Placing the Web at the Center of Man’s Quest for Knowledge
Today when you think “Internet” you think of chat rooms, banner ads, spam e-mails, day-trading, stock scams, buying books and Christmas presents…. People worry about their kids surfing porn sites or playing violent network games, or their employees spending work hours looking at sports videos on ESPN. One doesn’t often hear anyone talking about the Net as, say, a medium for the human race to collectively move toward philosophical truth.
Yet, this was exactly what Valentin Turchin, Francis Heylighen and Cliff Joslyn had in mind when they founded the Principia Cybernetica Website (http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/ ) in 1993, just months after the birth of the Web itself. And, odd as this view may seem in the current Internet environment, it’s a perspective with considerable power, though no one knows exactly how it will manifest itself as the Net grows and changes.
To understand how this deep and unusual view of the Net was conceived, you have to remember how different the online world was10 years ago. In 1990 there was a Net but no Web: the Internet consisted of e-mail, the ftp protocol for file transfer, the telnet protocol for remote execution of programs, and Gofer, a text-based directory service with a very limited amount of information. The big news was the increasing prevalence of Internet use within academia – in the 70’s and early 80’s, the Net had only been available to US military staff and industrial and academic researchers working on military-related projects.
No one, at that stage, saw what the Net was going to grow into. But a few visionaries saw that it was going to grow into something huge, and Heylighen, Turchin and Joslyn were among them. Turchin, the oldest of the three, had foreseen that something like the Net would emerge way back in the 60’s. As well as being a stellar computer scientist, he was a systems theorist in the grand European tradition; and based on his cybernetic philosophy of the world, it seemed obvious to him that, in time, computer and communication technology were going to advance to the point where people would be linked together in radical new ways, transforming society and culture and eventually the mind itself, and even the body. Looking at the Net in 1991, Turchin and his colleagues didn’t foresee the crucial role that graphics and sound would come to play in the development of Internet technology. They didn’t see the dot com stock boom coming, either. But in some ways they saw further ahead than these things, to aspects of the Net that are currently present only in germinal form.
One thing they saw quite clearly was the widespread confusion that was going to emerge in the wake of the accelerating pace of technological change. On this they were dead on; today, the high-tech gurus and Internet business moguls are almost as baffled as the common man – they just do a better job of hiding it. And, unsurprisingly to anyone with a system-theoretic background, what’s most intensely brain-tangling is not the technology in itself, but the web of interconnections ensuing when new technologies are put together with human psychology and human culture. Occasionally someone gets a relevant intuition, and is able to see clear trends and patterns where others see a shifting maze of possibilities. But as with every other domain of knowledge, it’s hard to tell true intuitions from wishful thinking and self-delusion. The history of the Net is full of brilliant people who thought they’d limned the future but were proven wrong, sometimes at great financial or personal cost.
Their early recognition of the confusing nature of the emerging Net led to the inspiration underlying the formation of the Principia Cybernetica project: That, in order to understand the technological changes occurring in the world today, the new technologies themselves must be involved in the thought process. Turchin, Heylighen and Joslyn felt that, in order to understand the changes occurring, a new philosophy was needed – a cybernetic philosophy for the technological age. But this philosophy, they sensed, would be best developed not by a handful of isolated thinkers, but rather in a communal way, mediated by new technologies for intellectual interaction. They saw the Internet as ultimately leading to the emergence of a global brain, and one of the early tasks of this global brain, they reckoned, should be the creation of an ontology, metaphysics, epistemology and ethics capable of dealing with issues such as the emergence of a global brain.
As Heylighen wrote in 1991, “Every time has its own approach to these eternal philosophical questions, deriving from its knowledge and technology. We hold that in our time, the age of information, it is systems science and cybernetics, as the general sciences of organization and communication, that can provide the basis for contemporary philosophy.” And the best way to develop this cybernetic world-view, he proposed in the same article, was to deploy new computer-based tools to allow collaborators around the world to build a philosophy together. In 1991, their proposal to use hypertext, e-mail lists, and ftp servers to promote collective philosophical development was quite a radical one. Today these tools are commonplace, but other aspects of the Principia Cybernetica vision remain cutting-edge, for example their concept of self-organizing Websites that rebuild their link structure dynamically based on continual human feedback.
