It is amazing how much one can learn in 5 days. I am just back from Santiago del Chile, where I spent 5 days far from “other things to do” and free to listen, observe, absorb and let connections happen.
Mike Robbins and myself were invited by Maria Court, Enrique Rivera and Susana Foxley Tapia, to do a series of labs for the III Encuentro Digital and master classes at the Universidad Católica de Chile. The main goal was to introduce interactive narratives in a country where, we were told, little is happening in the interactive factual field. I went there wondering how to preach the beauties of interactivity and interconnection in the cyber world, and I came back convinced that they knew much more about it than myself. This is how wonderful this trip has been.
While working with 7 groups to produce interactive narratives using archive material around the theme of nature and state, I was reminded how much Chile was at the forefront of Cybernetic experimentation in the early 70’s, during the brief government of Salvador Alliende. A few years before Pinochet and its coup, in 1973, transformed the country into the very first experiment of neo liberalism, Chile had been a living experiment in exactly the opposite: in 1971 Stafford Beer, a second order cybernetician, had been invited to create the pilot project Cybersyn team trying to create new models of systemic communication and social development. (See also on this topic a series of incredible interviews that Enrique Rivera did and that are available on YouTube).
One might want to remember that second wave cybernetics and the development of the computer as we know it today are very much linked. In my PhD I spend a good part of chapter 2 linking system thinking and the developing understanding of what “interaction” might mean…
Here is an part of that chapter, (see my PhD online, p.78) that my trip to Chile has allowed me to recall:
“On a speech delivered to a scientific audience in 1972, cybernetic philosopher Heinz Von Foerster observed that ‘a description (of the universe) implies one who describes (observes it)’ and added ‘what we need now is the description of the “describer” or, in other words, we need a theory of the observer’ (1982: 258). The observer and the observed system started to be seen as linked but also inseparable since the result of observations would depend on their interactions. The observer too became a cybernetic system, who is trying to construct a model of another cybernetic system. This circularity is typical of what has been called in the 1970’s Second Order, or Second Wave, Cybernetic – where cognitive processes are seen as constructing a reality via the interaction subject/environment. The world is seen as an active creation of our cognitive processes and this is why we cannot be neutral when observing it. As Von Foerster points out in Observing Systems ‘the environment contains no information. The environment is as it is’ (1960:254). The environment is not given anymore, it is constructed by us.
Second Order Cybernetic theory starts from a fundamental revelation, a shift in thinking, that some have called a scientific paradigm change: the world can be seen as series of interconnected systems in constant relation to each other. We, as living cognitive organisms, are systems ourselves. When we observe the world we are observers observing systems that are in relation with us, and therefore our act of observation influences the system while at the same time the system influences us. This circularity, which is based on the fact that there is a mutual feedback loop acting between any subject and her environment, will prove to be a useful tool in this discussion. It is in this context that the definition of Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela of the living organism as a relational entity make sense: ‘living beings’ claimed Maturana and Varela ‘are characterized by their autopoietic organization’ (1987:47) where autopoiesis is the process of self-making, or of auto-creation, and organization is ‘the set of relations that must exist for the components of a system for it to be a member of a specific class’ (1987:47). In other words any living organism materially self-constructs itself and by doing so distinguishes itself from its environment and acquires autonomy. Autonomy does not mean that the system does not need other systems to reproduce itself, nor that it can survive alone, but that ‘it can specify its own rules, what is proper to it’ (1987:48).
But autopoiesis also comes with a specific reading of the notion of interactivity. In Autopoiesis and Cognition Maturana and Varela put particular emphasis on the concept of interaction. ‘It is the circularity of its organization that makes a living system a unit of interactions, and it is this circularity that it must maintain in order to remain a living system and to retain its identity thorough different interactions’ (1980, my italics). If we step from simple to complex organisms, and we see humans as autopoietic entities with self-making, self-organizing and adaptive capacities, we suddenly see how key the circular relation with our environment (structural coupling) becomes – since it is this relation that shapes us in our becoming. Inter- activity is therefore seen as our fundamental way of being, our way of relating and existing through doing. If we extend this logic to interactive artefacts, such as interactive documentaries, then our interacting with them is a way to relate, and construct, our world. “
So there we are, the country that invited me to lecture about interactivity was the very place that inspired me in my understanding of interactivity through the work of Maturana and Varela, two Chilean biologists… ironic, no?
Also, what surprised me the most when coaching seven teams to develop first interactive ideas around the theme of nature/state & the use of the archive, is how many of these people were somehow investigating the rupture of a vision of the world where land, resources, traditions, social structures and prosperity were linked. Whether working on remapping the Mapuche territory (the Mapuche are indigeonous inhabitants of South Central Chile) rather than post-colonialist measurements of scale, or enquiring the consequences of the privatization of water resources, several projects were de facto concentrating on how indigenous traditions were conscious of geographical and social space as an ecosystem, while neo-liberalism is mainly treating both as resources for profit, hence breaking the process of sustainable living. As a group told me “ traditionally the Mapuche community sees the earth as ‘the mother’, knowing that if it nurtures you, you have to treat it with respect and give something back to it”.
Most groups referred to the three years of government of Salvador Allende – the very man that invited cybernetician Stafford Beer to create Cybersyn in 1971 – as a moment of political openness that abruptly stopped with Pinochet. They felt that the free market neo-liberalism imposed then is still at the center of the many problems that the country faces today. At first, I found it quite peculiar that all this pre-and-post-Pinochet rhetoric was still very much at the center of these young people’s rage and creative force. After all, the dictatorship finished in 1990, nearly 30 years ago… which to me seemed a long time.
But on my flight back to London I started thinking:
– 30 years is actually not that long, if you cannot remember it yourself you probably have your parents, or someone in your family, that has endured something during the Pinochet regime. Also, if the basis of the constitution has not changed since… 30 years is not very much indeed.
– It is probably not a coincidence if a lot of these discussions emerged precisely while thinking about interactive narratives. After all it is precisely discussions about the non-linearity of the medium that could facilitate a reflection on systemic versus linear understanding of the world.
– The use of archive material in this projects is significant, as memories expressed in the means of photos, maps and documents have very little sense until they are connected to create one, or multiple, narratives… could non-linear narratives be best suited to show layers of consistency, inconsistency and complexity ?
The conclusion I came to – mainly thanks to great conversations with our Chilean hosts, around a glass of pisco sour (an amazing local cocktail) – is that the link between the crisis of liberalism, cybernetics, a more interconnected way to understand the world, and interactive storytelling concerns us all, not just the Chilean people.
Now that most of our Western countries are in some sort of crisis (recession, migration, religious extremism, Brexit…name it) and far from the illusion of the 70’s, where our countries economic growth made us believe that after more there is still more… now more than ever the notion of interactivity as autopoiesis is relevant. A view of interactivity – with our environment, with our stories, with our media – as a relation that shapes us in our becoming. A view of a world as an interconnected entity, of which we are a part, but not the center, so we better forget the dream of linearity and control…
As I am flying back to Europe, and think about these amazing 5 days of work and encounters, I cannot help but feel grateful for what I learned in the process. Not only I met some really amazing people, but I reconnected with my first PhD love, second order Cybernetic, and I linked it even more clearly with my daily battles: my conviction that if we want a better world we need to take responsibility for it, and the intuition that the Web, for better or worse, with its ryzomatic structure and relative inclusiveness might be, for now, our best tool to act. A relational world needs a relational tool.
Cybernetics, as the science of interconnectedness, is back.