November 07, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Lo-TEK Design by Radical Indigenism by Julia Watson

Lo-TEK Design by Radical Indigenism by Julia Watson. I had mixed feelings reading this, but I think that's because I'm not really the target audience. I grew up in the countryside, with plenty of exposure to farms. It was really interesting to read about these alternate systems from round the world, and plenty seem under threat from Western ideas about how to "do farming/conservation right" or just the endless appetite of capitalism. If it helps protect any of it, then that's more than enough good for the book. I'm less convinced that there's lots for the UK, for example, to take from it specifically, as our environment is very different—it felt a bit like it was fetishizing the indigenous technologies a bit, and I think we should also be looking to similar traditional, in-touch-with-the-land, long-term tacit knowledge from our own cultures too.

Page 70

The living root bridges are built along the natural routes connecting two villages. In the absence of any means to lift and carry heavy stone slabs to suspend them across river and streams, they are left with no option but to turn to mother nature in their endeavour to cross to the other side. The rubber tree (Ficus Elastica) growing in the region beyond Cherrapunjee (Sohra) provided the natural solution. Timber would not have been able to withstand the ravages of the harse monsoons and the scourge of termites and pests.

Page 93

The Balinese term subak refers to both the rice terrace systems unique to this region and the self-governing associations of farmers who share water and planting schedules that are coordinated by calendrical rites in water temples. There are approximately twelve-hundred of these associations across Bali, each made up of fifty to four hundred farmers who continue the tradition of the subak. Traditional subak rice paddies are the most biodiverse and productive agrarian systems known to man. Using local cycles of nutrient dispersal and seasonal rainfall, the same subak terraces have produced rice for thousands of years at the scale of watersheds.

Page 102

In the 1970s the Bali government led a Green Revolution, forcing the introduction of massive quantities of fertilizers and pesticides to the subak, wreaking havoc on the ecology of the rice paddies. Within several seasons, growing cycles failed, soil structure degraded, insect biodiversity diminished, and the subak water temples were forgotten. The Green Revolution replaced native rice varieties with hybrid seeds that were genetically engineered for fast growth, high grain production, and commercial fertilizer application. This led to an ecological catastrophe which, when multiplied by the expansion of the tourist industry, triggered uncontrolled commercial development, aquifer privatization, water shortages, and pollution increase from illegal dumping of sewerage and solid waste. In response, World Heritage status was granted in June 2012 in an effort to save the subaks and water temples.

Page 181

Damming today is environmentally destructive, with impacts that range from altering river hydrology to stopping sediment transportation downstream and species migration upstream. In contrast, the dams of the Enawenê-nawê are porous, multi-functional, productive, responsive, seasonal, and temporary, supporting a unique forest fishing life.


The emerging trend of microgrids for localized energy generation and the design of microdamming infrastructures may lead to designs that respond to more adaptable, sustainable, and temporal conditions. This would allow the world's largest watersheds, river systems, and the human and non-human species which these mighty hydrological systems support, to thrive.

Page 277

An island is simultaneously a floating village, an aquaculture farm, and an artificial wetland synthesized into a single living infrastructure. Designed for mobility, islands are secured to the lakebed with anchors of rock and rope, but are able to migrate to deeper water locations. Today, two thousand six hundred and twenty-nine people live in a group of ninety-one reed islands. Each island hosts several thatched houses that belong to an extended family. Smaller islands measuring ten meters hold one to three families in twelve to fifteen huts. The huts are positioned to face a central clearing, occupied by a watchtower, while one side of the island is left open to dock boats. Interspersed between huts are fishponds, vegetable gardens, and living totora reed beds planted for privacy.

Page 311

For the past fifty years, architects have been imagining futuristic, floating cities that offset environmental problems like rising seas and increasing floods. In the remotest places on earth, a handful of isolated island communities, like the Ma'dan of Iraq exist having evolved technology that enabled aquatic living. The Ma'dan have survived for thousands of years in the cradle of civilization on simple, habitable, adaptable, and biodegradable buoyant infrastructures that rival contemporary, non-biodegradable floating island technology. Commonly used in water treatment or wetland construction, floating islands improve water quality, while also offering a diversity of habitat. Local building technologies are so versatile that a single reed species is used to construct islands, houses, boats, furniture, and meals, literally using biodiversity as a building block upon which these cultures float.

Page 323

The bheri wastewater aquaculture system in the East Kolkata Wetlands is a living and incredibly resilient urban circulatory system. The system is synonymously a fishery, waste management system, agricultural field, rice paddy network, community hub, grazing land, and heritage site. For the community who live around the wetlands, the filtration of water is an act of giving back to the gods. Spiritual connection to the Mother Ganga, whose river water flows through the wetlands, plays its own role in this ecosystem, with Ganges water believed to cleanse the body and mind. At twelve thousand, five hundred hectares of land, the East Kolkata Wetlands is the largest wastewater-fed aquaculture system in the world.