The name “Principia Cybernetica” was inspired by Russell and Whitehead’s early-20’th-century classic Principia Mathematica, in which mathematical methods were applied to the foundations of mathematics itself with unprecedented success. Russell and Whitehead, as Heylighen put it, formulated “the laws of thought governing mathematical reasoning by means of mathematical axioms, theorems and proofs. This proved highly successful, and the Principia Mathematica stills forms the basis of the "modern" mathematics as it is taught in schools and universities. ….Our contention is that something similar should be done with cybernetics: integrating and founding cybernetics with the help of cybernetical methods and tools.”
Turchin sketched the initial nodes and links of the site, based on his years of research into the foundations of systems theory. Cliff Joslyn brought a practical intuition to the work; presently he’s the only one of the three working outside of academia, at Los Alamos National Labs in New Mexico. Francis Heylighen, though, has been the site’s primary parent – the one to maintain the site over the years, and to keep the vision alive by creating new spin-off projects dealing with specific topics within the cybernetics umbrella.
The members of the Principia Cybernetica founding trio complement one another in valuable ways. Heylighen’s writings, though important, perhaps lack the philosophical depth of Turchin’s best work. Now in his 70’s, Turchin still stands out as the intellectual powerhouse of the trio, providing the strongest force behind the philosophical rather than Web-oriented aspects of the project. But Turchin works best when paired with others with more practical mentalities (it being understood that practicality is a relative term, and what passes for practicality among global brain aficionados is probably about 1000 times more abstract than what passes for abstractness in most walks of life!). Turchin has a fairly structured and rigorous view of the intellectual mission of Principia Cybernetica very seriously, tying it in with his notion of the progressive formalization of philosophical concepts. Heylighen is no less serious about the project, but seems more open to the wild and chaotic nature of the contemporary Net, and less tied to a specific vision of how knowledge should unfold within the project.
Turchin’s philosophy of science is much like that of Charles S. Peirce: he views the scientific enterprise as a process of moving gradually closer and closer to an ultimately unattainable truth, through a process of individual inspiration and social collaboration. More precisely the Peirce ever did, he conceives scientific progress as a matter of formalizing formerly intuitive concepts so that they can serve as a solid substrate for further intuitive development. As he sees it, this kind of sequential formalization is what makes science contribute more and more as time goes on, whereas other pursuits such as art and literature contribute at a roughly constant rate. The initial nodes of the Principia Cybernetica website embody some of Turchin’s simple formalizations of system-theoretic concepts like “system,” “action,” “emergence,” and “metasystem transition.” He envisions these nodes as being elaborated over time, by other researchers, leading to the development of a growing network of concepts, providing an increasingly accurate and substantial formalization of the world in the mathematical language of systems theory.
Sure, by the standards of the contemporary Internet, this vision of a collective movement toward scientific truth seems peculiarly staid. Today the Net is known for rumors and hoaxes and opinions rather than anything resembling a movement toward absolute truth. Free-flowing interaction is big: Amazon lets customers review books; epinions.com pays people for their opinions on products and issues, where the rate of pay is based on how much others like their opinions. But perhaps, in spite of its un-trendiness, the Principia Cybernetic vision of the Net has something to recommend it. Turchin isn’t so optimistic about the value of mass opinion; if he posted to epinions on this topic, he would surely rate it unlikely that this kind of averaging together of everyone’s glib opinions is ever going to lead to any kind of deep understanding. On the other hand, Heylighen and Joslyn, younger and more comfortable with the chaos of the Net, are at least a little more positive about the mass-interaction aspects of it all. They’ve even created some simple experiments showing how Websites might organize themselves automatically based on user feedback, although their experiments have not yet been implemented on the Principia Cybernetica site.
How successful has the enterprise been? That depends upon your measurement criteria. So far, the Principia Cybernetica website, although a great and popular site, has not really sparked a renaissance of cybernetic philosophy. It’s no Principia Mathematica, yet. The ideas presented by the site are basically the same ones that were there when the site started, although some of them are presented more clearly and thoroughly, and there are more practical applications, as in Heylighen and Bollen’s work on user-modified Web structures. However, there are indications of new concepts brewing. Most notably, the concept of a global brain, a higher-level intelligence emergent from computational agents and computer-using humans, has been fleshed out much more thoroughly than was done a decade ago, partly due to discussions on the Global Brain Study Group, an e-mail list that Heylighen created..
