“Embodying the work of Norbert Wiener” – Mary Catherine Bateson

Upon retiring from her position as Clarence J. Robinson Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University, Mary remains Professor Emerita. She has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College and serves on multiple advisory boards including that of the National Center on Atmospheric Research, dealing with climate change. http://www.marycatherinebateson.com/

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“Embodying the work of Norbert Wiener” – Mary Catherine Bateson

Flo Conway: Good morning. I’m Flo Conway. We are not what we know, but what we are willing to learn. This quote reflects her life. Beginning with her mother and father, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, who are among the foremost contributors to the proliferation and development of cybernetics, she watched their interactions, learned, and captured their lively associations, especially in her book, Our Own Metaphor, which chronicles the early years of cybernetics and its pioneering figures. She brought all of this forward, expanded it with her ideas and spirit and her own prolific contributions, her books, writings, teaching, that have made her a beloved figure worldwide. It is my really great pleasure to introduce our keynote speaker, Mary Catherine Bateson.

Mary: I’ve been waiting for this magical moment. Microphone. Good morning.

Crowd: Good morning. Good morning, Catherine.

Mary: Think of this as an experiment to find out how fully you have internalized cybernetics. Good morning.

Crowd: Good morning.

Mary: Okay. Well, I’m going to cheat on the program because I won’t be here for the session of anecdotes about Norbert Wiener, probably won’t be here, and there is one anecdote that I’ve used for many years that was pivotal in my decision to accept the invitation to come and speak to you all. I’ve used it again and again in talks that I’ve given.

It describes Wiener being driven as a passenger in a car by a young man who I imagine as a postdoc at MIT to some seminar or event, and the streets of Cambridge not notable for being efficiently cleared after snow and avoiding excess parking and so-on, anyhow, a child comes out, fortunately the car is going very slowly, but knocks the child over. The post-doc stops the car, leaps out, rushes to the child. She’s okay, she’s grazed her knee, she has a scratch and she’s shaken up. There’s a corner drug store. He goes in, he gets alcohol and a band aid and puts it on. He buys a lollipop which he gives to the child, and there’s a pay phone in the corner drug store where he finds out her name and her mother’s address and takes the child home, living in the same block.

Comes back, gets into the car, “Oh, phew,” sigh of relief. Here may or may not have happened, but the story goes, Dr. Wiener says, “You have hit a child with your car before?” He says, “My God, no, I’m so upset and shaken by it. That was terrible. I hope nothing like that ever happens to me again.” Dr. Wiener is said to have said, “Then, how did you know what to do?”

Wiener has always seemed like a paradoxical figure to me, and my memories are the memories of a child. A very peculiar-looking person who turned up repeatedly, coming from his New Hampshire home to the New Hampshire home of Lawrence K. Frank. My parents basically moved into a dual household with the Frank family in New York at the beginning of World War 2. Gregory went off the South Pacific. My mother, Margaret Mead had the bottom 2 floors of the building. Larry Frank had the top 3 floors with his 7 children, 6 at that point. It was a joint household. That was their way of mobilizing for the war, actually, because the adults knew that they were going to be traveling and they were going to be away.

In the summer, the Frank household went to the Lakes region of New Hampshire where there were a scattering of intellectuals attracted there by the Frank family, people involved both with the Macy conferences on cybernetics and the Macy conferences on group process that were taking place at the same time, shorter period, less famous, some of the same people. Periodically, Norbert Wiener would just appear. He wouldn’t telephone. He’d have a new idea that he wanted to talk to someone about, and he would appear and talk at length to Larry Frank or my mother or to Gregory if Gregory was there, he was there less, and talk and talk and talk and then go away.

As a child, I mean there were many distinguished and brilliant people who came and went in that household and extraordinary conversations took place, what I noticed in people’s responses to Norbert Wiener was a complicated mixture of profound respect and deference, really, they wanted to hear what he had to say, and exasperation at his total lack of a sense of when to say it and how to say it in order to communicate effectively. I noticed that the Wikipedia article on Norbert Wiener takes it as more or less given that he was a case of Asperger’s. He was certainly a case of very peculiar early education. He suffered from a father with pronounced ideas on how to educated this brilliant child.

What is so striking about Wiener, to me, retrospectively, is whatever the source of his social ineptitude, of his limited empathy, and sometimes difficulty of understanding whether he was communicating to people, whether they knew what he was saying, even, if he knew it. He was puzzled by how the post-doc knew how to behave. How did he “know” that a lollipop would comfort a child? How did he know that he should call the mother, the he should take the child home, and so on and so forth?

It seems to me that his perplexity about human relations, his lack of skill, is something we need to learn from because it’s directly connected with the concerns that he had about the impact that cybernetics might have on human society. For instance, he worried about the creation or unemployment, people would lose their job, he worried about it making war more destructive. Well, yes indeed, all of that happened. He worried about being engaged in the creation of gadgetry that really should be seen as a new ontology. I think we should be more worried than we now are.

I did my little good morning demonstration to point out that we can talk until we’re blue in the face about communication theory and a need for feedback and so on, but unless you grew up in the South or went to maybe a Pentecostal church, you’re not used the saying good morning back when someone above and in front of you says it, right. We in fact don’t live in terms of the interactional realities that we talk about, and above all the academy doesn’t. It isn’t just that cybernetics has slipped out of focus for many people, the whole concept of interdisciplinary cooperation has slipped. Everyone I know of who thought seriously about American education has tried to bring better communication between the disciplines, and it fails again and again and again. It’s Not what we want.

