Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 4 Number 6, Jul. 2005
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
"Youth here doesn't seem to know about
the disappearance of the old school."
-- The Firesign Theater, 1971
"Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00005T7IS/hip-20 )
I have a dream, a vision, a plan, for an institute of higher learning
called "Cybernetics University," employing the principles of cybernetics
and systems theory in undergraduate and graduate education.
The beginning of this idea came when I was new student at the University
of California at Santa Cruz. I thought the best thing about the school
was its location in the redwood forest overlooking the Pacific.
I thought the worst thing about the school was the layers of bureaucracy
over us imposed by the University of California system. It made me bristle
that every time I paid a fee to the school I had to write a check to
the "Regents of the University of California," implying the money went
straight to Sacramento and that 25-person board of Important Personages
chaired by the governor of California -- at the time a crotchety old
right-winger named Ronald Reagan, who said of the Berkeley "People's
Park" demonstrators "If there has to be a bloodbath, then let's get
it over with," and then sent in the National Guard in who fired on the
crowd, killing one person and blinding another.
( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/People's_Park )
I would write my checks to "the Reagents of the University of California"
in a pointless protest. (The cashier always accepted them anyway.)
Closer to home, I was how the UC system hindered innovation and
interdisciplinary exploration. I wondered how a privately funded
school on a similar campus would fare in striking out in new,
During my freshman year I went hiking every week, to explore the forest
I was in, and soon discovered there was undeveloped forest land west
of campus, still visible today on Google Maps.
( maps.google.com/maps )
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/kresge.jpg )
Some of it has been periodically logged. I think it's a slice
of commercial timber land between the university and Wilder Ranch
State Park. On one of these hikes I found an oak meadow on the edge
of redwood forest, with an ocean view, on a south-facing hill.
I thought it would a swell place to build a geodesic dome to live.
While working at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the summer of 1973,
( www.beachboardwalk.com )
( www.themeparkbrochures.com/maps/2004/scruz2004.html )
I would sometimes take my dinner breaks in a cafe with an upstairs
ocean view, and while pumping quarters in the juke box to play the
song "Been to Canaan" (1972) by Carol King
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00001NFOP/hip-20 )
would sketch floor plans for my dome in the meadow, which I began
to think of as my "promised land."
Later, in my mind the idea slowly changed into a plan for a private
college on the same land, and the obvious question was, what would
the curriculum be? I thought about that in the back of my mind
for a while.
A FIRST CURRICULUM
By my senior year I had put together an individual major
in "Whole Systems," and as part of it taught a course in
"Understanding Whole Systems" in winter quarter of 1975.
I based by general design of the ten week class on the 9 minute
film "Powers of Ten" (1968) by Charles and Ray Eames,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/6305943877/hip-20 )
which I showed at the first class meeting. If you haven't seen it,
the film takes the audience on a voyage from human scale to out beyond
galactic clusters, and then back in, continuing to the atomic nucleus.
( www.powersof10.com )
At that meeting I also handed out the course "SILLY-BUS" which was
the first issue of a "Weekly Rag" of reprints and other information
for the class that I produced on a mimeograph (including, in later
issues, student-written book reviews and other stuff.) I have scanned
page one of that first handout:
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/ws_wr.jpg )
I cringe now at its aggressively jocular tone, and the fact that I
recommended books I hadn't read. My students gave me feedback on
that! As a convenience I am providing links to the books from
that list that I still recommend. (Please note that this not the
same as the curriculum I would devise today. That is a bigger project
than hyperlinking this scanned document.) Here is the syllabus
with each week's concepts, system of interest, and reading:
WEEK: 1 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* information * the universe
* "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth" (1969) by Buckminster Fuller
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0671207830/hip-20 )
* "The Cosmic Connection" (1973) by Carl Sagan
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0521783038/hip-20 )
WEEK: 2 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* entropy * solar system
* "View from a Height" (1963) by Isaac Asimov
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380003562/hip-20 )
* "The Last Whole Earth Catalog" (1972) edited by Stewart Brand
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0394709438/hip-20 )
WEEK: 3 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* synergy * eco/bio-system
* pattern integrity
* "The Closing Circle" (1971) by Barry Commoner
* "Purposive Systems: Proceedings of the First Annual Symposium