The notion of a global brain emerges straight from the heart of the philosophy underlying Principia Cybernetica, Turchin’s "Metasystem Transition Theory", which is based on the spontaneous emergence of higher and higher levels of organization. His metaphysics is process-based, with action taken as the fundamental entity. Actions are understood to involve elemental freedom; and agents are understood in terms of the actions that they undertake. Some actions are more successful than others; combined with the freedom that leads to random variation among actions, this leads to evolution by natural selection. Systems of agents interacting with each other display complex dynamics, and sometimes undergo transitions in which the whole system displays so much coherence and unity that it begins to control the parts. This is a metasystem transition – like the emergence of multicellular life from one-celled organisms, the emergence of mind from body, or the emergence of society from collections of humans. The Principia Cybernetica crew believe that the Net is about to trigger another metasystem transition, in which computer and communication technologies worldwide come together to form a brainlike whole.
For instance, in November 1999 there was a thread on the Global Brain group comparing humans in the emerging Global Brain to ants in an ant colony. Leor Gruendlinger posted the following worried message: “Before I happily agree to become the part of a cyber-brain (and hence die one clear day because of a bug), I would like to retain my autonomy, or at least lose it in stages… What kind of stages? I think about insect colonies as an example: still free to move, to act by themselves, but very much committed to the community, sharing food and resources, caring for the young together, etc. …Perhaps before humans agree that their sight, smell and other senses be manipulated by a chip, they will need this confidence and trust in the system they will be part of. It has to sustain them better, perhaps by seeing farther into the future and preparing in advance for challenges they cannot even grasp…... What levels of autonomy are there to pass through on the way to the global brain? Will such a passage be gradual, or very fast?”
In response, Steve Wishnevsky pointed out that this vision of the future Net
as usurping individual autonomy and rendering us like ants in a colony may be a
big exaggeration. After all, he argued,
“consciousnesses larger and more
permanent than human have
existed for thousands of years, in the form of bureaucracies, churches and empires.”
But I found this argument somewhat lacking. “’Largeness’ and ‘permanence,’” I argued in my reply to him, “are not the most important parameters of consciousness…. Suppose we accept the panpsychic theory that everything is conscious…. Still, some things are more conscious than others… There is something called "intensity" of consciousness (which …has to do with the amplification of information...) I think that a bureaucracy has a much lesser intensity of consciousness than a human.”
The key question, I elaborated, isn’t whether the Net is gaining more and more structure, and invading our lives and implicitly directing more and more of our activities. Obviously, it is, and it’s not about to stop. The key question is – how much. How much control will this emergent meta-system have – will it just be like a weird new kind of social institution, or will it be something bigger, something that invades our minds and makes us into some new kind of posthuman human…. Will it be like the Principia Cybernetica site now, which helps humans organize their thoughts, and channels human interactions? Or will it be like the n’th power of Heylighen and Bollen’s dynamically interactive Web experiments, a turbulent information network that’s continually rebuilding itself based on our feedback, and creating so many new ideas that our own ideas barely get any time in our minds?
One thing that’s nearly certain is that everyone, no matter how brilliantly visionary, is going to be surprised. Given the unpredictable nature of the situation, it’s tempting to just sit back and watch the show – or try to make a quick buck from some dot com firm riding one or another short-term trendy manifestation of the long-term technological revolution. But Principia Cybernetica holds out a different ideal. At a time when the Net seems dominated by chat rooms, various forms of advertisements, porno, multiplayer networked gore games, and other forms of digital dreck, it’s worth reflecting on the Principia Cybernetica dream, the view of the Net as a means for drawing our minds and souls together, to move slowly but surely toward the unattainable goal of truth. One hopes that, as the Net moves into the next phase of development, this kind of seriousness and intellectual quality will play more of a role once again, as they did in the early days before the wonderful and chaotic explosion of graphics, sound and e-commerce that the last decade has delivered us.