In October I read Ross Ashby’s “Introduction to Cybernetics” while on a trip to the States, finding myself with free time to read for the first time in months. It’s taken a while to get back around to writing up my analysis of the book, but that’s just what it is to be interested in this stuff in a capitalist economy. Let’s start with one of the more interesting chapters in the book, Chapter 10: Regulation in Biological Systems.

Life and Survival

The chief purpose of this chapter is to tie together the concepts of regulation, information, and survival, to show how intimately they are related, and to show how all three can be treated by a method that is entirely uniform with what has gone before in the boot, and that can be made as rigorous, objective, and unambiguous as on pleases.

  • Ross Ashby, Introduction to Cybernetics, 10/2

At this late point in the book, Ashby has taught us about machines, systems of machines, and the variety of their behaviours and configurations. We get the sense that he’s now finally getting to the point of what he wanted to teach us all along, the application of this theory to the regulation of lively systems in the world, and to the understanding of how that regulation is to be achieved.

Ashby sets up the chapter by talking about evolution and survival, the way in which life tends to propagate and change through time. Survival means maintaining some kind of integrity and continuity in the living system, both at the level of the individual and at the level of the species, that bizarre multi-scale process which is working itself out across time and space. The gene and the individual are mutually entangled in a process of becoming, with each contributing to the survival of the other, and itself, and the overall process. Ashby introduces the contrast between shells and brains as mechanisms of survival:

What this means is that those gene-patterns are specially likely to survive (and therefore to exist today) that cause to grow, between themselves and the dangerous world, some more or less elaborate mechanism for defence. So the genes in Testudo cause the growth of a shell; and the genes in Homo cause the growth of a brain. (The genes that did not cause such growths have long since been eliminated)

  • Ross Ashby, Introduction to Cybernetics, 10/5

The Dangerous World

At this point Ashby injects a now-familiar diagram, having developed the theory throughout the book:

D-F-E Diagram

In this diagram, "D" is the source of disturbance and danger originating from the environment. "E" is the essential variables of the system in question (the organism), and "F" is “the interpolated part (shell, brain, etc) formed by the gene-pattern for the protection of E”. In this diagram, “F” is a regulator, trying to keep “E” stable in the presence of “D”.

This is the same setup as Ashby’s earlier example of a temperature-controlled water bath, in which a thermostat regulates the temperature of the water. Ashby is framing survival in terms of homeostatic regulation, in other words, in terms of a machine-like process which can be analysed, understood, and even designed.

Here is a table showing the similarities between the water bath and the organism:

Water Bath Organism
D Weather Danger
F Thermostat Shell/Brain
E Temperature Blood Volume

Regulation Blocks Information

It now becomes clear why Ashby spent almost two-hundred pages on elaborating a theory of information propagation in machinic systems. The survival of the organism depends on protecting some set of “essential variables” (such as its blood volume, or simply its “aliveness”) from a theoretically infinite set of possible disturbances, such as misadventure, severe weather, violence from other agents in the world, loss of access to food, and so on.

The essential variables must be held (relatively) steady, regardless of what happens out there in the world. Or, another way of putting it; the organism itself would prefer to control how its own variables change over time. It requires some kind of regulator (or set of regulators) to do this.

This is a problem of variety and information, the environment and all its dangers are high-variety, while the space of preferred states for the organism is relatively low-variety. If the regulator is to be effective, it must block the variety of the world from impinging on the variety of its essential variables. It must block the flow of information which would otherwise flow from “D” to “E”. If “D” were to propagate information to “E”, then the organism would effectively not exist, it would instead just be a pile of matter blowing about in the wind, with nothing to distinguish itself from any other pile of matter in the environment.

Ashby calls back to an earlier chapter in which he established that a properly-functioning thermostat blocks information from the outside from affecting the temperature of the water in a bath or tank. If one were to sit all day and stare at a temperature read-out from the water tank, one would receive no information about changes going on outside, there would just be a flat line held at a constant temperature. By contrast, a malfunctioning thermostat would fail to stabilize the temperature of the water, and thus would allow information to creep in from outside. The observer could infer from the fluctuation in temperature that a sun-beam was shining on the water tank, or that someone had left a door open and allowed a cold breeze to blow around the tank.

Diagram of information blocking with thermostat

The same principle applies to living systems, and to the higher activities of the more complex living systems. Come rain or shine, they must keep themselves alive, to protect their essential variables from the explosive cascading information flows of the outside. Their “aliveness” (and its composite variables) must remain steady. And given that the world produces seemingly infinite variety of danger, they need excellent regulators to achieve this dynamic stability

Brain as (Superior) Alternative to Shell

And so we’re back to shells and brains. I’ll just quote what Ashby has to say on this:

The blocking may take place in a variety of ways, which prove, however, on closer examination to be fundamentally the same. Two extreme forms will illustrate the range.

One way of blocking the flow (from the source of disturbance D to the essential variable E) is to interpose something that acts as a simple passive block to the disturbances. Such is the tortoise’s shell, which reduces a variety of impacts, blows, bites, etc. to a negligible disturbance of the sensitive tissues within. In the same class are the tree’s bark, the seal’s coat of blubber, and the human skull.

