Sunday, April 22, 2007

Rethinking the Social

In “The Human Use of Human Beings,” cybernetic pioneer Norbert Wiener proposes a thought experiment that challenges our notions of the social:
“It is easy to make a simple machine which will run forward toward the light or run away from it, and if such machines also contain lights of their own, a number of them together will show complicated forms of social behavior [. . . .]”
So, would such a situation constitute “social behavior”? Let’s take Wiener up on the challenge and raise the stakes. It might be that in a collection of such robots repeating patterns would condense out of the chaos. Some robots might form stable relationships with other robots based on mutual attraction. Such pairs might hook up with other pairs, or trios, or other groups and settle into meta-organizations. A whole hierarchy might emerge with its nested levels of societies within societies kept stable by approach-avoidance feedback among individuals.

Wiener’s allegory of the robots must have been meant to suggest something about human beings; it begs the question as to whether human society is nothing more than a collection of automatons attracted to and repelled from one another by instincts, reflexes, and cultural conditioning, or habit—that is, by biological and social programming. A secular mind might be attracted to such a model, which need not be taken to the extreme. Maybe we average 90 percent automatic, with the exact proportion varying from person to person. But before embracing this simple notion of the social, we should look at where a consistent application of it will lead.

We can, for example, apply the technological allegory to inanimate nature. If we replace the lights and light sensors on Wiener’s robots with positive and negative electrical charges, then Wiener’s allegory describes the behaviors of atoms, which are attracted to and repelled from one another by their electrical charges, by which they organize themselves into the hierarchy of increasingly complex levels of feedback-stabilized organization that we call Nature. Chemistry amounts to a systematized sociology of atoms.

A consistent application of Wiener’s allegory begs the definition of the social, whether it should be defined restrictively as pertaining only to biological organisms or loosely as pertaining to all approach-avoidance behaviors of entities of any sort whatever, particularly when the behaviors collectively produce stable and complex structures and processes. Whether we decide on the former or the latter, we are left without a clear principle that distinguishes societies of ants from societies of robots or atoms—animate from inanimate societies.

Except that an inanimate society is an incoherent concept.