Page 336

Not only are the wetlands environmentally and socially beneficial, they offer enormous financial incentives to the city. With wetland fish being fed by the city's sewage, the city saves approximately twenty-two million USD on the running expenses of a waste treatment plant annually, while water from the bheris being used for irrigation additionally saves approximately five hundred thousand USD in water and fertilizer costs. Wetland activities lead to the production of thirteen thousand tons of fish per year, sixteen thousand tons of rice per year, and about one hundred and fifty-six tons of vegetables per day, all of which are sourced locally and save the city millions in transportation costs.

Passed down verbally through generations, the traditions of the wetland system have been kept alive through careful stewardship of the land. Not only are these processes a way of life and means for survival, they also maintain historical richness, ingenuity, cultural pride, and a spiritual connection to this place. Many fishermen are members of fishing cooperatives, an equitable model of management and profit distribution.

Page 354

Ganvie, meaning 'we survived', is a lake city made of bamboo and teak stilted houses of Tofinu fishing families. The city is a collection of eleven villages organized around a canal system and navigated by dugout canoes. Surrounding the village is an artificial reef of twelve thousand enclosed fish paddocks that sustain waters teeming with fish and wildlife. A healthy relationship between a growing city and a lake is rare, making this an extraordinary civilization that has evolved an aquaculture that embodies advanced ecological design thinking. They use symbiotic species relationships to feed an entire city, while making a healthier ecosystem for its native flora and fauna. Made from mangroves, the 'acadja brush park' is an indigenous reef aquaculture system and technology that has spread from the waters of Lake Nokoue to many other aquatic Beninese communities.

Page 398

Climate change has shown us that our survival is not dependent upon superiority, but upon symbiosis. In the shift towards designing resilient cities, Lo-TEK and indigenous technologies are critical in the conversation for designers addressing climate change, as they are living examples that embody resilience thinking. We need to expand our definition of sustainable technology to encompass the Lo-TEK movement, and in this effort alter the course of collapse. Acknowledging the mistakes of modernity and the failure of conservation, we can shift our position of authority to one of collaboration with Nature.

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September 05, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser is an entertaining and terrifying history of the development of the control and safety (or lack thereof) of America's nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War.

My dog-eared sections, to give you a flavour...

Page 196

The usefulness of the Super [the first hydrogen bomb] wasn't the issue; the willingness to build it was. And that sort of logic would guide the nuclear arms race for the next forty years.

Page 223

On January 23, 1956, President Eisenhower recorded in his diary the results of a top secret study on what would really happen after a Soviet attack:

The United States experienced practically total economic collapse, which could not be restored to any kind of operative conditions under six months to a year. . . . Members of the Federal government were wiped out and a new government had to be improvised by the states. . . . It was calculated that something on the order of 65% of the population would require some sort of medical care, and in most instances, no opportunity whatsoever to get it.

Page 375

The BMEWS [Ballistic Missile Early Warning System] site at Thule had mistakenly identified the moon, slowly rising over Norway, as dozens of long-range missiles launched from Siberia.

Page 455

Half an hour later, a Missile Potential Hazard Team ordered them to reenter the silo. They found it full of thick, gray smoke. One of the retrorockets atop the Minuteman had fired. The reentry vehicle, containing a W-56 thermonuclear weapon, had lifted a few inches into the air, flipped over, fallen nose first from the misslie, bounced off the wall, hit the second-stage engine, and landed at the bottom of the silo.

Page 530

As the minutes passed without the arrival of Soviet warheads, it became clear that the United States wasn't under attack. The cause of the false alarm was soon discovered. A technician had put the wrong tape into one of NORAD's computers. The tape was part of a training exercise — a war game that simulated a Soviet attack on the United States. The computer had transmitted realistic details of the war game to SAC headquarters, the Pentagon, and Site R.

Page 533

NORAD had dedicated lines that connected the computers inside Cheyenne Mountain to their counterparts at SAC headquarters, the Pentagon and Site R. Day and night, NORAD sent test messages to ensure that those lines were working. The test message was a warning of a missile attack — with zeros always inserted in the space showing the number of missiles that had been launched. The faulty computer chip had randomly put the number 2 in that space, suggesting that 2 missiles, 220 missiles, or 2,200 missiles had been launched. The defective chip was replaced, at a cost of forty-six cents. And a new test message was written for NORAD's dedicated lines. It did not mention any missiles.

Page 537

And as a final act of defiance, SAC demonstrated the importance of code management to the usefulness of any coded [safety] switch. The combination necessary to launch the missiles was the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.

Page 640

An investigation later found that the missile launches spotted by the Soviet satellite were actually rays of sunlight reflected off clouds.

Page 642

When Minuteman missiles first appear above Kansas, launched from rural silos there and rising in the sky, the film conveyed the mundane terror of nuclear war, the knowledge that annihilation could come at any time, in the midst of an otherwise ordinary day. People look up, see the missiles departing, realize what's about to happen, and yet are powerless to stop it. About 100 million Americans watched The Day After, roughly half of the adult population of the United States.

Page 656

After studying a wide range of "trivial events in nontrivial systems," Perrow concluded that human error wasn't responsible for these accidents. The real problem lay deeply embedded within the technological systems, and it was impossible to solve: "Our ability to organize does not match the inherent hazards of some of our organized activities." What appeared to be the rare exception, an anomaly, a one-in-a-million accident, was actually to be expected. It was normal.

