ULTRASTABLE: THE SLEEPING MACHINE
In the first part of her essay on self-organization in machines, Evelyn Fox Keller discusses the “Homeostat” of W. R. Ashby (1903-1972), which he designed in 1948 to explore the possibilities of self-organization in machines. The apparatus (which the British Library, wonderfully, calls a “baroque and bulky machine” in its post on Ashby’s papers) consisted of four circuit blocks, each connected to a thin metal vane immersed in small water tanks. Displacing the vane would trigger the block to produce an electrical current. With the vane set to the middle position, any given block would produce no current; disturb the vane’s position and the block would send current to the other blocks, causing their vanes to move. Overall, the apparatus was disposed to seek the equilibrium state—vanes set to their neutral positions—dynamically, in response to changes in the “environment.”
Ashby considered his machine to be very good for thinking with—a position not universally agreed, as Fox Keller discloses:
This was a machine for doing nothing, or, as Grey Walter put it, a machina sopora, a sleep machine. But to Ashby this was to miss the central point of the device. And that was that a reorganization (rewiring, in this case) would be automatically triggered every time the system departed from its range of stability, thereby guaranteeing that it would always reach a stable state no matter how serious the perturbation of the inputs. It was not merely stable, it was “ultrastable.”
This notion of ultrastability was of great importance to Ashby. It marked a cru- cial distinction between the capacity of his device and that of others being of- fered up as candidates for self-organizing machines… here was a machine that could automatically change its organization in a positive direction—it could spontaneously shift from a “bad” organization, or way of behaving, to a “good” one. It could adapt…. This, he claimed, was precisely what his homeostat did. It showed that a properly designed machine could exhibit autonomous, self-organizing behavior of just the kind that animals displayed (Fox Keller 68).
Although Walter’s description of the Homeostat as a “sleeping machine” was meant as a dig, there’s something sublime in it: no matter the perturbation, the vanes seek their quietude, and the machine finds its way to a state of “ultrastability” akin to slumber—or enlightenment?
The Homeostat is a striking example of design being used to explore a philosophical problem (Ashby, in his journals, described himself as an artist foremost). The apparatus became an early exemplum of cybernetics; Ashby demonstrated it at the 9th Macy conference, and Norbert Wiener extolled its virtues and implications. The degree to which contemporary theories of animal cognition directly drove the cybernetic imaginary is striking. At the same time, it’s interesting to note that Ashby developed the circuit blocks from surplus British bomb-control devices. At its start, cybernetics thought the thinking machine by joining war and the animal.
ANIMAL & MACHINE: ARGUMENTS FROM SELF-ORGANIZATION
I begin with Immanuel Kant, for it was he who originally introduced the term (self-organization), and he did so as a way of characterizing what it was that so conspicu- ously singled out organisms from other subjects. For the next 150 years, the distinctiveness of organisms from machines held firm…. (T)he most dramatic mutation in this tradition came with the radical, and surprisingly rapid, breakdown of one of the founding divisions, namely the divide between organisms and machines, and this came with the rise of cybernetics in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The basic claim of cybernetics was that the relation between organisms and machines was not merely analogous, but homologous: organisms were machines, and at least some machines could be organisms. Accordingly, it ought to be possible to build machines with the same self-organizing capacities as organisms. —Evelyn Fox Keller, “Organisms, Machines, and Thunderstorms: A History of Self-Organization, Part One.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol. 38, Number 1, pp. 45-75.
I’m just beginning to dive into Keller’s two-part essay on concepts of self-organization in science and technology, which already is proving to be magisterial. This introductory observation gets at the hear of what I’m interested in with the history of cybernetics: its entanglement in stories of animal being. There’s a syllogism that emerges in this moment, implicit in the discourse, which runs as follows:
- Animals are machines.
- We build machines.
- We can build machines that function as organisms.
The question-begging nature of the first proposition is clear, I think. And yet so much flows from it. I’ll be interested to see how Keller adumbrates the origins of the animal-as-machine (which she argues only begins in analogy, in Kantian and Cartesian formulations of animal being, with extensions beyond the analogical initially proscribed). Implied in this orginary cybernetic syllogism, I want to suggest, is a corollary formula regarding the nature of intelligence.
