The Cybernetic Revolution
By Robert Anton Wilson
From The Realist, No. 72, December 1966
Paul Revere 1976, two hundred years after the original, will be a guy galloping through every middlesex, village and farm, yelling: “Grab your guns, boys, the machines is a-coming!”
The Triple Revolution Manifesto got a great deal of gassy publicity a few years ago. There is no need to reiterate the obvious here. The reader has already heard of translating machines, song-writing machines, chess-playing machines and totally automated factories.
The labor dispute that almost put New York’s newspapers out of business last year was provoked by fear of automation, and the same fear has inspired most of the recent waterfront troubles.
The Negro riots of summer 1964 are attributed, by some sociologists, to the accelerating unemployment rate of urban Negroes. One statistic suggests the whole picture: in 1963 there were exactly 500,000 – one half a million – less mine workers employed than in 1945, and in 1964 there were again 125,000 less than in 1963.
At the Realist’s expense I attended the 3-day Conference on the Cybercultural Revolution held at the Hotel Americana in New York.
The panelists were all well qualified engineers, managers, sociologists, etc. – Ph.D.’s were as thick, in the crowd; as sailors in the balcony of a 42nd Street tit movie-and they all seemed in basic agreement with the Triple Revolution Manifesto’s projection of massive unemployment directly ahead of us: massive unemployment utterly unlike the Depression of the ’30s, because there will be no “cure” for it. It will be permanent.
And it is not merely the “proletariat” who are threatened. I, for one, came out of the conference seriously wondering how soon Paul Krassner was going to replace me with a Bad-Joke-and-Radical-Propaganda machine.
Among the many possibilities seriously discussed by the conferences – this is straight reporting, not a Realist satire – was a gizmo called the “Friend-o-Mat, with a voice programmed to sound human and mellow, which would dispense Freudian, Adlerian, Jungian or any other kind of therapy to several patients at a time. All that remains is the deathless dream of an immortal limerick:
There was a young man from Racine
who built a screwing machine;
Concave and convex
It would suit either sex
And jacked itself off in between.
But even that machine is probably possible with the new mathematics and sophisticated hardware of cybernetics. Cybernetics is, basically; an exquisitely subtle mathematical theory describing self-organizing and self-regulating systems “biological or mechanical.”
The theory is applicable to any form of self-correcting behavior, in the electro-colloidal system known as an animal, and shows how to duplicate that behavior in an electronic-metallic system known as a machine.
The irony of the cybercultural revolution is that this state of affairs is what we have always dreamed of. “Machinery is the moral substitute for slavery,” somebody wrote a long time ago; we have always thought that super-machinery would mean man’s liberation from toil and the freeing of his energies for “higher” artistic or scientific activities.
Now that the super-machinery is at our door, we begin to realize that it might bring, not liberation, but stagnation or starvation.
The latter alternative is, indeed, the ultimate implication of cybernetics, if we return to the philosophy of classical capitalism as espoused by Barry Goldwater or Ayn Rand. Capitalism has inherited from Feudalism – and from the earlier theocracies, slave, states and sultanates – a certain idea which is completely: incompatible with cybernetic technology.
I will try to state that idea as baldly as possible. This is it: The human race is divided into two groups – the People Who Matter and the People Who Don’t Matter.
The PWM are those who own the planet earth. Their ownership is a “legal fact,” although not an existential fact, and is demonstrated by land-titles, franchises, bank charters, stocks, bonds or other documents, certified by the king or the congress, indicating the exact dimensions of their share of ownership. The PWM have an absolute right to exist, symbolized by these documents and guaranteed by the State.
The PWDM, on the other hand, do not own any part of the earth, and, therefore, do not have any absolute right to exist. They may obtain a relative right to exist, however, by finding (or being found by) masters among the PWM who will employ them to toil, and compensate them by food and lodging, under slavery, or by wages, under capitalism.
Note that it is the State which decides who are the PWM and who are the PWDM.
Under Feudalism, and earlier systems, the PWM consisted only of the relatives of the king, and, since production was mainly agricultural, the principle form of ownership of the planet was through land-titles. Thus, the “nobility” became lords-of-the-land, landlords, and levied a tax upon those who actually worked the land, the tax being known as “rent.”
The franchises, bank charters, stocks, etc., owned by the modern nobility are the same type of tax placed upon the productive process; capital interest is’ the “rent” of capital.
A man born into the PWM has his right to exist guaranteed by the State due to his inheritance of these certificates of ownership.
A man born into the PWDM, on the other hand, has no accepted worth in and of himself and obtains the right to exist only when a PWM will employ him.
