Towards New Ideas and New Members: Times and places for speaking / listening carefully / generously
In the following I describe conditions under which some habits of describing and prescribing cybernetic thinking may not be favorable; and I propose a more favorable prescription, addressed to myself. This is part of my dream of reinvigorating the lively and growing joint development of cybernetics and its ideas – at the expense, however, of some of cybernetics’ dearest assets: In some places, I propose, it may be a good idea to give up some consistency and clarity. In other places, it may be a good idea to give up some plurality and difference.
The fathers of cybernetics were living and working at interesting times. Identifying relationships and patterns between practices and phenomena observed in various disciplines, they used their opportunities to create the then-new thinking and language that we call cybernetics. In the early days, this language was comparatively imprecise. Exchanging ideas and viewpoints was challenging. Nevertheless, people came to cybernetics enthusiastically and in large numbers. Now, as the field matures, and as its practitioners mature, the fruits of the original opportunity for innovative thinking and speaking may be starting to rot.
During the past decades, leading cybernetic thinking and its language developed a tendency to ever-increasing precision. Language became a central object of cybernetic craft, even where its speakers emphasize the ultimate futility of language use. The history of cybernetics developed to a large extent into a history of language use; language became medium, object, obstacle and prime example of second-order cybernetics (“speaking about speaking”); and introducing newcomers to cybernetics became to a significant extent an introduction to ways of speaking and writing.
The original pattern of innovative thinking and acting inspiring precise language seems to be turning around. But how realistic is it to expect precise language to inspire innovative thinking and acting?
As the speaking and the writing inside cybernetic circles develops greater clarity, our choices of words become ever more careful, precise, specific, constrained, predictable and worst: expected and imposed. Cyberneticians thereby grow intolerant of ways of using language that do not fit into their personal or communal landscapes of thoughts. This results in an increasingly formal, coded approach to language, which brings some penalties along with it:
• It implies claims of authority that I believe are inconsistent with cybernetic values.
• It may be seen as bounding an exclusive inside from a naïve outside, damaging our intellectual community’s outside attractiveness.
• It may eventually seed contention and dissociation amongst cyberneticians (who are, to be fair, commonly very generous and patient in their encounters with others).
• It inhibits the development of cybernetic ideas because new thinking through which cybernetics may grow is not found inside cybernetics and its precise language, but on the supposedly naïve outside.
It takes little to understand that linguistic style is superficial while thinking and acting are more substantial. And it takes little to know that fresh style only comes from defying existing style. Thus, while it takes decades of effort to become a carefully-speaking, stylistically versed cybernetician, it only takes a moment to turn away from cybernetics because of its high stylistic demands.
Undesirable effects of carefully established cybernetic language are most conspicuous where cybernetic speaking and writing apply to cybernetic speaking and writing themselves; in words such as communication, coding, languag(e/ing), meaning, conversation, message, information and so forth. Here, I believe, cybernetics can be detrimentally self-referential (shooting itself in the foot). Insisting for example in the distinction between cherished “conversation” and dreaded “communication” in one’s own language is one (possibly useful and valuable) thing. Expecting that this distinction be made in the language of others is another thing, for it may end conversation and produce the dreaded communication. Hopes that such careful language use may eliminate contradictions are, I believe, false: Just consider how form contradicts content when insistence in the word conversation produces communication. Moreover, such rigor ossifies language and, along with it, the possibility to see things in new ways.
New ideas come to us from seeing things from different angles, and in speaking about them differently from different perspectives. In this view, inconsistencies are productive and differences enable creativity. The creative development of our field thus depends at least in parts on how we act in moments when an other’s words do not seem to fit into one’s own landscape of ideas. New members come to us when they feel they can soon take part in a stimulating environment amongst equals. The membership development of our Society thus depends on generous and welcoming language use in which, again, an other’s words may not always fit into one’s own landscape of ideas. In situations of lexical mismatches there are three options:
• To dismiss the other’s words as inadequate and to adjust them to conform to one’s own language use (i.e. to force the other to speak about and to see things the way one oneself does),
• To stretch, alter, reduce or multiply one’s own conceptions (i.e. to see things differently, generously, creatively), or
• To simply leave matters where they are for the time being (i.e. to accept difference and, by maintaining it, giving either side a chance to eventually find value in it).
In my view, the enforcement of one’s own use of language seems to be the least productive option. Depriving each other of informal or imprecise language use, we deprive ourselves of a potential for development.
Besides considering how we address each others’ ways of using language, it is important to recognize that we are an organization. This also imposes requirements on how we speak and how we listen in different places: As individuals who act, to some extent, “as one”, we carry an imaginary boundary around us. Since we want to grow our organization, our interest should be in making the crossing of this boundary from the outside to the inside as inviting, achievable and satisfying as we can. Besides the challenge of making participation in our exchanges enjoyable and achievable, there is also the challenge of us, inside, negotiating welcoming and clear language with which we aim to appeal to the outside public, so members of the public may get interested in joining us. While those on the outside may be attracted by our ways of being different, they may not necessarily appreciate hearing multiple voices coming from the inside, speaking inconsistently. Only after coming inside one may learn to appreciate that. To be attracted to the inside, clear, beautifully inviting and consistent language needs to be crafted together and presented in the first place. In negotiating outside language on the inside, I believe we will have to exercise most of our care, patience and generosity. Such language may have to be simple, slick, brief, unison and pretty at times – no matter whether we are fond of such language on the inside or not. Thus, at a time when cybernetics depends on its own creative development and when our Society wants to grow its membership, it seems to me that in different places there are different choices to be made between insisting in precise language and being engaged in a creative process that thrives on difference.
My (self-)prescription is as follows. As explained above, I do not aim to “apply” my thinking to anyone else but to myself. I shall continue to strive to develop myself and my cybernetic language with care, to make myself understood as easily and as clearly as possible while being open-minded when listening to others. I shall allow, and possibly encourage, others to use whatever kind of language they feel is appropriate. Reserving my right to point out where I suspect language use to be careless, I shall neither close my mind to what may be expressed through it, nor enforce my own way of using language instead of it. In contributing to the writing of cybernetic history and in passing on its heritage, I shall take an etymological, rather than a lexical approach, presenting words and phrases along with their changing uses in their changing contexts, along with the names of those who used words in particular ways. When inviting others to join us, I shall patiently and generously help making the invitation attractive and consistent. I shall be careful to show that our field is a beautiful, worthwhile, developing and inviting process, not a dying thing that has become mature to the point of being impatient with itself.
Author is elegible for HvF Prize (aged under 35): NO