SILENCE & THE SPEAKING OF STONES
“Americans have built a base even at the South Pole…. One year there were ninety-nine residents who celebrated Christmas together at the base. Someone had smuggled in ninety-nine stones and handed out one apiece as Christmas gifts, keeping one for themselves. Nobody had seen stones for months. Some people hadn’t seen stones for more than a year. Nothing but ice, snow and man-made objects. Everyone sat gazing at their stone. Holding it in their hands, feelings its weight, without uttering a word.”
—Erling Kagge, Silence in the Age of Noise.
What I’m working on (04.05.2018)
PENGUINS. Since February, I’ve been volunteering one day a week in the penguins exhibit at the New England Aquarium. The work is putting me in touch with the performance of wildness in public space, and with some of the more charismatic and labored systems, practices, and protocols framing wildness in our midst.
What I’m working on (11.1.2017)
DOGS. Science defines the bark as a behavior subject to determinative rules; popular accounts of canine forms of life weave together discourses from genetics, behavioral ecology, paleontology, evolutionary psychology, and public health—and yet beyond these, the dog’s bark resonates in a dark abundance of critterly relations that make the dog what Donna Haraway (2003) describes as our “partner in the crime of human evolution.” As part of a panel at this summer’s 4S conference, in Boston, I gave a talk called “Cynical soundings: the dappled world of the dog’s bark”; I’m doing some writing now that takes ideas and observations in that talk further, relying on Donna Haraway’s observations in When Species Meet (2008), John Hartigan, Jr.’s Aesop’s Anthropology, and Thomas van Dooren’s Flight Ways (2015) along with a pack of other texts, including the poetry of Wallace Stevens (think “Thirteen Ways of Listening to a Dog Bark”).
BOOK SERIES on INVASIVE SPECIES. I’ve agreed to edit Invasive Agents, a new series for Trinity University Press. The series will explore the idea of the invasive species in a series of short, vivid accounts of creaturely encounters with the human world. We’ll consider the weedy, the feral, and the invasive as companions and community members, and ground our ecology not in breakdown, but in becoming. Books in the series will strike an open and open-hearted relation to natural phenomena, to see intrusions of nature into human forms of life not as vectors of disease but opportunities to wonder, cultivate, and take common cause with the nonhuman world. If you’ve got an idea for a title, or want to point me in the direction of a possible author, let me know!
“Joy is happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens”—David Steindl-Rast.
KNOTTINGS IN TIME
I appreciate Thomas van Dooren’s attention, in Flight Ways, to species as things that happen in time. In this he makes use of Deborah Rose Bird’s conception of “knots of embodied time”: compounds of sequence and synchrony, patterns of generation, of being born, living, and dying, tangled up at the same time in synchronicities of interaction and exchange. These make for a knotty warp, as we’re simultaneously involved with projects on vastly different time scales: the span of a life—of a species of tens or hundreds of millions of years—as party to the “Cenozoic achievement,” a community of life ways that emerged out of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event that brought an end to the world of dinosaurs. When species interact—when I aim a chirp at a titmouse, or spook a raccoon foraging in the nightime snow, or roust out a winter moth that’s nestled into a dark corner of the kitchen—these temporal strands come into knotty confederacy with one another. Biodiversity braids through these moments, not merely as a frame through which to see other creatures, but as one shaft of light which, interwoven with others, draws the dappled compositions of moments together.
Can we learn to perceive this dappled condition—to sense, and value, the knottings of time we make in our being-species entanglements?
WONDERING WHERE THE ANSWER LIES
I’m beginning to wonder if the effective response to climate change, ultimately, won’t come from the biology department or the school of engineering and applied sciences, but from the divinity school.
ANOTHER NOTE ON WONDER & THE ARK OF THE FIRST-PERSON PLURAL
In these early posts in this new stream of work, I’ve been wrestling with wonder, the enormity of biodiversity, and the challenge of “being-species” that confronts us on this planet at our moment. Should we talk about ourselves as a species when we don’t properly know what such a thing might be?