This age-old class division is the idea mentioned above which is completely incompatible with cybernetics, and I trust that I have stated it baldly enough.
Before Cybernation, the authoritarian structure had at least one slight protection built into it for the PWDM, which is that they are needed: the PWM cannot survive without the millions of PWDM grubbing and toiling away to produce the commodities of the nation. For this reason, the PWM have never allowed all of the PWDM to starve completely.
This is exactly where the nightmare of cybercultural revolution begins, for, in a cybernated age, the PWDM are no longer necessary. The PWM could let them all starve and be served forever after by machines.
The fellow who called machinery “the moral alternative to slavery” never thought of this.
And among the PWDM are a class whom the participants at the Cybercultural Conference jocularly called “the noodles.” The noodles think of themselves as being among the PWM, but by our definition, since they do not own any inherited franchises or charters of ownership over the planet, they are actually among the PWDM. . .
The noodles, you see, are the non-technical managerial and administrative groups. (The technical managers and administrators, although also – by our definition – PWDM, cannot be allowed to starve by the PWM.)
What will happen to the noodles, briefly, is that they will be in exactly the same leaky boat as the “gooks,” “niggers,” “errand boys” and other proletarians.
Although their higher salaries have allowed them to rub elbows and socialize (somewhat) with the PWM – and although they have, because of this, built up the delusion that they are among the PWM – the noodles will soon have their noses rubbed vigorously in the messy fact that they are, and always have been, PWDM. (It couldn’t happen to nicer guys, could it?)
But we are exaggerating (I hope). Our PWM aren’t like the kings and sultans of olde. During the last great depression, without having to shoot or exile any of them, Roosevelt managed to get them to cough up may be $1 out of every million to go into a government dole, to keep them PWDM from starving.*
And Lyndon Johnson has read the Triple Revolution manifesto, or at least had one of his secretaries write to the Triple Revolution Committee and tell them that he had read it. So, let’s all relax, fellows; we can be sure that as cybernetic unemployment spreads, the dole will gradually expand to make up the difference, and nobody really will starve.
It seems to be this elevated level of utopian optimism that the Triple Revolution Committee would peddle to us. The picture I get is a 4-decker society in which: (a) The PWM retain their ownership of the planet through their land-titles, franchises, stocks, bonds, etc., and continue to rake off interest, or usury, on every productive process, while
(b) A technological elite actually runs things, and:
(c) The governing class, at gun-point – all taxes are collected at gun-point, let’s keep our eye on the ball here and not forget an unpleasant truth even if it is people like Goldwater who nowadays remind us of this particular truth – holds up the PWM and the technological elite to collect just enough from them to distribute a permanent dole to:
(d) Millions of bored and unemployed ex-workers and ex-noodles (who, presumably, will have lots of movies and TV to fill the long hours when they are too tired to fornicate any more).
By and large, the best brains of the Cybercultural Conference seemed to go along with this Triple Revolution formula, although I can’t imagine why. To me, it sounds like hell on earth. The best thing that can be said for it is that it is better than sticking to the old PWM mystique in the pure form of feudalism and classical capitalism.
The Triple Revolution formula is something that could arise only in America. It is a pure product of our national muddle-headedness and our refusal, ever, to ask fundamental questions and re-think fundamental assumptions.
Capitalism is under suspicion all over the world, except here. Here it is not an economic system but a revealed religion. Questioning it is a sign of eccentricity, if not depravity.
The Triple Revolution is not a revolution at all, being neither original nor radical (most of its ideas were long ago hashed out in the Social Credit and Technocracy movements).**
The whole Triple Revolution is nothing more than Hopalong FDR Rides Again – Capitalism plus the dole, period.
The irony of the Triple Revolution program is that it is based on ignoring the fundamental principle of cybernetics itself. The Triple Revolution program is an adaptation of cybernetics to our local (capitalist) authoritarianism (just as the ultimate Soviet program for cybernetics will be an adaptation to their own Statist authoritarianism).
But cybernetics itself is profoundly anti-authoritarian, and if we merely followed the logic of cybernetics to its ultimate conclusion we would easily find the solution to the problems created by cybernetics. All of these problems, it will turn, out, are the result of not following cybernetics logically; they are the result of trying to dilute cybernetics with the logic of earlier systems.
Consider for a moment, not the hardware, but the essence of cybernetics. Cybernetics is a mathematical theory describing self-regulating’ or self-organizing systems. The general theory is’ applicable to mechanical, biological and social systems.
