Esoteric Book Conference 2011

I will be presenting an interactive art piece at this year’s Esoteric Book Conference, title Principia Cybermagica, re correspondences between cybernetics and magic. I will post details on this blog as they become available. The conference will take place on September 10 and 11 at the Seattle Center. The art show and book fair are free to the public, so even if you are not registered for the conference, feel free to come say hello.

CyborgCamp Seattle

CyborgCamp is an unconference about the future of the relationship between humans and technology. We’ll discuss topics such as social media, design, code, inventions, web 2.0, twitter, the future of communication, cyborg technology, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy.

CyborgCampSeattle will take place on Sunday, July 18, from 10a to 6p, at Jigsaw Renaissance (1026 Madison Street, Seattle). Tickets are $15 online or at the door.


I will be presenting on the cybernetics of cyborgs: requisite variety, commonalities between language and tool use, etc. Come check it out!

Communication vs. Manipulation

Two big, competing metaphors in HCI are (1) dialogue/communication/conversation, and (2) direct manipulation [1]. An example of (1) is typing a command on a keyboard (speaking), waiting for the computer to process that command (thinking), and waiting for the computer to return a signal to the monitor, acknowledging that the command has been processed (listening) [2]. An example of (2) is using a mouse to double-click a window’s title bar in order to expand the window’s size.

In developing cybernetics, Norbert Wiener proposed that all control is a subset of communication:

When I give an order to a machine, the situation is not essentially different from that which arises when I give an order to a person. In other words, as far as my consciousness goes I am aware of the order that has gone out and of the signal of compliance that has come back. To me, personally, the fact that the signal in its intermediate stages has gone through a machine rather than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any case greatly change my relation to the signal. Thus the theory of control in engineering, whether human or animal or mechanical, is a chapter in the theory of messages.
// Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society

Control […] is nothing but the sending of messages which effectively change the behavior of the recipient. It is the study of messages, and in particular of the effective messages of control, which constitutes the science of cybernetics.
// Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine

Communicative and manipulative acts both involve feedback: I do something (deliver a message, manipulate an object), monitor for a response (has the message been successfully received, or the object successfully manipulated?), and based on that response, I do the next thing (which may repeat the previous thing I did). Usually this is not experienced as a series of discrete steps, but as a continuum of (largely unconscious) interactions between me and my environment (during which we co-evolve). It becomes discrete — it breaks down — when (as) I analyze it.

Cf. Speech-Act theory.

Perhaps communication is actio in distans. Paul Pangaro said that the Industrial Revolution was about amplifying our muscles, and the Information Age is about amplifying our nervous systems [3]. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela have talked about the consensual (i.e. ”to sense together with”) coordination of actions (and actors), and language as the coordination of coordination of actions [3]. The ability to ask someone “over there” to pick up an object, instead of walking over there and picking it up myself, greatly increases the variety of things I can do and that we can do to together. Cf:

Where man’s word goes, and where his power of perception goes, to that point his control and in a sense his physical existence is extended. To see and give commands to the whole world is almost the same as being everywhere.
// Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society

There is one (seeming) difference between communicative and manipulative acts, that I want to point out: how they relate to autonomous systems or non-trivial vs. trivial machines. Simply put, the more “living” a system is — the more complex, adaptive, autonomous, and self-organizing it is — the more we use language to interact with it (and the more complex is the language we use; cf. speaking “robot turn on” vs. discussing a romantic relationship, with a lover). It is “wrong” to ask a rock to move, or to “push around” a person, or to use language to “manipulate” someone (i.e. use it in a way that disrespects her sovereignty).

Cf. the use of gesture in animal communication. Gesture is a like a middle ground between manipulative and communicative acts, having a high degree of physical similarity between what is acted and what is meant.

Cf. Sheizaf Rafaeli’s definition of interactivity — “Interactivity is a an expression of the extent that in a given series of communication exchanges, any third (or later) transmission (or message) is related to the degree to which previous exchanges referred to even earlier transmissions” [5] — to Heinz von Foerster’s description of non-trivial machines: “Their input-output relationship is not invariant, but is determined by the machine’s previous output. In other words, its previous steps determine its present reactions” [6].

Cf. theories of sentient rocks.

For consideration: manipulation : enchantment and divination :: communication : evocation and invocation.

Enchantment – making things happen directly by magic
Evocation – making things happen through the agency of various demons and elementals
Invocation – the summoning of various entities and thought forms for the inspiration of their knowledge and conversation
Divination – obtaining knowledge by direct magical means.
// Peter J. Carroll, Liber Null and Psychonaut

One might also compare expressive, performative, and pragmatic ritual activities and interpretations.

Notes & References

1. Manuel Imaz and and David Benyon, Designing with Blends: Conceptual Foundations of Human-Computer Interaction and Software Engineering.

2 Cf. the listening-thinking-speaking model of interactivity in Chris Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design: A Euphonious and Illuminating Guide to Building Successful Software.

3. Paul Pangaro, “How Can I Put That? Cybernetics in the Age of ‘Conversational Media'”. Others have said similarly about how some machines supplement human work power and other machines supplement thinking — see e.g. Pierre de Latil’s Thinking By Machine: A Study of Cybernetics and Edmund Callis Berkeley’s Giant Brains: Machines That Think.

4. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. See also Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design.

5. Sheizaf Rafaeli, “Interactivity: From New Media to Communication”.

6. Heinz von Foerster, “Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception”.

Reflecting on Recursion and Reflexivity in Magic

Magic is a system that produces a magician and is produced by a magician. In addition to producing a magician, magic produces artifacts — the products produced by (and perhaps producing) magical processes. The artifacts are part of the magician’s environment, but are also media for accessing the environment — like a telescope is an artifact in the astronomer’s environment but also provides the astronomer access to the environment (outer space).

A key idea here is that magical results happen across the entire (complex) network; there is not a more reducible, simpler mechanism of magical efficacy. Compare flying an airplane: success (or failure) emerges from the interactions between the the crew, the plane’s instrumentation, air traffic control, the plane’s structural integrity, etc. (Is magic a means to synchronize successful interactions? Cf. Jung’s synchronicity and the odd experiences and notions of time in magic and mysticism.)

Another key idea is that the magician “loops through” her artifacts (and environment) in the same way that humans loop through any technology [1]. “There is circularity here: the world determines what we can do and what we do determines our world” [2]. This makes meaning meaningful; what we do magically determines and is determined by what it means to us to do magic, individually or con-sensually (“to sense together with”). Semantics are not negligible or “beside the point”; they are key. And apropos of metamagic, they are mutable. By changing our metaphors for magic, we change what “makes sense” to do magically, i.e., what is magically possible.


Notes & References

1. For more about “through-looping,” see Paul Pangaro’s “The Past-Future of Cybernetics: Conversations, Von Foerster, and the BCL”.

2. Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design.