We don’t want to be able to communicate. We had Adam and Eve to begin the morning with. I’ll just take us a few pages on in the book of Genesis to the Tower of Babel, the myth of the Tower of Babel. Joseph Campbell had a wonderful definition of a myth. A myth is something that never happened but is always true. The story of the Tower of Babel, in those days among the human population of the earth, there was only one language. They got together and they decided they would build a tower that would reach up to God. God looked down on this and did not approve. What the myth says is that he confounded the languages of the people of the earth so they were no longer able to work together on the project, and the scattered, speaking different languages. From that comes all the diversity of human cultures, linguistic groups and so on.

We still live in a world of confounded languages and symbol systems. In recent years I’ve been on the advisory counsel of NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where so much of the work on Earth’s system science is being done which is derived in many ways from the understandings of cybernetics. With the computing capacity, they just built a new UCAR computer, you know, just teraflops of data, massive parallel processing of data coming in.

It’s clear that to understand what is happening to the planet, we have to think in terms of concepts like homeostasis and how it can be disrupted. It is clear that we are in a situation of huge danger that we are currently unable to discuss. We cannot either within this country or in international forums arrive at a coordinated plan of how to respond and how to change ourselves. We’re stuck with the command and control model of less fix the planet, build dykes, mirrors, what have you.

You don’t do it by fixing some object. You do it by changing the interaction. How do you change the interaction? We have to change ourselves. Cybernetics not only offered a new ontology, it has demanded a new epistemology which is really the piece of it where my father was most involved. Thank you. All things come to those who wait.

At the moment, departments are still separate. The United States government is incapable of adopting policies, moving forward. Large numbers of people are successfully in denial that we are massively damaging the planet on which we depend, and this after the description of the planet both my folks like NCAR, but also with metaphors like the Gaia hypothesis as a living system with certain capacities for self correction, which can fail, living systems can die. Our planet can die. We find ourselves in the dilemma of the people building the tower of Babel. Incidentally, Babel is Babylon, otherwise known as Iraq these days, and of course from it we get ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, the ability to speak Hebrew.

There it is. Cybernetics basically came out of World War 2. The sense of shared danger, difficult coordination, working together, the need to find a mechanism that would sustain peace, that would be self corrective, the need to find mutuals of communication between nations. I have to agree that in the early work on cybernetics, in the understanding really of the unity of life on this planet, the tremendous complexity of interconnections and interdependencies lies the point of focus that must be carried into education, into everyday experience. I wish I could say, “What are we going to do about the schools so that children don’t come out of school fixated on this command and control model, this linear causation model?”

The fact is that if cybernetics arrived at a new description of what is, a new ontology that necessarily entails a new ethic, a profound rethinking of what we do, why we do it, and how we do it together. It’s not surprising that the general public, which is in denial, doesn’t want to hear that this is what cybernetics offers, that cybernetics is a challenge to look at the world we live in is living, interactive, growing, learning, changing over time, and requiring that we behave not as masters of that world but as parts of that world.

That is, after all, one of the first things that happens when you begin to think in terms of systems. Instead of just being the owner of whatever it is, a garden or flock of sheep or even a computer, you have to think of yourself as a part of the system and as hopefully learning from the system, adapting to it, evoking some adaptation in the system if it has that capacity, and it’s not clear that we can do that in organizations whose whole structure is based on different epistemology, a different ontology.

The concept of new Macy conferences makes sense. Its very hard to organization interdisciplinary conferences these days. You know why? I’ve been a dean, and we were trying to introduce interdisciplinary courses as part of the general education core or the curriculum instead of everybody thinking of what their major is, what they were in college for. We had some integration going here. Only trouble was, the senior faculty couldn’t be bothered, and the junior faculty, who were interested in interdisciplinary stuff, I had the responsibility of warning that if they were to cooperate with people in other departments in teaching interdisciplinary courses, their colleagues might not recommend them for tenure.

In fact this has been a concern of people interested in cybernetics. How does it fit the classification system? How does it fit the promotion system which is designed for quite a different epistemology? An epistemology in which knowledge is advanced by separating topics from each other and focusing on them narrowly.

As I’ve thought back and tried to remember the presence of Norbert Wiener in New Hampshire because their were other children and I tended to be off with the other children, I have, and from all that I’ve read, I still have a paradoxical sense about this man. On the one hand, great brilliance, which we’re celebrating, and I think I should say, an inconclusive outcome that the word cybernetics not just means digital computing in most people’s minds. Systems theory mainly belongs to business schools as far as I can tell. He has changed the behavior of the world, but has he changed the cognition of the world? Have we arrived at the point of looking at ourselves as parts of larger systems on which we depend? Have we taken from this work the sense of living ocean, the living forest, the arctic and antarctic ice, our role in this complex system of the life of our planet?

If refocusing on Norbert Wiener, we can remember that he cared, he worried about communication. He worried about the effect of his work on human life. Would it be positive or would it be negative? I think we are at a point where we need the positive side, the ontological vision and the epistemological vision to become part of our shared human experience. Thank you.