Page 657

When a problem arose on an assembly line, you could stop the line until a solution was found. But in a tightly coupled system, many things occurred simultaneously — and they could prove difficult to stop. If those things also interacted with each other, it might be hard to know exactly what was happening when a problem arose, let alone know what to do about it. The complexity of such a system was bound to bring surprises. "No one dreamed that when X failed, Y would also be out of order," Perrow gave as an example, "and the two failures would interact so as to both start a fire and silence the fire alarm."

Page 661

The nuclear weapon systems that Bob Peurifoy, Bill Stevens, and Stan Spray struggled to make safer were also tightly coupled, interactive, and complex. They were prone to "common-mode failures" — one problem could swiftly lead to many others. The steady application of high temperatures to the surface of a Mark 28 bomb could disable its safety mechanisms, arm it, and then set it off. "Fixes, including safety devices, sometimes create new accidents," Charles Perrow warned, "and quite often merely allow those in charge to run the system faster, or in worse weather, or with bigger explosives."

Page 670

The only weapons in today's stockpile that trouble Peurifoy are the W-76 and W-88 warheads carried by submarine-launched Trident II missiles. The Drell panel expressed concern about these warheads more than twenty years ago.

Page 685

High-risk technologies are easily transferred across borders; but the organizational skills and safety culture necessary to manage them are more difficult to share. Nuclear weapons have gained allure as a symbol of power and a source of national pride. They also pose a grave threat to any country that possesses them.

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July 18, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

I first read Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland in the early 2000s. Obviously before I'd started blogging all dog-eared pages. The overriding message I took from it then was that at some point you have to declare your "art" finished and release it into the world to be judged or ignored or... The quotes around "art" there are mine, because back when I first read it I was applying it to my product development work rather than any art.

I still don't identify primarily as an artist, but it is part of what I do these days. Not that it matters, the wisdom in the book is similarly applicable to anyone developing their professional practice. I felt like I could do with a reminder of the importance of getting things out into the world, that "real artists ship", so I've read it again.

Since reading it, the work is the work has become a new mantra, a way to remind myself that producing any of the things that I want to bring into the world is work and isn't always meant to be fun. It's been a practical means to shake myself out of more reading-interesting-things-on-the-Internet or whatever and to get on with the thing I'm subconsciously putting off.

Page 3

[...] the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.

But while talent — not to mention fate, luck and tragedy — all play their role in human destiny, they hardly rank as dependable tools for advancing your own art on a day-to-day basis.


Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.

Page 4

The sane human being is satisfied that the best he/she can do at any given moment is the best he/she can do at any given moment. That belief, if widely embraced, would make this book unnecessary, false, or both. Such sanity is, unfortunately, rare. Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did. In fact, if artmaking did not tell you (the maker) so enormously much about yourself, then making art that matters to you would be impossible. To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork. The viewers' concerns are not your concerns (although it's dangerously easy to adopt their attitudes.) Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.

Page 14

More often, though, fears rise in those entirely appropriate (and frequently recurring) moments when vision races ahead of execution Consider the story of the young student—well, David Bayles, to be exact—who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months' practice, David lamented to his teacher, "But i can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers."

To which the Master replied, "What makes you think that ever changes?"

Page 17

As Stanley Kunitz once commented, "The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance begins when you try to convert it into language." And it's true, most artists don't daydream about making great art—they daydream about having made great art.

Page 21

Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. What's really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy—it doesn't mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.

Page 28

Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work. They commit themselves to the work of their heart, and act upon that commitment. So when you ask, "Then why doesn't it come easily for me?", the answer is probably, "Because making art is hard!" What you end up caring about is what you do, not whether the doing came hard or easy.

Page 36

The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly—without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.

Page 52

Making art is bound by where we are, and the experience of art we have as viewers is not a reliable guide to where we are.

Page 54

Today artists often back away from engaging the times and places of Art. But it's an artificial construct that begins and ends at the gallery door. Apart from the readership of Artforum, remarkably few people lose sleep trying to incorporate gender-neutral biomorphic deconstructivism into their personal lives. As Adam Gopnik remarked in The New Yorker, "Post-modernist art is, above all, post-audience art."

Page 60

Equally, it must have been just plain helpful when J.S. Back committed to writing a prelude and fugue in each of the twenty-four keys, since each time he sat down to compose he at least had a place to start. ("Let's see, I haven't begun to work on the F-sharp minor yet...") Working within the self-imposed discipline of a particular form eases the prospect of having to reinvent yourself with each new piece.

The discovery of useful forms is precious. Once found, they should never be abandoned for trivial reasons.

Page 66

Many attempts to introduce art to the larger world simply give evidence of the uneasy fit in our society between economics and beliefs.

Page 68

A reminder from history: the American Revolution was not financed with matching Grants from the Crown.

Page 72

Fear that you're not getting your fair share of recognition leads to anger and bitterness. Fear that you're not as good as a fellow artist leads to depression.

Page 73

In not knowing how to tell yourself that your work is OK, you may be driven to the top of the heap in trying to get the rest of the world to tell you.

