I recently saw a documentary at the Palais de Tokyo as part of their exhibition entitled “All watched over by machines of loving grace.” The documentary, by BBC journalist Adam Curtis, was a fascinating insight into systems theory, cybernetics and ecology.
So of course, I took to the trusty scholarly search engines to find out more.
A (vicious) circle
Early scholars of the movement described nature as an electrical circuit, with amplifiers and dampeners of the natural order. In terms of ecology, systems theory described nature as a self-governing machine that responded to changes in the environment and adjusted to maintain a natural balance. In essence, an ordered cycle of life.
This is called a feedback loop, i.e there is a cause and an effect. Following on from this, there can be another factor that then influences the original input.
No, I’m not talking about robots!
Cybernetics is at the heart of systems theory, describing nature as a system that can be controlled and managed. Cybernetics considers nature in the bigger picture, looking at the response of the environment to changes.
Cybernetics introduced the concept of ‘negative feedback’, where in order to maintain equilibrium, where the output result that feeds back into the network is out of equilibrium, and is reduced to maintain the steady state.
Earth as a spaceship
Cybernetics spawned the early environmental movement in the 1970s. This was based on the modelling of the ecological feedback loops. Scholars and activists realised that if a steady-state of ecological systems could not be maintained, irreversible damage or a catastrophe would occur.
This produced the idea of the earth as a spaceship. A self-contained object that required all systems to exist and work in harmony in order to maintain a sustainable environment within the ‘spaceship’. If not, water, air, or food would be compromised. In fact, cybernetics also contributed to the development of the Doomsday Clock. This is a metaphorical countdown to the end of the world based on the (dis)equilibrium of the population and our environment.
It’s not just science fiction
Systems theory feedback loops are used in everything from psychology (understanding people’s responses to the environment around them), to machine learning and computers and, to the development of the internet.
The most fascinating focus of the documentary was the realisation that man’s reliance on machines in order to ‘improve’ our quality of life as well as increase productivity in industry, has destroyed the idea of an ecological cybernetic system. The early theorists failed to anticipate that the negative feedback loop would not adjust to a rapidly changing human population, one that was at disequilibrium with its environment. This can be seen in the rapid extinction of animal and plant species, as well as the wealth of some countries versus the absolute poverty of their neighbours.
It really was such an interesting documentary, and I urge you all to watch it (link included in first section).
Bernard C. Patten and Eugene P. Odum. The American Naturalist, Vol. 118, No. 6 (Dec., 1981), pp. 886-895