At the other extreme from this static defence is the defence by skilled counter-action—the defence that gets information about the disturbance to come, prepares for its arrival, and then meets the disturbance, which may be complex and mobile, with a defence that is equally complex and mobile. This is the defence of the fencer, in some deadly duel, who wears no armour and who trusts to his skill in parrying. This is the defence used mostly by the higher organisms, who have developed a nervous system pre- cisely for the carrying out of this method.

When considering this second form we should be careful to notice the part played by information and variety in the process. The fencer must watch his opponent closely, and he must gain information in all ways possible if he is to survive. For this pur- pose he is born with eyes, and for this purpose he learns how to use them. Nevertheless, the end result of this skill, if successful, is shown by his essential variables, such as his blood-volume, remaining within normal limits, much as if the duel had not occurred. Information flows freely to the non-essential variables, but the variety in the distinction “duel or no-duel” has been pre- vented from reaching the essential variables.

  • Ross Ashby, Introduction to Cybernetics, 10/7

What I find interesting here is the way Ashby frames the brain as a superior alternative to a shell. We usually think of the brain as being encased inside the body, a weak, squishy organ which needs a body to protect it from the outside world. But the framing here is quite the opposite: the body needs a brain to protect it from the outside world. It’s as if the brain were wrapped around the body as a shell, interfacing with the world on behalf of the bodys essential variables, acting as a pro-active dynamic defense system. The body is the cargo, while the brain is the hull, the rudder, the wheel, and the navigator.

This turns the modern folk-understanding of the brain/body system on its head. Rather than a precious cognitive cargo being shielded from the elements by a squishy body, instead the body is protected from the sheer weirdness of the world by a robust and dynamic nervous system with the capacity to learn, adapt, and to model its past, present, and future. The radical openness and dynamism of the brain vastly outperforms and outmaneuvers the crude defenses of the shell. Just ask any turtle who’s gone toe-to-toe with a fencer.

Fools lament the lack of a shell on the human back. What need have we for a shell when we have something so much more powerful mediating our engagement with the world?

Social Shells and Social Brains

Cybernetics posits that there are general principles underlying the behaviour and development of dynamic, adaptive systems. The lessons we learn from biology can be condensed and abstracted, and then applied to the social world.

Plenty of social thinkers have used the shell metaphor (or some variant of it), to defend and naturalize the worst aspects of human geopolitics. The liberal order of nation states and the patchwork fever-dreams of the neo-reactionaries are both laced through with notions of borders, walls, blockages, islands, enclaves, pockets, defenses, fortifications, protection, isolation. The nation-state is the psycho-sexual anus-clenching reflex made material in the world. A socio-psychological derangement written into law. Leviathan, with its skin of armoured scales, squats over the land, pretending to keep order, and pretending to keep that order on behalf of the people.

And this system of states is failing miserably. The crisis cascades and multiplies. Despite the obvious uselessness of this method of social organisation it seems to just be what we’re stuck with for the moment. The capitalist state (and world) system clenches harder, tries to harden its shells, and forbids the development of real alternatives to its failure.

Even the left (whatever remains of it) struggles to move beyond shell-thinking when trying to articulate a vision of a better future.

Many morbid symptoms emerge from this lack of imagination. On the right and center of political discourse, people either advocate for stronger shells and harder borders, or for an incoherent mix of slightly weaker shells but without any kind of social brain to replace the shell, a world of authoritarian market-states (in the “small state” sense so loved by libertarians and centrists) dissolved in the acid-bath of capital, lacking any higher brain function. What a grim set of choices! Either a patchwork amoeba of hard-bordered ethnostates or a patchwork amoeba of bueraucratic market domination.

On the left we’re not much better. We either rally behind whatever state electoral project is being offered and implicitely tie our flag to one of the afformentioned masts, or we fall back on old articles of faith like Leninism, or so many dead-eyed variants on Trotskyism. Shell-thinking, all of it.

In the few instances where we do articulate an anti-state/anti-shell politics we get stuck in one of two traps. In both cases the alternative is (assumed to be) worse than the state, and we only differ in our attitude toward this worseness. Either the worse alternative is unacceptable, in which case we fall back to a depressive reformism within the state, or the worse alternative is still preferable despite its nightmarish implications, so we just have to all get accustomed to being worse off just because. The juice is worth the squeeze, supposedly.

Missing from almost all of this is any kind of brain-thinking, the discovery and development of social brains more powerful, more effective, more open, more free than social shells. Marx gave us a start, Beer planted some way-markers, others fleshed out the map as best the could. We’re still only beginning to grapple with this problem.

We need to imagine our collective future as not simply another State/Shell arrangement where we pretend that imagined boundaries are sufficient to achieve long-term dynamic stability and flourishing for life on earth. We need to think instead of what a Social Brain would look like. Open and dynamic, always moving and evolving, always learning, always ready and willing to abandon the sad tyranny of the past and to navigate the future. And beyond imagining, we need to act in such a way as to bring about the emergence of this common social brain. This will be a revolution.

Fools lament the lack of a social shell for human society. What need have we for a shell when we can have something so much more powerful mediating our development within the world?