In theory this is a perfectly valid approach—the tricky part is finding the right yardstick for measuring your accomplishments. What makes competition in the arts a slippery issue is simply that there's rarely any consensus about what your best work is.

Page 89

Books on art, even books on artists, characteristically have little to say about actually making art. They may offer a sprinkling of romantic parables about "the artist's struggle", but the prevailing premise remains that art is clearly the province of genius (or, on occasion, madness). Accepting this premise leads inescapably to the conclusion that while art should be understood or enjoyed or admired by the reader, it most certainly should not be done by the reader. And once that kinship between reader and artist has been denied, art itself becomes a strange foreign object—something to be pointed to and poked at from a safe analytical distance. To the critic, art is a noun.

Clearly, something's getting lost in the translation here. What gets lost, quite specifically, is the very thing artists spend the better part of their lives doing: namely, learning to make work that matters to them. What artists learn from other artists is not so much history or technique (although we learn tons of that too); what we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared—and thereby disarmed—and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb.

Page 108

What gets lost in that interpretation [that art is about self-expression] is an older sense that art is something you do out in the world, or something you do about the world, or even something you do for the world. The need to make art may not stem solely from the need to express who you are, but from a need to complete a relationship with something outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self.

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June 28, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: The Sustainable Movement by Richard Z Hooker

The Sustainable Movement: The Defining Movement of the 21st Century by Richard Z Hooker was a good read, making me re-examine how I'm trying to help us tackle the climate emergency, and giving me lots of pause for thought about the collectives and impact of the Bauhaus and Ulm design schools, and drawing parallels with DoES Liverpool (despite it not being full of designers, nor a school...)

The book was a Kickstarter project, so I'm not sure how you'd get a copy, but if anyone wants to borrow mine give me a shout. Here are my notes/highlighted sections from it...

Page 42

Gropius made it central to the overall objective of the [Bauhaus] school to promote the talents of everyone who studied there. Collective work was to be celebrated over individual personalities, and the desire to share extended outwards to an embrace of the wider community.

Page 78

The year before the school officially opened, Max Bill was already beginning to imagine a future where a designer from the Ulm school would affect the public at two levels:

1. As a responsible citizen
2. As the designer of products that were better and cheaper than all the others and thus help raise the standard of living for broad levels of the population and create a culture for our technological era.

For Bill these principles applied to every area of consumer goods production, and all forms of design - from housing to modern transport. This was a rejection of a designer's tendency to retreat into dreams and fantasies, and instead, as the art historian Hatje Cantz explains, a concerted effort to devote a designer's energy 'quite pragmatically to the everyday world and its needs.'

Page 107

So the big capitalism truck continues to career down the road, increasingly out of control. There's now fewer people in the front trying to steer it, and more in the back trying desperately to unload whatever remains of its precious cargo. Meanwhile, with the route still set to the pursuit of infinite growth, the juggernaut just keeps on going, swerving dangerously towards an increasingly perilous cliff-edge of climate (and social) breakdown.

Page 130

Experimental thought spaces aren't useful just to the arts - the writer John Higgs points out that 'mathematicians during the 18th century played around with imaginary numbers for the fun of it and found them to be surprisingly useful. Over time their properties became understood and they became an important tool for engineers. Our understanding of phenomena such as radio waves or electricity is reliant on them.' So, as he goes on to suggest: 'Artists couldn't create without magical thinking, just as engineers couldn't work without rational materialism.'

Page 177

Danny Hills, an inventor, scientist, author and engineer explains: 'Technology is the name we give to something when it doesn't work properly yet.' The use of this label is then more than a little worrying considering a recurring belief throughout human history has been that 'technology will save us.' Silicon Valley has most recently tried respinning this flawed but still popular myth, and a financial climate led largely by speculation allows this fiction to flourish. Meanwhile, back down here in reality, technology will never 'save us', but the ideas and actions born from it one day just might.

Page 206

3. Professionals appear to 'DENY' or ignore 'The Negative', particularly about themselves of their projects.
4. Professionals appear to create and positively reinforce facades and perceptions until these facades and perceptions are 'perceived' to be fact (media do this all the time).
7. 'NORMAL' today appears to be 'professional values' rather than say 'Spiritual Values' or a reverence for life.

Page 223

Carne Ross, a diplomat with an interest in complexity theories, likes to say: 'We think we need to be big to be powerful, when in fact we can be small.' This can include the scale and reach of our own actions as well.

Page 237

'Now this thing about ecosystems' [Brian Eno] explains, 'is that it's impossible to tell what the important parts are. It's not a hierarchy, you know. We're used to thinking of things that are arranged in levels like that, with the important things at the top and the less important things at the bottom. Ecosystems aren't like that. They're richly interconnected and they're co-dependent in many, many ways.'

Page 238

To adapt and 'repurpose' an old Bill Moggridge quote: 'If there's a simple, easy design principle that binds everything together, it's probably about starting with the people and nature, and ending with the people and nature.'

Page 264

Through any transitional period bursting with new technology, the methods by which artists continue to contribute to culture, involves them continuing to also verse themselves in the use of all the new tools at their disposal.

