Monday, July 29, 2013

Anecdotes - non-trivial machines

The following anecdote comes from Stuart Umpleby responding to queries on the ASC conference about trivial and non-trivial machines.

"Dear Tom, As I recall, when speaking about a non-trivial machine, Heinz [von Foerster] always referred to an aluminum box that Ross Ashby constructed. As far as I know Ricardo Uribe still has it. It had two switches and two lights. The task was to determine the internal structure of the machine by pressing the switches and watching the lights. However, pressing one of the switches changed the  internal configuration in the box.

After building it, Ashby spent many hours at his kitchen table trying to figure out the internal operation of the machine. If a human observer could not figure out how such a simple "non-trivial machine" worked, how much more difficult would it be to figure out how a human being was thinking?

We want our machines to be trivial/ predictable. Would you want a car that turns to the left only 95% of the time when you turn the steering wheel to the left? But human beings change their minds often. They are non-trivial. Heinz felt that human beings try to trivialize non-trivial machines (i.e., human beings). Examples are threats of the use of force and most education systems.

Regards, Stuart"

This anecdote is telling in that it demonstrates how within a language community or an intellectual  lineage certain distinctions carry significance because of who said them and how it carries news of difference.  The distinction trivial/non-trivial machine was important to Heinz von Foerster who followed Alan Turing in using these distinctions.  This history makes sense within a lineage preoccupied with machines and mechanism but is unlikely to win favour in many disciplines within the social sciences because the distinction conserves the machine metaphor.  That said, in many fields, including areas of the social sciences humans are still too often treated as 'trivial machines'!

1 comment:

Iona said...