Common Cybernetics

Introduction to c/cyb

Common Cybernetics (c/cyb) concerns itself with increasing the capacity to self-organise - to organise *the commons* - whether in the form of developing new economic relations, social relations, organisational structures or whatever else. C/cyb aims to propagate shared knowledge of cybernetics in the service of *common* purposes.

Defining Common Cybernetics

Common Cybernetics (c/cyb) is simply what happens when an agent applies cybernetic resources towards a common purpose.

An *agent* is any decision-making entity which occupies a world (or 'environment', 'context'). It can be an individual or collective entity and it is often, though not necessarily, constituted by one or many persons. Such an agent is necessarily an embodied mind, a decision-making entity which has purpose and a cognitive model of its world with which it relates to pursue its goals.

*Resources* are materials which are utilised towards a particular end. They are things put towards a purpose. Resources can be informational or physical, they may be made up of ideas, concepts, models and heuristics; they sometimes constitute machines, devices, books or whatever other physical objects.

A *Purpose* in the context of c/cyb is a general term to denotes the goal, project, end, aim, or telos of a system. A purpose can be understood both as an intended future state which an agent attempts to bring into actuality, or as an emergent property of a systems organisation in relation to its world. C/cyb concerns itself with those purposes which are directed towards the extension and propagation of the common.

  1. “Cybernetics”

Cybernetics can be understood as a trans-disciplinary discourse which articulates common threads between all complex systems (whether they are neurological, biological, mechanical, psychological, organisational, ecological, computational, social, etc). It's founders' goal was to develop a way of talking about all such complex systems in a shared language, which would allow the physicist to understand the anthropologist, the engineer to understand the sociologist, and so on.

Ripples of cybernetics have emerged across the world and throughout time. Prior to its development in the western capitalist world Alexander Bogdanov developed his own “tectology” which aimed to develop an understanding of the organisational principles underlying all systems. Tectology can be understood as another name for cybernetics.

Within the context of c/cyb, cybernetics can be defined more or less loosely, depending on its implementation. As a consequence of this malleability, c/cyb's conception of cybernetics is left intentionally under-specified. Those with a detailed understanding of cybernetics can apply it themselves, and those without can pursue those cybernetic technics which require less preliminary knowledge. Whatever is appropriate to their purpose.

Cybernetic Resources

Cybernetic materials are often conceptual, textual or conversational, but can be just as easily embodied in machines, devices, buildings, organisational structures, software designs, databases or whatever other material form. Any cybernetic resource which may aid the provision of the common is a legitimate object of c/cyb.

Any sufficiently complex system can ultimately be understood as being cybernetic, in that it obeys the same universal laws of organisation which cybernetics delineates. Rowers on a boat, a swarm of ants,1 or the man-horse assemblage2 serve as examples of various materials coming together to constitute cybernetic systems. C/cyb aims to direct these systems towards common ends.

  1. “Common”

There are at least five meanings of the word common, each of which is a lens through which to understand the purpose of c/cyb. We will consider two meanings of common as a noun, which outline its primary domains of interest, and three meanings of common as an adjective, which guide the ways in which those *common interests* are pursued in c/cyb:

  • Commons: can be understood as pooled resources which are shared, distributed, open and accessible. Community controlled economic relations “belonging to or shared by two or more individuals or things or by all members of a group”. Etymologically associated with the “Old French commune and Medieval Latin communia”. The commons may be renewed and regenerated for their own sake, natures sake, consciousnesses sake, humans sake, or whatever else.

  • Commoners: This is often understood as a pejorative, used by the upper classes as a self-aggrandising insult. Associated with "the common people as distinguished from the rulers and nobility and the clergy” or "people of a community or town, freemen, citizenry;". The Common Cybernetician can be whatever kind of agent, but they must direct their projects towards the benefit of the commoner and against their rulers.

There are several adjectival meanings of common which express ways of describing the practice of c/cyb.

  • Relating to the community at large, in service of the public – eg: “work for the common good”.

  • Frequently observed, reoccurring everywhere, mundane even: “occurring or appearing frequently”. C/cyb aims to render both cybernetic resources and their development towards common ends as more *commonly* observed.

  • Easily understood, non-technical, unspecialised, accessible to whoever: “widespread, general”. From the Latin communis, meaning “general, not specific; familiar, not pretentious." The translation of cybernetic tools and knowledge into forms which are useful and accessible to people in general is a valuable c/cyb purpose.