Page 284

Parent trees protect their youngsters in the forest around them by shielding them from the worst of the wind and the rain. Despite the overwhelming evidence today that suggests capitalism isn't in such good shape. For the time being at least, a young movement embracing a more sustainable future, can help itself by growing close enough to its parents to still benefit from the shelter provided. Securing longevity may begin with accepting a few short-term contradictions.

Page 293

Dieter Rams, the modern product designer's spiritual guru, declared in 2009 a poignantly simple ambition: 'The future of design is in enabling us to survive on this planet. This is no exaggeration.'

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June 15, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

At only 81 pages, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher is a short read, but packed with lots of food for thought.

As ever, here are the sections I highlighted while reading it, to give you a flavour of it...

Page 1

For all that we know, the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political structure that remains, notionally, democratic.

Page 7

[Fredric Jameson] argued that the failure of the future was constitutive of a postmodern cultural scene which, as he correctly prophesied, would become dominated by pastiche and revivalism.

Page 9

Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled 'alternative' or 'independent' cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. 'Alternative' and 'independent' don't designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream. No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché.

Page 14

[...] since the form of [Corporate anti-capitalism's] activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn't expect to be met. Protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism, and the anti-capitalist protests share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005's Live 8, with their exorbitant demands that politicians legislate away poverty.

Live 8 was a strange kind of protest; a protest that everyone could agree with: who is it who actually wants poverty? [...] one of the successes of the current global elite has been their avoidance of identification with the figure of the hoarding Father.

Page 16

Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism's ostensible 'realism' turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Maybe that's what we're seeing now with its failure to cope with the needs for basic necessities on the shop shelves, or PPE for healthcare professionals.

Page 19

[...] we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The 'mental health plague' in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

Page 28

In any case resistance to the 'new' is not a cause that the left can or should rally around. Capital thought very carefully about how to break labor; yet there has still not yet been enough thought about what tactics will work against capital in conditions of post-Fordism, and what new language can be innovated to deal with those conditions. It is important to contest capitalism's appropriation of 'the new', but to reclaim the 'new' can't be a matter of adapting to the conditions in which we find ourselves — we've done that rather too well, and 'successful adaptation' is the strategy of managerialism par excellence.

Page 42

What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement.

Page 49

The frustration of dealing with bureaucrats often arises because they themselves can make no decisions; rather, they are permitted only to refer to decisions that have always-already been made (by the big Other). Kafka was the greatest writer on bureaucracy because he saw that this structure of disavowal was inherent to bureaucracy. The quest to reach the ultimate authority who will finally resolve K's official status can never end, because the big Other cannot be encountered in itself: there are only officials, more or less hostile, engaged in acts of interpretation about what the big Other's intentions. And these acts of interpretation, these deferrals of responsibility, are all that the big Other is.

Page 63

As a consumer in late capitalism, you increasingly exist in two, distinct realities: the one in which the services are provided without hitch, and another reality entirely, the crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centers, a world without memory, where cause and effect connect together in mysterious, unfathomable ways, where it is a miracle that anything ever happens, and you lose hope of ever passing back over to the other side, where things seem to function smoothly. What exemplifies the failure of the neoliberal world to live up to its own PR better than the call center? Even so, the universality of bad experiences with call centers does nothing to unsettle the operating assumption that capitalism is inherently efficient, as if the problems with call centers weren't the systemic consequences of a logic of Capital which means organizations are so fixated on making profits that they can't actually sell you anything.

Page 69

At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse — it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic — is not only a dissimulation; it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals — but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor.

Page 79

As Badiou has forcefully insisted, an effective anti-capitalism must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it; there can be no return to pre-capitalist territorialities. Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital's globalism with its own, authentic, universality.


the left should argue that it can deliver what neoliberalism signally failed to do: a massive reduction of bureaucracy. What is needed is a new struggle over work and who controls it; an assertion of worker autonomy (as opposed to control by management) together with a rejection of certain kinds of labor (such as the excessive auditing which has become so central feature of work in post-Fordism). This is a struggle that can be won — but only if a new political subject coalesces; it is an open question as to whether the old structures (such as the trade unions) will be capable of nurturing that subjectivity, or whether it will entail the formation of wholly new political organizations.

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March 23, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Cybernetic Revolutionaries by Eden Medina

Cybernetic Revolutionaries by Eden Medina tells the history of Chile and Stafforrd-Beer's attempt at the start of the 1970s to build a socialist democracy with help from cybernetics and networked computers. An alternative, more decentralized approach to the same sort of issues that today's "big data" and "smart city" initiatives aim to address.

Here are my dog-eared pages notes from reading it. (If you want another contemperaneous history of socialist technology approaches in the UK, check out The Plan a documentary)

Page 3
In Chile, I know that I am making the maximum effort towards the devolution of power. The government made their revolution about it; I find it good cybernetics.
—Stafford Beer, February 1973

Page 8
Through sociotechnical engineering practices, Chilean and British technologists tried to make Project Cybersyn implement and uphold principles of Chilean democratic socialism. For example, the system included mechanisms to preserve individual liberty within a context of greater state control. Some Cybersyn technologists also tried to use Project Cybersyn as a vehicle for increasing worker participation in economic management and proposed having workers collaborate with Chilean operations research scientists. I argue that, for the system to support values such as worker participation or decentralized control, Cybersyn needed to implement and maintain the social, organizational, and technical relationships specified by its designers. Yet the reverse was also true: changing these social, organizational, and technical relationships could cause the system to produce configurations of political power, including totalitarianism, that were very different from Chilean democratic socialism.