The material of the system doesn’t matter – you can be dealing with transistors and electric circuits; or with the nervous system of a cat or a man, or with a herd of cows or a tribe or nation of men – what makes a system cybernetic, or non-cybernetic, is the structure of the materials.
If, the structure allows for feedback from the environment and alteration of behavior in accordance with the feedback, you have a cybernetic system. The essence of cybernetics is just that: an information flow that allows for self-correction.
‘This information flow is only possible where there is a structure to transmit and receive the information. It is perhaps necessary to point out that “structure” and “information” are very high order abstractions in cybernetic theory. The governor of a generator will illustrate this.
The first generators had a nasty habit of accelerating until they tore themselves apart (no feedback). The governor was then invented. This is a pair of balls on a pair of flexible arms, attached to opposite sides of the generator. When the speed exceeds a certain point, the balls are thrown out by centrifugal force, creating a drag in the air. This slows the rotary velocity, until the balls fall back into place, the drag ends, and the machine starts accelerating again.
In this way, the speed is kept oscillating in the vicinity of a safe point where the generator will not tear itself apart. A thermostat controls a furnace in the same way. The balls of the governor, as much as the temperature-reading of the thermostat, are said to feed back “information” in cybernetic terminology. They “inform” the generator about its speed, just as the thermostat “informs” the furnace about the amount of heat it is generating.
There is an old Navy tradition that the steersman always repeats an order to the captain before executing it. If the captain says, “Sixty knots,” and the steersman replies, “Fifty knots, sir,” it is obvious that he has mis-heard and the captain can correct him. This is another example of a feedback, or self-correcting, system.
Feedback can be very “smooth” and continuous. When I reach for a bottle of water, the eye feeds back to the brain information about how far my hand has moved, and how far it still must move, and the feedback occurs continuously, every micro-second, until I reach the bottle.
If it is a bottle of bourbon I am reaching for, and I have already reached for more than I should have, the feedbacks in my nervous’ system work less “smoothly,” more “jerkily,” and I may even land on my nose in the middle of the floor. The first cybernetic anti-aircraft guns had just that jerky kind of motion.
There is also a condition of two much feedback. In human beings, this takes on the form of the Hamlet kind of neurosis – self-checking carried to the point of indecision, and paralysis. This also has its mechanical analogy. An early model cybernetic anti-aircraft gun was built with so much feedback that it kept correcting its direction of fire and never did fire.
A mechanical system is said to have “redundance of control” when it has optimum feedback – not too much and not too little. In redundance of control, every part of the system feeds back information to every other part, and the system as a whole is self-regulating. An automated factory works on this principle.
Democracy, from the point of view of cybernetics, is an attempt to introduce redundance of control to the social organism. Note that every step forward in democracy – limited suffrage, universal suffrage, the referendum, the recall, division’ of powers, etc. – has increased the feedback in the system.
It can be argued that democracy as we know it does not yet contain optimum feedback, but for the moment we will accept the democratic State as a model of sufficient feedback and self-correction.
Let us, from this perspective, contemplate for a moment the “economic States” which divide the control of this country with the political State – let us, that is, contemplate the Corporations. How much feedback do they possess?
A long time ago, I decided that the corporations possess very little feedback and are, from a cybernetic point of view, unstable and primitive systems. At that time, I made myself a bet: nobody employed by a university, I bet myself, would ever announce this discovery in public, although it is a very simple application of cybernetic principles.
To my astonishment, on the second day of the Cybercultural Conference, Professor William Perk of the University of Southern Illinois, criticized the corporations on exactly these grounds, pointing out in detail how the basic feedbacks of the democratic State are completely lacking in the modern corporation.
Professor Perk went further and remarked that the citizen, spending- most of his life as the servant of an authoritarian corporation, is conditioned to submission and obedience and is gradually made psychologically incapable of participating fully in the freedom of the democratic State.
An, anecdote once told to me by Tobey McCarroll of the Humanists is very a propos here.
Mr. McCarroll, as a lawyer, was representing some Indians in their perennial fight against the Grand Land Thief, or the U.S. Government as we prefer to call it. While he was conferring with, the chiefs of the tribe, an archeologist appeared and requested permission to dig for relics in certain mounds whi.ch he believed were graves. The chiefs soberly gave permission, although they knew that the mounds were actually cesspools. The savant dug his way down into the dung, without a single Indian speaking up to warn him.
The folklore of all repressed peoples is full of such crude jokes. The Indians-like all repressed groups had long been forced to realize that they are not information-channels or feedback-channels in the major society. What they see, hear, smell, deduce, know or suppose is of no interest to the control centers of the society.