of the American Society for Cybernetics" (1968) edited by Heinz
WEEK: 4 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* teleology * (human) species
* "Sciences of the Artificial" (1969) by Herbert Simon
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0262691914/hip-20 )
* "The Descent of Woman" (1972) by Elaine Morgan
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0285627007/hip-20 )
( www.grahamhancock.com/forum/MorganE1.php )
WEEK: 5 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* context * culture
* steady state
* "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" (1971) by B. F. Skinner
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0872206270/hip-20 )
* "Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology,
Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology" (1972) by Gregory
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0226039056/hip-20 )
* "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" (1964) by Marshall
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0262631598/hip-20 )
WEEK: 6 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* humor * social structures
* double bind
* "The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society" (1950)
by Norbert Wiener
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0306803208/hip-20 )
* "The Pump House Gang" (1968) by Tom Wolfe
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0553380613/hip-20 )
WEEK: 7 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* deutero-learning * the self
* "Two Cybernetic Frontiers" (1974) by Stewart Brand
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0394492838/hip-20 )
* "The Crack in the Cosmic Egg: Challenging Constructs of Mind
and Reality" (1971) by Joseph C. Pierce
* "The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space"
(1972) by John Lilly
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0870980637/hip-20 )
WEEK: 8 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* cancers * genetics, chemistry
* "The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of
the Structure of DNA" (1968) by James Watson
* "The Politics of Ecstasy" (1971) by Timothy Leary
WEEK: 9 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* uncertainty * subatomics
* "The Soft Revolution: A Student Handbook for Turning Schools
Around" (1971) by Niel Postman and Charles Weingartner
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0440080835/hip-20 )
* "Mr. Thompkins in Paperback" (1965) by George Gamow
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0521447712/hip-20 )
WEEK: 10 CONCEPTS: SYSTEM:
* the tao * the void
* "The Book (On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are)" (1966)
by Alan Watts
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679723005/hip-20 )
* "Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change"
(1971) by Victor Papanek
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0897331532/hip-20 )
Teaching this "student-directed seminar" was very educational, and
some day I will write about it in more detail -- and scan the rest
of the "Weekly Rags."
"Both poverty and riches are the offspring of thought."
-- Napoleon Hill, 1937
"Think and Grow Rich"
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0449214923/hip-20 )
Ten years passed. I made a new friend, Bob B., who convinced me to
take the "est Training" (others had tried) and also of the virtue
of having a goal to get rich. This at first seemed like heresy
given my antimaterialist counter-culture roots, but as we debated
the idea I began to see the logic of being able to afford to donate
to causes, fund efforts for change, and otherwise make a difference
with money as a resource.
Then, during a period of prolonged financial crisis in 1985, I began
to work on the mental aspects of creating prosperity. My text was
the grandaddy of all self-help books, "Think and Grow Rich" (1937)
by Napoleon Hill.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0449214923/hip-20 )
One of the suggestions Mr. Hill made was to write down goals and
say them aloud every morning. I put together a list of goals
with deadlines at five year intervals, from 1990 through 2020.
Only a few of the goals were things I planned to accomplish;
most of them were things I wanted to "have happen" -- not
done by me. (By the way, I no longer recommend this form
of goal-setting.) My goals included:
* Geoscope operational
( www.well.com/~abs/geoscope.html )
* Somascope operational
( www.well.com/~abs/Somascope/Somascope.html )
* no nuclear weapons threaten humans
* an end to starvation
* human disease is eradicated
* average human lifespan over 100
* healthy children possible to all parents
* self-reproducing space colonies built in two years
One of the few goals I actually DID want to achieve myself was:
* Cybernetic University
One day in the winter of 1986, as I recall, I spent the day with
my friend Will A., riding buses around San Diego, looking at
architecture, and just talking. He had seen my list of goals
that I read aloud each morning, and the one he was curious about
was "Cybernetic University."
I must admit I didn't have many answers for his curious questions.
I'd thought of "Cyber U" as -- obviously -- a place to build a
college curriculum around cybernetics ands systems theory, but
beyond that I hadn't worked much out.
Still, having these words, "Cybernetic University," pass my
lips each morning for years did begin to convince me of the
importance and even inevitability of the idea.
IF YOU'RE SO SMART, HOW COME YOU'RE NOT RICH?