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From its earliest days cybernetics valued the cross-disciplinary pollination that occurred when experts from a variety of fields convened to discuss a common problem. The conferences organized by the Josiah Macy Foundation from 1946 to 1953, which laid the groundwork for the field of cybernetics, are the most notable example of such collaboration. For example, the attendance list at the first Macy conference included the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, mathematician John von Neumann, anthropologist Margaret Mead, logician Walter Pitts, Rosenblueth, Bigelow, and Wiener, among others. Attendees at the Macy conferences drew inspiration from cybernetics' encouragement of the use of common metaphors to describe biological and mechanical systems and took this innovation back to their home disciplines.

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To put it another way, Beer was more interested in studying how systems behaved in the real world than in creating exact representations of how they functioned. Furthermore, he was centrally concerned with developing mechanisms to help these systems self-regulate and survive. He stressed that cybernetics and operations research should drive action, not create mathematical models of increasing complexity and exactitude.

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Beer challenged the common definition of control as domination, which he viewed as authoritarian and oppressive and therefore undesirable. It was also "naive, primitive and ridden with an almost retributive idea of causality." What people viewed as control, Beer continued, was nothing more than "a crude process of coercion," an observation that emphasized the individual agency of the entity being controlled. Instead of using science to dominate the outside world, scientists should focus on identifying the equilibrium conditions among the subsystems and developing regulators to help the overall system reach its natural state of stability. Beer emphasized creating lateral communication channels among the different subsystems so that the changes in one subsystem could be absorbed by changes in the others. This approach, he argued, took advantage of the flexibility of each subsystem. Instead of creating a regulator to fix the behaviour of each subsystem, he found ways to couple subsystems together so that they could respond to each other and adapt. Such adaptive couplings helped maintain the stability of the overall system.

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The Viable System Model devised ways to promote vertical and lateral communication. It offered a balance between centralized and decentralized control that prevented both the tyranny of authoritarianism and the chaos of total freedom. Beer considered viable systems to be largely self-organizing. Therefore, the model sought to maximize the autonomy of its component parts so that they could organize themselves as they saw fit. At the same time, it retained channels for vertical control to maintain the stability of the whole system.

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In contrast to the centralized planning found in the Soviet Union, Allende's articulation of socialism stressed a commitment to decentralized governance with worker participation in management, reinforcing his professed belief in individual freedoms. Yet he also acknowledged that in the face of political plurality the government would favour the "interest of those who made their living by their own work" and that revolution should be brought about from above with a "firm guiding hand."

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Beer also felt that CORFO needed to change its practices and worried that the "quickest solution" to managing the enterprises "will be imposed before any new thinking has time. Unless cyb[ernetics] can move faster."

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The exponential increase in the number of punch cards processed annually by the Chilean treasury paralleled the rise in the number of pages it generated annually, as well as the greater length of the annual report that accompanied the presidential address to Congress (105 pages in 1965; 496 pages in 1967; and 1,075 pages in 1970, illustrated each year by ever more graphs and tables).

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[Beer] regarded the centralized approach [of the Soviet Union] as bureaucratic and overly complex, as well as vulnerable to manipulation. Factory managers and government bureaucrats could easily change the value of the data they submitted to the computer centers in order to put their management skills in a more favorable light.

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Second, Cyberstride, like the Viable System Model, tried to find a balance between autonomy and cohesion. For example, when the system detected a production anomaly, the National Computer Corporation would alert both CORFO and the factory interventor. The government would then give the interventor a limited window of time to resolve the problem on his own. The enterprises therefore maintained their autonomy to a reasonable degree. If the interventor could not resolve the problem within this limited period, CORFO would intervene. Such intervention would limit the autonomy of the factory, but Beer reasoned it was nonetheless essential for preserving the viability of the entire economic system.

Third, the system's design reflected Allende's commitment to raising employment levels, a key part of the government program. Unlike concurrent uses of computer technology in industry, Cyberstride would use computers in a way that did not lead to unemployment. In industrial settings, computers are often linked to factory automation, which can raise productivity levels but also allow companies to downsize their workforce. Rather than automating labor or replacing management, Cyberstride would offer factory managers and CORFO a tool to help them increase factory productivity using the human and material resources available.

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The program also implemented a new and untried method of Bayesian statistical forecasting known as the Harrison-Stevens Approach, which first appeared in the December 1971 edition of Operational Research Quarterly. Dunsmuir stumbled onto the method while performing a literature review for the project. He convinced Beer that the new method would recognize significant variations in the production data and predict whether these initial data points signified the beginnings of a linear trend, and exponential trend, a step function, or an anomaly that would return to normal.