Example of a Common Cybernetic tool.

C/cyb seek to propagate the commons in all the senses discussed above. As a consequence, the best works of c/cyb speak to many or even all of the above stated meanings. While the best expressions of c/cyb are likely to be those inventions which were unforeseeable prior their emergence, it may still be appropriate to provide one example of an arguably exemplary c/cyb tool.

The Whole Earth Catalogue was inspired by the emergence of the first photographs which pictured the entire globe in a single frame; a fitting metaphor for such a project. It sought to provide “access to tools” through the production of practical DIY guides, exposure to independent producers3 and the publication of cybernetic and systems philosophy, among other subjects of direct relevance to self-organising commons. The catalogue provides introductory texts on understanding aspects of the cybernetic paradigm, as well as enumerating and popularising tools for the propagation of commons. The Whole Earth Catalogue can therefore be understood both as an excellent example of a c/cyb tool and as an early attempt to accessibly catalogue c/cyb tools.

Common Cybernetics as extra-disciplinary

C/cyb does not differentiate between academic and amateur applications of cybernetics. While much of cybernetics history has been played out in journals and texts by academics, there has always simultaneously been a guerilla history of cybernetics as a practice kept beyond the reach of university funding and approval, as well as applications which have no direct affiliation with academic institutions.4 An application of c/cyb could be applied to common ends by diligently applying cybernetic concepts to a common domain, or by forcibly reappropriating and remoulding those ideas into a form which serves a common purpose, even if that purpose is not recognised as legitimate or even sensible by the institution or person from which it has been reappropriated.

The value of a system to c/cyb is dependent not so much on what it was intended for, but what it does and what it can be made to do.5 C/cyb is, as a result, as invested in the production of new systems more apt at serving the commons (whether in for form of organisations, ideas, practices, texts, software or hardware systems, etc.), as it is committed to the hacking, reappropriation and adaptation of existing systems. All resources are on the table, insofar as they can be applied to common ends.

Consider, for example a 19th century factory which produces small wooden shoes. All its machinery, its workers and their activity certainly constitute a cybernetic system, consisting of various complex subsystems which are integrated to function cohesively as a factory. Yet this system's manifest purpose is the benefit not of its workers but primarily those who own the factory and benefit from its profitability. The worker-sabot-machine, by comparison, is a far less mechanically complex system, but it is a cybernetic system nonetheless, and arguably it constitutes a subversive manifestation of c/cyb, since sabotage is an activity which disrupts the normal, exploitative functioning of the factory.

The dangers of c/cyb

While the common is the goal of any c/cyb project, its practitioners must remain aware of any pathological uses the common can be put to. The common can be turned against itself, its resources used to break social bonds and to engender exclusivity in the commons. The sustenance and flourishing of the commons is always a sensitive process because commons necessarily constitute open systems. It is vulnerable to disturbance if confronted with unaccounted for turbulence, whether from within or without. The commons are always fragile systems, whether they are made up of common beings or common resources. In both cases division in the commons might manifest in exclusivity, selfishness, or self-harm. The common people are most frequently torn apart by othering, and common resources often come into contention when exclusive ownership is imposed upon them, or they are distributed improperly. C/cyb concerns itself with rendering the common both plentiful and viable.

Common Cybernetics as orientation.

Common Cybernetics (c/cyb) is a posture taken up in relation to a world, or an orientation with respect to a complex environmental system. It is a stance, a style of relating to one's environmental context. While a 'perspective' is a way of viewing the world, c/cyb denotes a way of relating to the world actively. It is manifested through its practice, it is activated through the production or reproduction of common systems. One becomes a Common Cybernetician only when one is in the midst of producing or reproducing such a system, whether in the form of writing, design, hacking, production, collaboration, mass action, whatever.

The common is not contained by any of its meanings exclusively, it can be expressed and practised in all manner of ways. Commoning cybernetics delineates a broad multidimensional territory which must be regained and rendered common.

3

Its worth noting that the Catalogue did not sell any products or profit from the producers they promoted. Instead they provided contact details to contact producers directly.

4

Example might include: the Whole Earth Catalogue, CCRU, School for Designing a Society, Rosolowicz's Neutrdrom & VAL's Heliopolis, Treister’s HEXEN 2.0, Beer & Pask experiments in biological computing (The Cybernetic Brain, Andrew Pickering, 2009), Price & Pask's Fun Palace (ditto, 2009).