One thing I know now, and didn't know then, is that the wealthy
philanthropist who endows a university doesn't usually get to pick
the faculty and courses. The tale of Walt Disney and Cal Arts is
instructive, as told in "Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World
and Orlando" (2001) by Richard E. Foglesong.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0300098286/hip-20 )
I also came to understand that I'd was missing part of the point
of the "Think and Grow Rich" approach: it isn't think ONLY, but think
FIRST. The thought precedes, but does not replace, action.
And I understand now that it is disempowering to wish for things and
not get them. In setting goals, it is import to really want to achieve
them; the affirmations and other tools are to feed that desire. The
desire leads to finding a way, a realistic plan and determined action.
(I just wanted the nukes to vanish without any effort on my part.)
The flip side is that it is empowering to set goals and achieve them,
leading to more confidence and more ambitious goals. A side effect
of carefully choosing goals to commit to is ending up with a pile
of "proto-goals," which might become goals later on but are now in limbo.
This is where the Cybernetic University currently sits with me.
Even in its proto-goal state, the Cyber U has been coalescing in my
mind. I realize now that it is more important to reform American
education than indulge my old wish-fulfillment fantasies. My
conception of the University has been redrawn based on the goals
I want it to achieve. Here is a draft version of these goals:
* preservation of knowledge
There's no money in Encyclopedias anymore, but they are more
essential then ever in a world of Information Overload.
Wikipedia has shown the way. It is time for the Encyclopedia
Universica, written by the masses, moderated by the grad students
ender faculty supervision, with illustrations (some of them 3-D
interactive) by the undergrads, threaded throughout with
hyperlinked mathematical theorems.
Work with the Long Now foundation,
( www.longnow.org )
described in "The Clock of the Long Now" (2000) by Stewart Brand,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465007805/hip-20 )
and create a set of carved titanium tablets of "The Way Things Work" (1988)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0395938473/hip-20 )
(or an improved version thereof) to help the next civilization.
* making a fuller role in education for cybernetics, simulation,
numerical experiments, Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" (2002)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1579550088/hip-20 )
and similar sytems-theoretical ideas.
Obviously, the main course of this feast is cybernetics.
Ashby's "Introduction to Cybernetics" (1959)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0416683002/hip-20 )
(now a free e-Book from the "Principa Cybernetica" web site)
( pcp.lanl.gov/ASHBBOOK.html )
provides a wonderful starting point.
* increasing the rate of paradigm shifts
According though "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (1967)
by Thomas S. Kuhn,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0226458075/hip-20 )
in the recent past it took a whole human generation for a new
"paradigm" in science to prevail. When the last of the old
guard retired or died a new paradigm would be swept in. An
example of this is described in "Rejection of Continental Drift"
(1999) by Naomi Oreskes.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0195117336/hip-20 )
I observed that during the computer revolution, in that industry,
paradigm shits happened much more quickly, such as mainframe to
minicomputer to workstation to PC (to handheld to cell phone?).
This has been done mostly by an influx of newcomers over and over,
with a few superflexible mavens braided through.
A goal of the Cybernetic University is to find ways to create
faster paradigm shifts without people having to die, retire or
There is a relevant item quoted in Michael Crichton's new novel
"State of Fear" (2004),
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0061015733/hip-20 )
in the bibliography:
Dorner [umlaut over the o], Dietrich. "The Logic of Failure:
Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations." Cambridge,
Mass.: Perseus, 1998.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0201479486/hip-20 )
What prevents human beings from successfully managing the natural
environment and other complex systems? Dozens of pundits have
weighed in with their unsubstantiated opinions. Dorner, a
cognitive psychologist, performed experiments and found out.
Using computer simulations of complex environments, he invited
intellectuals to improve the situation. They often made it worse.
Those who did well gathered information before acting, thought
systematically, reviewed progress, and corrected their course
often. Those who did badly clung to their theories, acted too
quickly, did not correct course, and blamed others when things
went wrong. Dorner concludes that our failures in managing
complex systems do not represent any inherent lack of human
capability. Rather they reflect bad habits of thought and
* reducing the wall between between theory and practice,
and other similar intellectual splits in our civilization
C. P. Snow described "The Two Cultures" (1959)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0521457300/hip-20 )
as being the humanists versus the scientists. But an even more
insidious split is between thinkers and doers. This schism goes
back at least as far as Athens, where Plato thought about
shadows as abstract metaphors while slaves did the work.