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Even in its final version, however, the model would not function as a predictive black box that gave definitive answers about future economic behaviour. Rather, it offered a medium with which economists, policy makers, and model makers could experiment and, through this act of play, expand their intuition about economic behaviour and the interplay of price controls, foreign exchange reserves, import and export rates, and other factors. Thus, the simulator was not meant to replace human expertise but to enhance it.

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Beer used the word algedonic to describe a signal of pleasure or pain. An algedonic meter would allow the public to express its pleasure or pain, or its satisfaction or dissatisfaction with government actions.

Unlike polls or surveys, these algedonic meters would not limit or prompt answers by asking set questions. The user simply moved a pointer on a dial somewhere between total dissatisfaction and absolute happiness. This design "uses the [human] brain as a computer," Beer wrote, "structured and programmed by individuality." Reminiscent of Beer's attention to autonomy and broad participation, the meter permitted users to construct their own scale of happiness and did not impose a standardized definition. Unlike many survey techniques, the meter did not require users to rationalize their level of happiness or normalize it to fit on a uniform scale. Instead, the meter recorded the user's gut feeling at a particular moment; the position of the knob on the meter would determine the voltage output on the device. Beer wrote that the meters could be installed in any location with a television set, such as in a Chilean home or in select community centers.

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According to Gerrity, the CIA planned to bring Chile to the point of economic collapse by urging companies to "drag their feet in sending money, in making deliveries, in shipping spare parts, etc." and to "withdraw all technical help and not provide any technical assistance in the future." We may never know the full extent of U.S. intervention in Chile during the Allende government or the entire role played by companies such as ITT, but we do know that the U.S.-led economic blockade created shortages of spare parts, caused significant problems for Chilean industries, stopped industrial machinery, and affected the production and repair of consumer goods.

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[...] the deputy director of the State Technology Institute explained, "it is important for Chile to be selective about the technologies it adopts, because in the long run they may determine social values and the shape of society—as the automobile has in the United States, for example.

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Beer imagined that the individuals sitting in the operations room would be either members of the government elite or factory workers, individuals who did not know how to type—a skill typically possessed by trained female secretaries. With little instruction, occupants could use the large "big-hand" buttons on each armrest. Participants could also "thump" these buttons if they wished to emphasize a point. Beer claimed that an interface of large geometrical buttons made the room more accessible for workers and prevented it from being a "sanctum sanctorum for a government elite." Through this design decision, the system allowed for worker participation.

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Looked at from a different angle, the Cybersyn system could even be read as disempowering Chilean workers. The timing charts printed in the study of the Easton Furniture factory are reminiscent of the time studies that characterized the Taylor system of management, which had been introduced in a number of Chilean factories before Allende came to power.

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In many ways its relative obscurity had benefited Cybersyn. The team had enjoyed a high degree of autonomy that was rarely challenged. Using his informal web of contacts, Flores had found it fairly easy to secure most of the financial, human, and material resources that the project needed and had done so without bureaucratic delays.

In October 1972, truck owners and then many other business owners across the country went on strike, in an attempt by the owning classes to bring down the government..
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After the strike, Silva said, "two concepts stayed in our mind: that information helps you make decisions and, above all, that it [the telex machine] helps you keep a record of this information, which is different from making a telephone call. [Having this record] lets you correct your mistakes and see why things happened."

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To put it another way, the network offered a communications infrastructure to link the revolution from above, led by Allende, to the revolution from below, led by Chilean workers and members of grassroots organizations, and helped coordinate the activities of both in a time of crisis. During the strike, workers in the state-run factories found ways to maintain production while simultaneously defending their workplaces from attack. They also transformed factory machine shops into spaces for repairing the trucks the government owned or requisitioned. Meanwhile, the telex network helped the government direct raw materials, fuel, and transportation resources to the places that most needed them. It also helped the government keep track of its trucks and provided information about which roads were blocked and which roads were open.

Beer estimated that the telex network transmitted two thousand messages daily during the strike. "The noise was indescribable," Beer said [...]

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[Beer] advised the government to ask the Chilean people what goods they considered essential, the quantity they desired, and the quantity that they already had, and use that information to determine which goods were of "primary necessity."


He urged the government to use the pamphlet he had developed and Angel Parra's folk song to teach the Chilean people about cybernetic thinking in government and to promote the government's use of science and technology in the service of the Chilean people. He pushed the government to create a "proper proletarian channel" for Chilean television and radio that could shape public opinion of the government and offset the influence of the media outlets run by the opposition and funded by the CIA.

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Beer insisted that workers should control the use of Cybersyn and argued that this was within their capabilities. Since he reasoned that Cybersyn was like any other "automated machine tool," he concluded that Chilean workers could reasonably use the system "without understanding the electronics," such as the mainframe computer. Beer also felt that the operations room should function as "the shop-floor of Total Industry" and reiterated that it should be "a place for the workers." In addition, Beer wanted to change the power relations between Chilean scientists and technologists to that of advising the workers when needed and performing supporting roles, such as system maintenance.

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In contrast, Beer's report envisioned a more substantial form of participation. He wanted to change how management decisions were made, whose knowledge was used to make these decisions, and how workers, technologists, and managers interacted. And he believed that Project Cybersyn could change all this for the better.

