The Monkey’s Prose – Cybernetic Explanation:

Imagine that you are on your daily walk in the park. You see a monkey on a park bench, busily typing away. You become curious as to what is happening. You slowly approach him from behind, and try to see what is being typed on the paper. Strange enough, what you see typed on the paper so far is legible prose; complete with grammar and semantics. What could be an explanation for this phenomenon?

This example was given by the great anthropologist cybernetician, Gregory Bateson. He used the example to explain “cybernetic explanation”, as he termed it. He said:

Causal explanation is usually positive. We say that billiard ball B moved in such and such a direction because billiard ball A hit it at such and such an angle. In contrast to this, cybernetic explanation is always negative… In cybernetic language, the course of events is said to be subject to restraints, and it is assumed that, apart from such restraints, the pathways of change would be governed only by equality of probability. In fact, the “restraints” upon which cybernetic explanation depends can in all cases be regarded as factors which determine inequality of probability If we find a monkey striking a typewriter apparently at random but in fact writing a meaningful prose, we shall look for restraints, either inside the monkey or inside the typewriter… Somewhere there must have been a circuit which could identify error and eliminate it.

Bateson’s use of the word “restraints” is comparable to “constraints”. Larry Richards notes that Bateson used the term “restraint” referring to the approach of Cybernetics as “negative explanation”, focusing on what is not desirable, rather than what is. When there are no constraints, we can say that all events are equally likely. If we have enough chances, we will see at least one event, where a monkey can type out a work of Shakespeare (sometimes referred to as Infinite Monkey theorem). But here, we are looking at cybernetic phenomenon where constraints are present, and they guide the outcome. In the case of the monkey’s prose, one possibility could be that the typewriter is programmed in such a fashion that no matter what key is pressed, a preprogrammed prose is generated. This would be an example of a circuit that Bateson referred to.

Let’s consider another example. Let’s say that every hour you take two measurements, measurement A and measurement B. What you find is that measurement A goes up and down, while measurement B remains fairly steady. From this dataset, what correlation can you determine between A and B? Without any additional knowledge, the general consensus would that there is no correlation between the two measurements. What if we consider the mechanism of a thermostat? The thermostat does not turn ON until the temperature goes outside a tight range. Only when the temperature goes outside the range does the thermostat turn ON. It maintains the internal temperature of the house based on how the external temperature impacts the internal temperature. In the example above, the external temperature was A and the internal temperature was B. Without a knowledge of thermostat, if we were given just the two datasets, we would not be able to see any connection between the two datasets. This idea is sometimes referred to Friedman’s Thermostat after the American economist, Milton Friedman.

The thermostat is a very basic example of cybernetic explanation. Even though, we may perceive that the thermostat’s goal is to maintain the room temperature at a constant value, the thermostat does not have a goal per se. It does not stay ON to ensure that the temperature is maintained at a constant value. Instead, it turns ON when the temperature goes outside a limit. The thermostat negatively “moves away” from the outside range value of the temperature and stays ON until it is inside a determined range. The thermostat acts only when it hits a constraint or it is guided by the restraint, to use Bateson’s language. It is not a movement towards a goal temperature of say 70 degrees F, but rather a movement away from a current temperature of say 68 degrees F. Larry Richards explained this wonderfully:

Any system with constraints appears to have a purpose as there are outcomes precluded from the set of possibilities. 

Another example we can consider is that of driving a car. When you drive a car, you apply gas or brake only when needed. You don’t steer the car to try to keep it running in a straight line. You engage when the car is moving towards the edges of your lane. To continuously work towards a goal requires high energy, and a person driving is not suitable for this.

This idea of cybernetic explanation brings forth valuable insights when we look at social systems such as an organization. Richards proposes that assigning or designing a purpose for a social system can lead to problems.

I suggest avoiding or suspending… the idea of purpose. The idea of teleological systems – that systems have a purpose first, with structure following – implies that systems are created or evolve to achieve a goal or objective.

The problem in Second Order Cybernetics arises when the observers/designers specify the purpose of their designs, giving conscious intent to their actions. Gregory Bateson (1972a, 1972b) warned of the dysfunctions of conscious purpose when the actions taken do not and cannot account for all the ecological circularities of the situation and the unanticipated consequences inherent in taking such actions. Yet, humans have needs, desires, preferences and values; we are self-aware of our actions and alternatives; and, we can act with intent to satisfy our needs and desires. To act without self-awareness of our desires and the possible consequences of our actions would be irresponsible. 

 Richards advises to look for present constraints that guide actions.

Specifying a set of constraints treats desires as a spatial concept, focusing attention on the states we wish to exclude from happening, leaving open a space of possible outcomes deemed currently acceptable. This approach is present-oriented, merging ends and means: the set of constraints that represent our desires and the actions we take to avoid what we do not want are here and now, and our evaluation of possible consequences is based on current best available knowledge. Our desires, actions and evaluations can change as we experiment, learn and change, making it important to be careful about excluding outcomes that could become useful as circumstances change. Treating desires as constraints and intention as an awareness of desires as constraints opens the door for an alternative to the consciousness of purpose about which Bateson was concerned.

The idea of cybernetic explanation and constrains raise the importance of dialogue amongst the coparticipants of the social realm. Rather than going after a narrow purpose, we may be better served if we can explore the space of constraints to identify conditions that promote outcomes that we desire. When we utilize a constancy of purpose, we are utilizing a narrow view that is not able to accommodate the various interpretations and desires of the many coparticipants of our social realm. Bateson viewed the pursuit of conscious purpose as being damaging to the very ecology that supports being human. (Klaus Krippendorff). Krippendorff came out with an Empirical Imperative to support this idea:

Empirical Imperative: Invent as many alternative constructions as you can and actively explore the constraints on their affordances.

I will finish with more wise words from Richards that provides further insights about cybernetic explanation:

If I know what I want and I know it is possible to achieve it, I do not need cybernetics—I just go and do what I need to do to achieve the outcome. However, when I only have a vague idea about what I want or do not want and I do not know how to pursue or avoid it in the current society, the vocabulary of cybernetics can be useful. Cybernetics is not about success and the achievement of goals; it is about the reconfiguration of constraints (resources) in order to make possible what was not previously possible, including the avoidance of what was previously inevitable. 

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Complexity – Only When You Realize You Are Blind, Can You See:

4 thoughts on “The Monkey’s Prose – Cybernetic Explanation:

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