Mine is a political biography for this management conference. It is political
in the sense that Ross Ashby defined cybernetics as "the science of getting
one's own way".
Where the governance of large complex systems is concerned, both success and
formal education have been so poor a teacher to me. Like second order
cybernetics itself, my best learning has come entirely circularly and indirect
to this autodidact.
I'm a provincial much tied to Virginia, and never out of North American until
this month. Ten generations ago in December 1621, my forbear Christopher
Reynolds sailed for Virginia from Gravesend, Kent. On his one return trip in
1635 from Isle of Wight County Virginia, he adjured to the Church of England at
St. George's Church in Gravesend, before being allowed to sail home. None of the
Reynolds men have been back to Kent since, until I did so courtesy of this
UK-sited conference in June 2003.
Like a good provincial (and Virginia Episcopalian) I went to the University
of Virginia. There I became an officer in the U.S. equivalent of the Oxford
Union. I dropped out of university in good standing after three years, to enlist
in the Marine Corps Reserve for six months active duty for training. Upon my
return as a first semester Fourth Yearman, I switched my major to something I
had no hours in (political science), and thus delayed my graduation until 1964.
My professors managed to present me with an engaging exposure to historic and
speculative theory, while teaching me nothing about genuine politics. Since that
time I have jettisoned most of what I was taught at U.Va. though I recall Marine
Corps lessons every day.
After taking my undergraduate degree, I have had four careers that after 40
years seem now to be repeating themselves - in Republican politics, law
practice, government service, and computer deployment. My activism combines all
Formal education and I coexist uneasily; I am not anti-intellectual, just
anti-academic. The primary exception to this unease has been my study of
cybernetics under Professor Stuart Umpleby at The George Washington University
Graduate School of Business and Public Management.
In 1986 a computer management consultant named Dean Meyer introduced me to
the writings of Stafford Beer. After I had read everything that Stafford Beer
and Ross Ashby had written about the governance of large complex systems,
Allenna Leonard introduced me to Stafford himself. When we first met I told him
he ought to pay me rent for all the space he had occupied in my head.
I call myself an Ashby-Beerian, and I recommend that school of thought to
this infoset. Compared with these two departed giants, other cyberneticians are
What Ashby originated as theoretical and descriptive, Beer made prescriptive
and practical. The former two plies comprise all strategy; the latter two plies
comprise all tactics. The cybernetic isomorphisms from war to commerce and from
statecraft to religion map over beautifully from one to the other, as they do
from military applications to the most pacific and gentle civilian realms of
To this Virginian, Ashby and Beer work together like Lee and Jackson. For
that reason, I have taken Allenna Leonard's technical notes on Beer's 23
principles, and annotated them very closely to the masterwork of strategy by
Carl von Clausewitz. It turns out that Clausewitz exemplified all 23 of Beer's
principles in the first 16 pages of "Vom Kriege"; the English translation of "On
War" is 732 pages long. This martial treatise turns out to be transformable into
a civilian management hornbook, as Beer's insights carry richly and insightfully
to the end.
Cybernetics as a discipline was a management fad and flavor-of-the-month that
peaked in 1969. It went into decline and undeserved obscurity thereafter. Nearly
all its teachings (outside of Ashby-Beerian insights) have been too diffuse and
unconnected to make a living with. Yet that circumstance has not deterred me.
Despite other people's history of seduction and abandonment by cybernetics,
the falling away occurred because the real discipline of the field lay in what
Stafford labeled "management cybernetics".
I believe Ashby-Beerian insights can only be ignored to our peril and injury.
Young adults in particular have the most reason to be disgusted with present
political results, and insistent upon well-grounded political change.
Ashby-Beerian principles offer our fellow sojourners in this world much
practical prospect of restoring homeostatic balance to widely diverse systems --
political, social, religious, and economic. Rather than dealing in vestigial
remnants of systems long vanished, Ashby-Beerian insights offer us what I feel
is the true path most in harmony with the great
principles that govern the universe.
Given this set of experiences and beliefs, how could I stay away from joining
you at this event to preserve and extend Stafford Beer's legacy?