17.43, Saturday 7 May 2011

Books read February to April 2011, by date finished:

It's rare to find a second-hand bookshop in London with a good cache of science fiction nowadays. People buy up the books and sell them online. But I ran across one, way out of the way, and picked up a half dozen books and collections of short stories from the 1940s-1970s. The short stories are the best: Ascents of Wonders, In the Bone, The Explorers, and The Complete Venus Equilatoral (not on this list as I only finished it today) are all worth picking up. It's weird reading old stories -- some of the ideas were copied so many times they've become bored tropes. But others ideas never made it into the mainstream and are as fresh as the day they were written. And then of course there's the pleasure of the history diving of it all: the 1940s were all engineering-led, the 1970s all psychology. From outer space to inner space.

Bluebeard is probably my favourite Vonnegut. It's a great story, brilliantly told, and without the familiar Vonnegut tricks of paragraph-by-paragraph cut-up or surreality. So it gets a little deeper inside me I guess. The protagonist is Rabo Karabekian (SPOILERS), one of the founders of the (fictionalised) American modern art movement Abstract Expressionism. Karabekian also appears in Vonnegut's earlier novel Breakfast of Champions, in which he is attacked for the emptiness of his art: Well, we don't think much of your painting. I've seen better pictures done by a five-year old. The painting in question is called The Temptation of Saint Anthony, and is green with a single, solid, vertical line of yellow tape.

Anyway, at this moment Vonnegut puts into Karabekian's mouth a defence of this fictional art as fine as I have ever read:

I now give you my word of honor that the picture your city owns show everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animals--the 'I am' to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us--in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Antony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.


Let me finish on The Cybernetic Brain, which is hands down the most remarkable book I have read for months and months. On the face of it, Pickering has written a biography-of-ideas of several key players in cybernetics (specifically British cybernetics) from the 1950s to the 1970s: Grey Walter, Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, R. D. Laing, Stafford Beer, and Gordon Pask. And he goes deep. There are sketches of Laing's grand alternative to psychiatry (fully integrated cooperative community houses); Beer's attempts to use the rich ecology of woodland ponds as the brains of factories, hooking sensors up to production lines and pond weed; the influences on Brian Eno and others; electronic circuits for both Walter and Ashby's proto-robot experimental probes into learning machines; more.

But what Pickering really does is put forward that these cyberneticians (in particular, as opposed to American crowd more occupied with control systems) saw "intelligence" as something not representational (ie, the brain encodes or contains knowledge) but essentially performative. He opens with Walter's Tortoise, a toy robot that can avoid obstacles, and is attracted by moderate light (and repelled by bright light). A community of Tortoises would have unexpected emergent behaviour. Pickering: The tortoise is our first instantiation of the performative perspective on the brain ... the view of the brain as an 'acting machine' rather than a 'thinking machine.'

Pickering comes to present cybernetics as holding a view of intelligence as something that only thinks by doing; something that, even when it follows rules, is not unpredictable so much but can only be calculated or predicted by actually doing its thing. It's a wonderfully optimistic, re-humanising, uncontrolled, lively, meaty way of seeing and being, which runs so counter to the statistical, predictable, crowd behaviour, goal directed, success/failure and "psychohistorical" perspective we usually take on the world.

This is also intrinsically a view on design, as Pickering says: a distinctly cybernetic notion of design, very different from that more familiar in modern science and engineering. If our usual notion of design entails the formulation of a plan which is then imposed upon matter, the cybernetic approach entailed instead a continuing interaction with materials, human and nonhuman, to explore what might be achieved--what one might call an evolutionary approach to design, that necessarily entailed a degree of respect for the other.

The Cybernetic Brain is academic, large and grainy; it is skittish and the anecdotes flock and tumble. It's terribly easy to read, like a month of late night conversations with a brilliant friend. It is not fair of me to say that it boils down to a single worldview or puts forward just one perspective. But it does pass on the torch of that perspective. It is not a perspective which can be learned from reading papers, only kindled by experiencing experiments vicariously, and above all Pickering's book does just that: it is inspiring. Recommended.