The New Cybernetics#
The covid-19 pandemic was more than a health crisis. It was a social experiment on a global scale. It did not just stretch hospital systems, but the very fabric of our economy and society. In this sense, it was a challenge of multiple intersecting systems – disruption to supply chains, revealing the brittleness in just in time logistics; conspiracies about vaccines and governments, even the seemingly unconnected QAnon conspiracy movement, revealing the cracks in trust in our societies.
We are all still searching for a way to make sense of it all. That’s a big task, and it’s not over yet, even though we are collectively breathing a sigh of relief that we have gotten this far.
How can we learn from this experience, how can we use this information to help us tackle similar things in the future better? There’s no one answer to this, but one thing is for sure, it’s going to need a multitude of different approaches.
Cybernetics and prediction#
I was privileged to be part of the group at the Australian National University that in January 2021 established the new School of Cybernetics. We are co-located with Computing and Engineering, which should tell you something about our focus. We have the ambitious goal of making cybernetics a household word again – and we’ve got a long way to go. We are still at the stage of every time we stand up, needing to tell people what we mean by cybernetics.
Cybernetics is an old idea from Greek philosophy – it relates to the notion of steering, and human control of the technological and environmental systems around us. The man who invented it for the modern era – at a time when the rise of computing, robotics and automation made it all the more relevant – was Norbert Wiener. Norbert was an American mathematician and a child prodigy, graduating from mathematics at Tufts at the tender age of 14.
Perhaps Norbert’s name takes many of you back to your university days, studying stochastic process. I didn’t study computational statistics, so I found Wiener later, when I was no longer able to fathom the complexity of Brownian motions and Random Walks. But his mathematical fascination with prediction led him to theorise cybernetics – the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.
The Macy’s conferences on cybernetics ran from the late 40s to the early 50s and brought people from many different disciplines together to discuss the role of new technology, especially computers and data, in our lives. As well as the mathematicians there were anthropologists, behavioural scientists, psychologists and engineers.
Norbert’s cybernetics expanded through this interaction with people from different places and points of view. Looking back from today, cybernetics pops up time and again across the last 80 years, in control engineering, climate systems modelling, design thinking and management science.
Those original Macy’s attendees, through a series of iterative conversations, came to see the world in terms of feedback loops of biological, technical and human systems. The Macy conferences in fact popularised the concept of feedback. Prior to this point this word – feedback – was only associated with observations in electrical engineering.
Feedback is a simple and powerful concept. At its core it is the idea that the output of a system is also its future input. Seen in this way, feedback is a process that enables prediction.
The covid pandemic highlighted feedback loops driven by things like lockdown rules, release of information about vaccines, new waves and the efficacy of preventative policies like mask wearing. And we saw different kinds of experts and data playing their part in influencing these, as Nick and Stuart have shared.
The pandemic made visible dynamic and adaptive systems, laying bare just how quickly things can change.
As we move forward in our hyperconnected world, where the impact of actions is felt far from where they are enacted, we will see – and need to deal with – many more such systems.
Plurality and Connections#
Communication and control remain important concepts in cybernetics as the forces driving feedback loops. They represent the flow of information and action – we communicate information, and through that, hope to control (or at least influence) action on the part of others.
For example, a leader might address the media every day to update information on the emerging pandemic, seeking to prompt a range of actions on the part of citizens. These might include encouraging vaccination and mask wearing, or compliance with lockdowns.
It is easy to oversimplify the mechanisms of communication and control, and consider them in a step-by-step manner – A, leads to B, leads to C.
In this example, A. Decide what action you need citizens to take. B. Work out what information will most rationally prompt this action. C. Share this information in a timely manner via the broadest reaching channels, from the most trustworthy person (a leader).
But the reality turned out to be much messier. We found that people got their information from a range of different places – including, most prominently, each other – and they trusted people and institutions differently.
The role of data collection, modelling and communication in the pandemic was to promote good decision-making and the efforts of groups like the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group that Stuart McDonald MBE described were critical to this.
However this was not the only information out there.
The flow of information during the pandemic was at a scale not seen before, and the proliferation of false information accelerated at a greater rate than true information. Many observers at the time reflected that it is easier and faster to create and distribute lies, than it is to gather the evidence for considered truths.
How do we counteract this situation, where false information is more readily available than true? The first step is awareness – we need to know that it is happening, and where.
Understanding the behaviour of different groups of people, and what happens when they come in contact with each other, especially in technology-mediated ways, is key to more accurate prediction. And this might mean collecting different data, linking datasets, or doing different things with the insights derived from data.
I have been talking about the flow of information and action in society, and reflecting that key concepts include feedback, plurality and connections. Now we turn to another concept, which is that all of this is governed by what different stakeholders in society hope to achieve. As Nick Coatsworth said, all this depends on what your idea of success is, in a pandemic.
Power and politics always play a role. As do fundamental drivers of human behaviour such as the need to belong, to keep secrets, to gain status, to feel safe. When people don’t behave in the way that you expect – as a result of your transmission of information and request for action – it is worth pausing to consider whether there are hidden and competing agendas at play.
The covid pandemic laid bare the competing agendas of different groups in our societies. As governments tested out the seams of the trust-fabric of society, we saw cracks appear time and time again. Different agendas were pitted against one another every day. The personal risk in having a vaccine (however small that risk is in reality), is pitted against the social need to increase vaccination levels to create herd immunity.
A story from the pandemic that stands out in my memory is a friend’s encounter with someone, who shouted at him to take his mask off. He tried to calmly say to this person – “My mask protects you, and your mask protects me”. This can only be true in a trusting society – a society of aligned agendas – a high synergy society.
Aligning agendas to create a high synergy society is not an easy task and it is a job for all of us. It’s harder and harder to break out of our echo chambers, but as both the good and bad of the pandemic showed, it’s all the more important.
Cybernetics gives us a way of thinking clearly about big hairy society-wide challenges. With concepts like feedback, plurality, connections and synergy, we can start to pull apart what has happened in the past, what led us there, and how we might think of a different path moving forward.
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