This abstract/concrete segregation persists in aerospace
companies. When I worked at Rockwell in Downey in the same
building where the shuttle Atlantis was being built, I was
friends with an engineer on the shuttle project. He came to
work every day in a white shirt and tie, and sat at a metal
desk near the titanium body of the orbiter, at a beat-up old
steel desk, with a mechanical pencil, waiting, while union
machinists in overalls installed titanium parts on the airframe
following "blueprints" which were really huge pen-plots from
an IBM mainframe computer's CAD software. Infrequently they
found something that didn't fit. Perhaps a hole was drilled in
the wrong place for a bolt. The machinists would go to my friend
and show him the drawing and the parts that didn't fit. The
engineer would draw a new hole on the plot, and initial and
date it, with his mechanical pencil. Then the machinists could
drill the hole. They couldn't touch the pencil, and he couldn't
touch the drill press.
It used to be worse. As I explain in my self-published book
"A Survival Guide for the Traveling Techie" (2005),
( travelingtechie.com )
a move in the direction of integration occurred in the
... in a collection of essays on the history of
technology by Lynn White, Jr., called "Dynamo and Virgin
Reconsidered" (1969, book)
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0262730243/hip-20 )
... he tells how the Bendictine monks were ordered
to pray by laboring. The had to do manual labor as a
form of religious worship. This included hauling water
in buckets for their gardens. They could read and write,
however, and they had some of these old Latin and Greek
documents on how to make pumps laying around, and so they
re-invented the windmill, and began using wind power to
pump water. (As long as illiterate peasants were the only
ones who had to carry water, these innovations didn't happen.)
This lit the fuse for the Industrial Revolution, which
evolved through wind power, water power, steam power, diesel
power and finally nuclear power. (Ironically we are now in
the process in some areas of switching from nuclear to wind.)
The Cybernetic University will attempt to blend the liberal arts
and the technical arts, and mix engineering with philosophy,
and work to further dissolve the archaic class barriers between
analysis and action.
HOW SOCIAL CHANGE WORKS
So with the above as goals, how do you come up with a plan that
In "Earthwalk" (1975) by Philip Slater,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0385032862/hip-20 )
the process by which societies change is mapped out:
Someone volunteers for the job of prophet or messiah. They are
going to tinker with the social order. But such tinkering is dangerous.
So to avoid "crashing" the social system, the messiah goes off into
the wilderness, and builds a MODEL of the social system, at first inside
him or her, and later in a social system with the acolytes or disciples.
Here the experiments are done, in what today's programmers would call
a "sandbox." When the prophet has worked out a social change, she
or he returns to society, preaches of the change, is promptly crucified,
and then to make sure nobody is swayed by the preaching, the leadership
circulates a rebuttal to the prophet. It is this rebuttal which
eventually becomes the blueprint for change. Typically about a
generation later the prophet's ideas become integrated into society.
This, then is my plan (or "proto-plan") for changing America with
the Cybernetic University. It is designed to be criticized, blackballed
and secretly admired. For this reason I want to make it a
non-residential school. I have seen the experiment of a
"living-learning environment" at Kresge College in the 1970s.
I seek to avoid the inevitable drug trips and sex orgies that seem
to dog all "experimental" colleges, as far back at least to the
19th century. If they must happen, let them be off-campus and
unaffiliated with the school. I think it is important for the
Cybernetic University to vilified for the RIGHT REASONS: for
its innovative curriculum.
STRUCTURE / CORE COURSES
The design (as it is currently evolved) of the curriculum at
Cyber U has a matrix of subjects and methodologies. The methodologies
* lab/field work
* computational experiments
Students choose from subjects, some traditional and some not:
* computer interfaces
* earth science
* game design
* homeland security
* media epistemology
* operations research
Each field does its own lab/field work. Students and faculty
come together for theoretical tools and computational tools.
Core courses include:
* Ordinary Differential Equations (ODEs) and Partial Differential
+ framing problems as ODEs and PDEs
+ analytical tools: linear and chaotic
+ computational and simulation tools for characterizing ODEs and PDEs
* communications theory
* fuzzy logic
* genetic algorithms
* network theory
* machine learning
* exploring the computability state space (Wolfram's "A New Kind of
* electronics and software for lab techs
* design of control systems (for aircraft, chemical
processes, prosthetics, &etc.)
