river of ethics, and to make sure that one is not thrown off. This ensures that ethics does not become explicit in that language does not degenerate into moralization. In it’s appearance the language I speak is my language. It makes me aware of myself. This is the root of consciousness. In its function my language reaches out to the other. This is the root of conscious. This is where ethics invisibly manifests itself through dialogue.” End of quote.
I’d also like to propose two assumptions as you’re thinking of doing this thought experiment. First actually I use a quote from Ross Ashby, who was of course very close in his latter years to Norbert Wiener, referenced him often. “Everyone is a world champion at some game. Although some of the games have not yet been recognized.” Used this in talking about intelligence. The assumption I’m going to draw from this is that all humans count, and have potentially unique contributions to make. The second assumption is actually from Norbert Wiener: all systems move toward greater entropy. Wiener’s quote, “Life is an island here, and now in a dying world. The process by which we living beings resist the general stream of corruption, and decay is known as homeostasis. We continue to live in a very special environment in which we carry forward with us till we begin to decay more quickly than we can reconstitute ourselves and then we die.” That’s the end of the quote.
Wiener did not see this as fatalism, as an excuse to throw up our hands and to do nothing. Rather it is our lot. In fact one can argue if variety did not decay we humans would have nothing to do. It’s the retardation of decay that defines living systems, and humans in particular. The consequences of this idea might be worth considering.
Finally just three ideas. Something possibly to think about that I’ve thought about for quite a few years now. Possible consequences of, or speculations about this cybernetic world. First expect a social design, unlike engineering design as we know it, will not take the form of a blueprint. There is no blueprint for a desirable society to the dismay of many engineers. Rather it will take the form of a constraint based process oriented toward retarding the decay of variety. Second, the prospect of thinking of ethics not as about right and wrong, but rather as a process of facilitating dialogue, and full participation by all human beings. I’ve always like the phrase, “Dilute power. Increase choice.” It comes from the composer Herbert Brun, student of Heinz von Foerster.
Then the last thought: social structures will not be hierarchical or reward oriented. Perhaps the most difficult thing, the most difficult challenge to our thinking. It’s impossible to think … I find it impossible to think about complexity without thinking about hierarchy, and yet that very thinking is what leads to the kinds of organizations, and structures that we now live in.
I came across a quote in preparing this presentation, which reminded me of what I was preparing. I’ll just read it, and that’ll be it. “We must rapidly begin the shift from the thing oriented society to a person oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploration they’re incapable of being conquered.” I would like to think that Norbert Wiener would have approved, but I do not know that. Now it is up to us to follow through, to ensure that the cybernetic world we create is desirable. Thank you.