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In his writings Beer often cited nature as a complex system that remains viable through its self-organization. He argued that such systems do not need to be designed because they already exist. To modify the behaviour of such a system, one need not control its every aspect but rather change one subsystem so that the overall system naturally drifts toward the desired goal. Perhaps the injection of worker action could drive Chile toward a new point of homeostatic equilibrium, one that was congruent with the overall goal of socialist transformation. Worker improvisation on the ground could, moreover, supplement Allende's directives from above. beer viewed this redundancy as another prerequisite for self-organization and system viability. He wanted to encourage self-organization both by having Chilean workers participate in the actual design of Cybersyn and by using cybernetics to enhance the new forms of participation that were developing in Chilean communities. Such participatory activities would not only increase worker freedom but also create a more participatory working life and a more democratic society.

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Because the team grew in this decentralized, "opportunistic" way, most new recruits were not introduced to Beer and had little or no awareness, let alone understanding, of cybernetic principles such as the Viable System Model or the Law of Requisite Variety. Nor did they understand how Beer's approach to decentralized control was congruent with the principles of Allende's democratic socialism. Increasingly, Cybersyn was becoming a technological project divorced from its cybernetic and political origins.

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Examining how beer's and Flores's views changed in the aftermath of the strike shows that individual experiences, historical moments, and geographies all contribute to the ways that technologies have politics and politics are shaped by technology.

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To these criticisms, Beer responded that the system used simple technologies such as telex machines, drew from excellent programming talent in London and Santiago, and relied on many "human interfaces," meaning it was not automated. He also said that he was tired of hearing the assertion that such a system could be built only in the United States, and stressed that building the futuristic control room required only "the managerial acceptance of the idea, plus the will to see it realized." But, he added, "I finally found both the acceptance and the will—on the other side of the world." This final comment was a not-so-subtle jab at his British compatriots, who over the years had questioned the legitimacy and feasibility of his cybernetic ideas.

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The ease with which Hanlon painted Cybersyn as upholding political values that were the opposite of those of Chilean democratic socialism is a good example of the difficulty engineers and other technologists face in designing political values in a technological system. In fact, Hanlon was not alone in recognizing Cybersyn's potential for centralized control.

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It could also be argued that Project Cybersyn used computers in ways that could not be replicated in more industrialized nations. In 1973 the Chilean economy was more than twenty times smaller than that of Germany and almost one hundred times smaller than that of the United States. The Chilean economy was also composed of only a few core industries. Building a computer system to manage the Chilean economy was thus a much simpler task than trying to build a comparable system in Germany or the United States [...]

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Members of the military still loyal to the constitutional government quickly put down the coup attempt. However, the attempt made visible the divisions within the military and signaled that the president was losing the support of the armed forces. In response to these events, members of the Cybersyn team were understandably concerned about Beer's safety and their ability to protect him. Despite their efforts, Beer remained conspicuous in Las Cruces: he was a six-foot tall Englishman living in a small Chilean town—and he accidentally set fire to the mayor's house shortly after he arrived.

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Why Project Cybersyn, a technological project that outwardly tried to decentralize Chilean power structures and support the revolution from below, was frequently read as a tool for centralized government control is a more complicated question. In some cases this interpretation was the result of misinformation, as was the case with the secrecy charges. In other instances it was the result of a willful attempt to cast the Allende government in a negative light. The Soviet embrace of cybernetics in the late 1950s and 1960s might also have influenced some to see Cybersyn as a centralizing technology.

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Computer and communications technologies have often been linked to processes of political, economic, and social transformation. But claims that these technologies can bring about structural change in society—like the frequent assertion that computers will bring democracy or greater social equality—are often made in the absence of historical analysis.

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More often, Cybersyn team members attempted to embed political values in Cybersyn through sociotechnical engineering, meaning that they tried to build values not only into the function of the technology itself but also into the social and organizational relations of its construction and use.

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For example, Allende charged the Project Cybersyn team with building a system that supported worker participation. Yet the scientific techniques Chilean engineers used to model the state-controlled factories resembled Taylorism, a rationalized approach to factory production that disempowered workers and gave management greater control over labor. Time analysis, for example, emerged in the context of capitalist production, prioritizing efficiency and productivity over other values, such as the quality of shop floor life. By using time-analysis techniques, Cybersyn engineers could have inadvertently created production relationships that were counter to the Popular Unity platform and then solidified them in the form of a computer model.

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This story of technological innovation also challenges the assumption that innovation results from private-sector competition in an open marketplace.

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"The ideal of an objectively knowledgeable expert must be replaced with a recognition of the importance of background," Winograd and Flores write. "This can lead to the design of tools that facilitate a dialog of evolving understanding among a knowledgeable community." Building on this observation, the authors propose that computers should not make decisions for us but rather should assist human actions, especially human "communicative acts that create requests and commitments that serve to link us to others."

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This last quote specifically for Jackie Pease...
[Beer's] last book, Beyond Dispute (1994), proposed a new method for problem solving based on the geometric configurations of the icosahedron, a polygon with twenty equilateral triangle faces. He called this new method "syntegrity" and argued that it could serve as a new approach to conflict resolution in areas of the world such as the Middle East.

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