Well, I’m still listening to Krista Tippett talk with Mary Catherine Bateson, and much of their conversation is terrifically germane. Late in the hour, Bateson begins a sentence by saying, “We need to learn how to use “we…” and then she takes a terrifically long pause, long enough that I wonder where this hinge on “we” will swing, towards being-species or some conditional relativism. (I’m listening to the unedited podcast version of the interview, which wonderfully leaves the silences alive and wriggling.) And then she takes it in a direction perpendicular to that polarity: “…to refer to all living things on this earth,” she concludes.
If we really could get to the first person plural—embracing the implicit personhood of the pronoun—to signify the plenteous community of terrestrial life, we might come aysmptotically closer to the dynamic social equillibrium we need to survive as a species among species on this earth.
I was listening to Mary Catherine Bateson on a podcast this morning. She observed that a shared aspect of the three Abrahamic religions is the sense of wonder, with its concomitant idiom of praise arising from a shared sense of marvel. It reminded me of Bruno Latour’s description, in Facing Gaia, of the monotheisms as “counter-religions”: forms of belief that grew to exclude the possibility of divinities other than the one to which each was pledged. This marked a shift from religions of antiquity, which acknowledged divinity in plural forms.
Both observations are terrific oversimplifications, of course. And yet there is something unmistakeable in them. And these two confessional vectors are hardly exclusive, but closely paired: wonder at the majesty of one’s sole God is the front porch to a house which, however many mansions it may hold, has no room for the gods of others.
Science, too, traffics in wonder. And as Latour points out, it has emerged as a counter-religion in the same key as the others: for science, as a culture, as a belief system, as a confession, recognizes a sole force, Nature, as its de-facto divinity.
There have been charismatic dissents from this mononaturalism—the line of process philosophers running through James and Whitehead, for whom the plurality of nature was paramount; and the philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright, who figures ours as a “dappled world” where the “laws” of science hold locally, partially, in fragmented pools and prisms.
Wonder is often the coin of mononatural science, figured most richly and evidently in documentary films and the imprecations of public scientists. And it makes me uncomfortable—for scientific wonder, like the Psalmist, often has little patience for pluralism, for dappled light.
And yet I’m beginning to think that something like wonder might be a crucial missing ingredient in the climate debate. What’s needed is a negative wonder, or perhaps more richly a plural wonder: a practice of acknowledgment of the marvels of excess, and abundance, and multiplicity, mystery. Praise for a planet capable of husbanding such plurality and diversity in living things—a fraught plurality, the very power and majesty of which is tangled up with what makes it ephemeral and tenuous.
A SMALL SAMPLE FROM ~200,000 NEW LEPIDOPTERAN GENUS NAMES GENERATED BY A NEURAL NETWORK
Zenophnua, Traglosteryx, Cortix, Urunopallis, Zencolastres, Cronoides, Corpema, Braostera, Merganemodes, Cacoschter, Colecra, Careopita, Trotonis, Adoneara, Zangycomoelus, Abriba, Sceneperanthesia, Atyrhageoris, Zacama, Yacostes, Bagda, Chroxys, Aurhalea, Aphanope, Argymophdona, Zethys, Xenobrix, Boroltiga, Odograpta, Ctenoides, Calinodes, Anioptristis, Zarniame, Basnia, Arliometrina, Barachropitia, Adurosis, Aletis, Bomblena, Yalea, Callopisia, Durgedileta, Ctenchizomelia, Cathriglopha, Chrysolypsis, Amnothoe, Catoschlorena, Caristila, Chostodes, Chidava, Chloromuca, Chymenolophis, Cartia, Marthoides, Meschoarmia, Derina, Exofilla, Epithoerochlora, Cygonna, Dixea, Micaletra, Diecomia, Brobletis, Connopus, Gnophora, Crycrenis, Dixyla, Leudoplera, Hethychomia, Gromaphrapna, Lowekiodes, Heabesis, Lanca, Dalysiodia, Danopsis, Hyparda, Hyplolotos, Callosteca, Listocledia, Heterobacta…
Species are weird. Biologists guess that somewhere between 10 and 30 million species exist on earth; somewhat fewer than 2 million are “known to science.” Species exist across a skewy and wildly-balanced range of temporalities—they stretch in densely-braided diversity across millions of years, and yet they make their presence obvious to one another in the instant of encounter. And as the microbiologist Lynn Margulies showed, species can’t be said properly to exist for microbes, which transfer genomes among lineages with extraordinary ease; the species is an artifact of the emergence of complex cells, flourishing as a phenomenon of multicellular organisms. In the career of life on earth, being-species* arises as a peculiar kind of weather.
