The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov was clear about his agenda: get the kids hooked on my fiction, then ease them over into nonfiction and send them towards productive adult genres; which in his case meant a lot of science (the S in STEM) and mathematics, but also quite a lot about in the humanities too (I go “PATH” for Philosophy, Anthropology, Theater, History — however many would consider that idiosyncratic on my part).
The strategy (or agenda) worked in my case: I started reading some pretty heavy nonfiction pretty early. I was digesting Club of Rome’s Are We Living in the Golden Age? cover article, in The Futurist, while living in Rome at the time, in eighth grade.
Also from reading The Futurist, and from that book series by Time-Life, with titles like Mind, and Mathematics, I learned to expect to encounter a discipline named Cybernetics when I grew up.
However, by the time I got to Princeton in the 1970s, there wasn’t a Cybernetics course to be found, that I recall anyway. The principles this discipline studied, focusing on feedback loops, might have been taken up by other disciplines, but Cybernetics itself appeared to have fallen by the wayside.
A not dissimilar trajectory had befallen General Systems Theory apparently. As a reader raised in a Quaker family, I’d encountered writings by Kenneth Boulding on various shelves. At some point I started corresponding with him.
That might have been around the time Joe and Teresina Havens moved to Portland, by then an elderly couple that had run a retreat center somewhere named Temenos.
Joe was into Quaker Economics (this was well before Quakernomics, a book about ethical capitalism). Teresina was into Buddhism. Both started discussion groups, both of which grew to be quite large at the apex of their respective trajectories.
Anyway, Kenneth Boulding, a Quaker, was a pioneer in General Systems Theory (GST for short) and some universities would develop a Systems Science. Portland State University did that.
We see that memes migrate, often leaving behind what we assumed would be their vehicles, their casings. Cybernetics and GST were by now abandoned junkers along the side of the road, while their precious contents hitched rides on more promising vehicles. Is that how it worked?
I decided I could pick up GST myself and do some work with it, branching from the Joe Havens Quaker Economics group, which sometimes included John Wish, a professor of economics.
I was also mixing in the “cosmic accounting” memes from the Buckminster Fuller syllabus. Here was another futurist I’d encountered.
At some point Bucky spoke in Rome and my middle school teachers had been in the audience. At school the next day, they were eager to tell us something about the relative stability of the triangle, compared with the rectangle, but after this initial enthusiasm, I don’t remember much follow-through.
I’m mixing a couple time periods here. The flashback to Rome was to when dad was working with Libyans to apply the latest thinking in regional planning from the United States.
This was not a governmental position, but instead with a private firm, contracted by the Libyans. How would Tripoli be growing in the next fifty years? Intelligent zoning could help a city thrive. The oasis communities, tiny convergence points seen from the air, suggested future growth patterns.
I was in middle school at this time, reading that Club of Rome stuff, participating in theater, including Gilbert & Sullivan, and Shakespeare. Then came Princeton and my first exposure to computers. Then came getting married and ending up back in Portland (the move came first), Oregon, where dad’s career had started, post University of Chicago (where I was born).
Fast forward and I’m sixty one, looking back on a programming career with dBase, Visual FoxPro, and later Python. Just a day or two ago, I recorded another Youtube about GST, in the context of showing off Lattice Gallery to a fun family I know. After that, I recorded another one on Python.
By this time, I’ve had Synergetics on the Web deployed for some decades. Rather than continually redevelop it, I’ve continued building out in new technologies, for example in the form of Jupyter Notebooks, on Github. Only in the last couple years to I get around to seeing The House of Tomorrow, a movie based on a book by that title, with Buckminster Fuller a hero of the grandmother character.
I saw an opportunity: to package up my Martian Math, a rebranding of a core aspect of Bucky Fuller’s Synergetics, and share it through a School of Tomorrow, presumably what the protagonist in that movie, the grandmother’s ward, would have been connecting with, academically.
By now I’ve mentioned Synergetics a few times, whereas at the outset I was talking about Cybernetics. These aren’t the same. I didn’t get directly from Isaac Asimov that I’d be studying Synergetics as a philosophy, with Wittgenstein at my elbow to suggest new ways of looking, at the operation of third powering, for example.
Why not a tetrahedron instead of a cube? Where had I heard something like that before? In Rome maybe?
Synergetics is about unpredictable behaviors, surprising twists and turns that do not seem explicable in reduced terms. We sense generalized principles at work nonetheless, and seek to encode them mathematically in communications.
In our humble moments we acknowledge we still have a lot to learn, and there’s so much we don’t know. However, the operational reality we depend on does not appear to depend on our knowing how it all works, in order to work. Dynamical systems have developed a reputation for being self organizing in some cases. We’re buoyed up by orderings we can’t take credit for. Sometimes noticing this adds to a sense of vertigo