Having this realization beaten into them for several centuries, they are not about to start volunteering information now. (The legendary poker-facedness of both Indians and Negroes, in the old days, frequently was a mask for this type of hostility, but always expressed in a context of doing what the master class demanded: communicating.)
Every authoritarian society creates this type of voluntary “stupidity.” The employee of every corporation practices it most of the time, although not as much as the Indians. Any system lacking feedback encourages this species of sabotage.
(The Italian anarchist labor unions once tied up the railroads, not by striking; but merely by obeying all the laws on the books. Because there had never been enough feedback, the law-makers had never discovered how absurd and impractical most of their laws were – until the workers started obeying them.)
The PWDM are always in the position of non-feedback senders to the PWM. This is the very definition of an authoritarian society. The PWM make the decisions, and the PWDM merely obey them. Any cybernetics engineer knows that no mechanical system can imitate human intelligence if it has this non-feedback structure. .
Only the fact that capitalism has become a revealed religion keeps people from realizing the simple truth enunciated by Professor Perk: the Corporations, lacking feedback, lack human intelligence. As a whole, every Corporation behaves ten times more stupidly than any particular member of it.
Cynics have puzzled for a long time to explain the “hydrostatic principle of organization,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes called it; that is, the principle by which an organization, like water seeking its own level, sinks to the intelligence level of its stupidest member. This is that principle in a nut-shell. It is not a law of organizations at all, but just a law of organizations without feedback.
And this is why America is a schizophrenic and uncomfortable civilization. The political unit is, at least partly, democratic; the economic unit – the Corporation – is more authoritarian and centralized than any sultanate of old.
The citizen is told to be an individual, to be responsible, to think globally, to participate in the world’s activity – and, once in four years, he gets a chance to make a mark on a piece of paper.
The rest of the time, he lives as a medieval serf, within an organization that is exquisitely totalitarian. And these “private States,” make no mistake about it, dominate not only the time of the citizen, but all of the other dimensions of his” life as well, much more than the public State does.
The owners of the corporations, under capitalism, are the PWM, just as the owners of the land were, under feudalism. You might almost say, from the point of view of this kind of radical cybernetics, that capitalism is the continuation of feudalism by other means.
I think that the tendency of this argument should be obvious to the reader by now. Either the PWM and their Corporations have a true title by ownership of the planet, or they do not. If they do, Ayn Rand is right and the State has no justification for coming along with a gun and robbing them to feed the PWDM.
If, on the other hand, the whole PWM mystique is just the modern form of “the divine right of kings,” if it has no basis in justice, then it is time we had as much balls as our ancestors had when they hauled Charlie Stuart I up before the court and stripped him of his powers.
It is time, in short; that the corporation go the way of the monarchy, and be replaced by democratic self-regulating institutions; institutions that would belong, not to a few of the people, but to all of the people. If the people really do own the planet, then there need be no State dole: they will merely receive dividends from their joint’ stock companies which will run their machinery for them, and they will have to take on the responsibility of making the decisions for these companies.
If the people are too stupid to run their own companies, then, by God, the old authoritarian system is justified, and the earth does belong to a minority. In that case, I see no reason why the talented minority should be robbed to feed the incompetent. This, really, is the choice that cybernetics sets before us: do we believe in man, or do we believe in an elite of super-men?
The Triple Revolution is merely another American muddle, a refusal to face the issues, and an attempt to have one foot in each boat, while the boats are obviously going in opposite directions.
Far be it from me to condemn stupidity utterly. It’s been around so long that I’m sure it must have some use. It does appear, though, that in facing the particular challenge of cybernetics, intelligence may be of more use than stupidity. In that case, we will have to define the issues crisply and make a definitive choice.
Either we can trust the people, or we must trust an elite. It would be melodramatic, corny and inaccurate to state this choice as Socialism or Fascism, because most forms of socialism are fascism. Whatever you want to call it, however, the choice remains.
God knows, I wouldn’t attempt to influence such a conglomeration of heretics as the Realist readership, on how this choice should be decided. The choice is probably out of our hands, anyway; the corporations own 98% of the wealth. I’ll see you on the unemployment line. . .
* Corporation taxes are higher than that, of course – as conservative readers will quickly write to tell me. Very true, but I still remain dubious about how much of corporation taxes goes into the various doles and how much goes into warfare and cold warfare to protect the corporations from rebellion on the part of their foreign serfs.
** And Ezra Pound went to the jail and the bughouse for insisting on precisely these ideas over Rome Radio 20 or so years ago. Remember?