We moderns feel our being-species keenly. The genus Homo has only one species today, the sapiens, in all its ubiquity and variety. By contrast, the genus Agrilus—the so-called “jewel beetles” of the family Coleoptera—contains some 3,000 species (of which the Emerald Ash Borer, A. planipennis, is likely the most familiar).
Looking for ways to get closer to this dark abundance of biodiversity, I took a list of ca. 1800 genus names (drawing from a list of the Coleopteran family Geometridae, commonly known in English as the inchworms) and fed them into a recurrent neural network written by Andrej Karpathy (@karpathy). A neural network is a computer program that approximates the computational work done by neurons, creating a virtual network of synaptic pathways seeking to analyze a set of target data. The network doesn’t carry any a priori rules for what makes a genus or a species, nor does it work from a model of evolution or a theory of biodiversity. It processes the target data, tries to recreate it incrementally, and then compares the results to the target, choosing the analytic pathways—the connected “neurons”—which produces the best results. In a very rough and merely metaphoric way, the process could be called evolutionary, although genera and species arise in very peculiar ways not captured by this rough metaphor of neural selection.
The neural network produced more than 200,000 new “genera.” The block of vaguely-latinate morphemes at the top of this post is a small selection from the output. Each of the extant, scientifically-recognized binomials in the Geometridae is an artifact of human attention and craft; each is represented somewhere by a butterfly or moth pinned to a board, indexed with a tag which ties it to a place, a date, a discoverer. But the sheer estimated number of genera and species which have yet to be named prompts me to wonder, not only whether we’ll ever name them all, but whether naming them all is phenomenologically possible.
Chrysolypsis, Urunopallis, Zenophnua—the neural-net genera have the flavor of taxonomic nomenclature, even though the neural network doesn’t know anything about Darwin, Linneaus, or DNA. (neither, of course, do the inchworms.) As climate change induced by the last remaining species of the genus Homo advances inexorably, perhaps we could make use of such undiscovered genera, to help us get close to the enormity of biodiversity that might be lost before it can be named.
*: I mean something other than, but related to, the Marxian concept of “species being”—something at once fraught and affect-laden and also embodied and ineluctably ecological. I’m intrigued by Thomas van Dooren’s concept of “flight ways,” in the book of the same name, which takes species as life forms with forms of life: wherein habits, migratory patterns, displays, modes of communication, all that is entrained in any conception of what a given species “is,” are understood as bound together in a living matrix embedded in history, laden with affect, and laced with storyful richness.
Trying again. To begin at the beginning, which (in the measure of Joycean circularity) is always in the midst of things. Staying with the trouble, as Haraway tells us to do. As if we had any other choice.
I’m looking for a way back to conversation: to aleatory, inspiring chatter of the kind that drew me to this medium in the first place. But no, what I’m after is more atavistic than that, really, more chthonic: I’m trying to rekindle what drew me to writing, to language.
Language isn’t a map to paper over the world with—it’s more like a grove of trees from which we peer out on the cosmos. We peer out, we listen, we test the wind… in the grove, trees gather in the shadows of the world, catch its rumors in their leaves. Their roots carry on with business that belongs to language alone.
It’s a tiny grove, the grove of language, grown up on a midsize planet wheeling amidst the stars. But the view from beneath its branches is marvelous.
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