“Cybernetics, Art and Creativity” – Peter Cariani

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“Cybernetics, Art and Creativity” – Peter Cariani

Peter Cariani:

I just want to share three basic ideas about cybernetics and aesthetics, and cybernetics, creativity, and maybe a little bit on the hedonics of novelty and complexity. I teach neuropsychology of Music at Harvard, but I come from the sciences. I’m an auditory neuroscience scientist who worked on the neural coding of pitch. I encounter the two worlds of art and science in my teaching.

The first idea is that I think of art as experiential engineering for purpose of systems. I’ll try to unpack that. Classical cybernetics involves these goal-directed, basically robotic devices, as well as analogue systems, and self-organizing systems, and adaptive systems. We’ve seen this picture a number of times. We’re all goal-directed, purposive, teleological, percept-action systems as Rosenblueth and Wiener and Bigelow pointed out in the 40’s. The basic functional organization of animals involves, at the simplest level of description, percept-action loops, cycles in which animals act on the world. They sense their surrounds and act contingent on what they sense.

Embedded in these systems are other systems that implement goal-directed behavior, that steered the behavior of the organism so that it maintains its organization, its homeostasis, and continues to function such that it can reproduce. One can find areas in the brain, structures in the brain, sets of circuits in the brain, that implements those steering and goal-seeking mechanisms. It’s not hard, from a cybernetic point of view, to identify some of those basic aspects of brains and certainly Lorente and McCulloch and many of the other cybernetic neuroscientists had these structures in mind when they were thinking of their cybernetic theories.

Today this view is not so much in evidence, but it’s an important component and should be an important component of a future resurgence of cybernetic thinking. I think of these things in terms of I made a taxonomy of adaptive and self-modifying and self-constructing devices twenty-five years ago in which the parts of the device, the sensors, the effectors and the coordinating parts could be adaptively-modified, and that is basically the essence of adaptive systems.

I say all this because when we think about listening and music, there are more or less three different ways that we listen to sounds, in my mind. One is what I call an acting mode or an ecological mode where we’re trying to listen for objects in our environment. We’re trying to get around our environment, hear predators, or cars, or other objects in the environment, identify where they’re coming from, identify what they are. There’s a speech mode, as you are probably in right now listening to the words that I say and trying to decode what the words are, so you’re sort of listening past the sounds themselves to get the symbols that constitute the words. Then there’s music mode, or an aesthetic mode, where we listen to sounds not to tell us something about the environment, but to modulate our own internal state in one way or another. This is a self-regulatory function. In this way, one can think about aesthetics as the preferences that we have or informational preferences. What arrangements, forms, equalities, or situations please us?

As Paul Pangaro pointed out to me earlier today, had this idea of aesthetically-potent environments that encourage that mode of interaction with the world. In my mind, science involves understanding or predicting the external world. Engineering involves changing it. The arts involve understanding and changing our internal worlds. If engineering is about the external world and control and predictability in the external world, the arts involve self-understanding and the modulation of the internal world, including invoking emotion, beauty, awe, wonder, making meaning, giving pleasure, stimulating thought, provoking action, surprising us, comforting us, challenging us, perplexing us – all the internal psychological processes that we use art for. In this way of thinking, the arts involve purpose of engineering, of aesthetic experience, the fulfillment of these informational preferences that we have for certain arrangements of sounds or visual forms or taste or any of the other things that we experience.

In psychology, our sets of preferences, basically the goals that are system is seeking, embody our values implicitly and they partially determine our personalities, how our brains are organized, what our brains are organized, what goals our brains are organized to try to fulfill. If you’re an intellectual, you’re interested in ideas. If you’re an athlete, you like to move and you realize yourself through movement. If you’re an expressive, emotional person, you do it through that modality. There are many different modalities that we have for self-expression and self-realization.

Novelty is one component of aesthetic preference. It’s not the only component obviously. Creativity begets novelty. Twenty-five years ago, my doctoral work was on the problem of emergence and biological cybernetics and how would you make devices that would increase their effective dimensionality in an open-ended way. They would come up with new functions, much in the way that we come up with new meanings or new concepts seemingly in an open-ended way. I came up with a basic set of distinctions about creativity.