* simulation for "virtual labs" and gaming
+ Sim City
+ Sim Geology
+ Sim Plague
Right off, I can think of a bunch of people I'd love to have
on the faculty:
* Mary Catherine Bateson
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=ISO-8859-1&q=%22mary+catherine+bateson%22 )
* Steve Birch
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22steve+birch%22+mindtel )
* Brian Eno
* Richard Friedhoff
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22richard+friedhoff%22 )
* Eric Frost
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22eric+frost%22 )
* Medard Gabel
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22medard+gable%22 )
* Alan Garfinkel
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22Alan+Garfinkel%22+PhD )
* Billy Martens
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&ie=UTF-8&safe=off&q=%22william+martens%22+stereo&spell=1 )
* Steve Price
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22stephen+price%22+mindtel )
* Jeff Sale
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22jeff+sale%22 )
* Tom Van Sant
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22tom+van+sant%22 )
* Dave Warner
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22david+warner%22+PhD+MD )
* Stephen Wolfram
( www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&ie=ISO-8859-1&safe=off&q=%22Stephen+Wolfram%22 )
* this place would be a great venue to restart the World Game
as an academic exercise
* it would also be a great place to try Hesse's "Glass Bead Game"
* for the Operations Research (OR) department: teach students how
build interfaces between common OR software tools -- like linear
and non-linear programming "solvers" -- and modern mission-critical
web-services based enterprise applications, such as an airline
scheduling system or a credit scoring system
* the Education department will focus on pre-kindergarten through
adult continuing education, and will work recursively -- older
students will create curriculum for younger ones, including
web pages, eBooks, Wikis, Java applets "labs", and of course
educational games, working with the Game Design department
* the Game Design department will study new games and the theory of
* also in collaboration with the Sustainability department, they'll
bring back the "electrobash" in the context of recycling high-tech
* the Sustainability department will also study civil engineering,
underground architecture, archologies, space cities, and do
experiments like Biosphere II
* I am inspired by the San Diego State University (SDSU) Masters
program in Homeland Security,
( homelandsecurity.sdsu.edu/detail.php?id=68 )
especially Steve Birch's course in Sensor Networks
( www.sdsuniverse.info/story.asp?id=26711 )
in which the students learn how to implement and use wireless
instrument networks for situation monitoring and geo-display
* I am also inspired by the "schtick" of Steve Birch and Steve
Price interacting to analyze the workability and suitability
of vendor equipment, sort of a "tech" consumer reports,
which they call "this crap sucks!" (See "electrobash" above.)
My current inkling is to locate it near Julian, CA, in the area of
Mount Cuyamaca in San Diego County. This would necessitate a fire
defense system (as we saw in the Cedars Fire of 2003), which might
as well be built and maintained by another department: the Disaster
Prevention and Response department.
What actually puzzles me is why the above ideas are not already
mainstream in our universities. They seem obvious to me, so are
not really controversial in my mind, but I am realistic enough
to know that other people (many of them, and quite a few with a
lot of power) do not agree with me, and so embarking on such a
plan will kick up a lot of criticism and attack. I'm not even
sure if I'm up to it. But it's nice to dream. Dreams are the
nursery of plans.
I was saddened to note the demise of "Weblog Bookwatch."
( www.onfocus.com/bookwatch )
In the on-line farewell address, "Goodbye Weblog Bookwatch,"
( www.onfocus.com/2005/07/3715 )
site creator and maintainer Paul Bausch says:
I got an email from my ISP today informing me that I was over my
bandwidth limit. I thought that was odd, did I get Slashdotted
and not know it? My logs didn't indicate any spikes. Nope, the
problem was traffic from my machine. In other words, scanning
close to 50,000 weblogs every six hours tends to use some
bandwidth. That got me thinking about whether or not I can
afford to keep the Bookwatch running.
But what about all that sweet Amazon cash? It's true that the
book links on the Weblog Bookwatch are an associate link to
Amazon -- and I get a cut when people buy books through them.
But it has never been a big money maker. In Q2 of 2005 I made
$118.67, which isn't even close to covering a month of hosting
with my current setup.
Sounds like my story. He recommends these alternatives:
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Copyright 2005 by Alan B. Scrivener