A Cybernetic Paradigm for a Cyberspace
By Richard Wise / University of Luton, UK
We can begin to see
the elements of the global digital communications future not
only in technological advances, but also in the rhetoric of
government and media tycoons and in the investment decisions
of global multimedia conglomerates.
A planetary network
comprised of broad band intelligent digital networks, fiber-optic
cable systems, and satellite and terrestrial broadcasting systems
is coming into being before our eyes. Together with the large
flat screens, smart phones, wearables and personal digital assistants,
which will link individuals and households to limitless quantities
of data, all the ingredients of virtual reality are on the horizon.
So what are the values,
which should inform our formulation of policies towards these
new domestic communications technologies?
Policy and Economics
The first stumbling
block is that we are trying to solve today's problems with yesterday's
tools. Everywhere government's policies toward new media technologies
are being guided by neoclassical economic theory a set of ideas
which have their origins in pamphlets written and published
by 17th and 18th Century philosopher-merchants or bankers. The
project of these first economists was to use Newton's atomistic
principles in order to explain and predict changes in prices
and trade (1).
The moral basis of
the theory is the belief that individual self-interest, mediated
through the working of the invisible hand of the market, results
in the good of all. The market, in this view, consists of buyers
and sellers, equivalent to atoms, constantly attracted by the
gravity of pleasure and repelled by the force of pain. Buyers
seek to maximize their pleasures by buying the best value for
their money, while sellers buy cheap and sell dear seeking to
of satisfactions in this model is achieved when all markets
are allowed to operate unfettered by inflexible restrictions
imposed by monopolies, organised labour or state bureaucracy.
In this view the
dynamic of the market system is provided firstly by entrepreneurial
enterprise the desire of individual businessmen for new opportunities
to make profits and, secondly, free competition which gives
the consumer a wide choice of products to buy.
The power of this
simple idea can be seen particularly in government policies
toward the new media technologies in the UK and USA.
These have sought
to maximize their potential with policies which deregulate and
privatzse telecomms and media in order to free markets and encourage
enterprise. At the same time many government information services
have been transferred to the more competitive and therefore
more efficient, private sector.
Thus commercial information
suppliers are both subjected to the rigours of competition and
freed from onerous state regulation. The aim is to provide consumers
with a plethora of choice: hundreds of channels of information
delivered into the home by either cable, satellite or terrestrial
The overall tendency
of these laissez faire policies has been to change the public
perception of information from the civic to the commercial.(2)
of Orthodox Responses
Criticisms of the
neoclassical economic model are nothing new (3).
My argument here
is that, whatever the merits or demerits of economic theory
as a model for describing the reality of its domain, it is singularly
unsuited to be a basis for policy toward new media technologies
in the home. What is needed for this age of cyberspace is a
philosophy based on the insights of systems theory, cybernetics
and molecular biology.
I wish to base my
position on the ecological critique of economic theory and values.
In more general terms my perspective is that of what Wilden
has described as context theory. Context theory evolved from
a cluster of advances from the 1940s to the 1960s in information
theory, systems theory, semiotics cybernetics, ecology, and
The element that
all these fields had in common was a concern with information
processing systems with mind in its most general sense.
The Newtonian world
view, on one hand, is dominated by matter-energy, one to one
linear causality, forces, atoms, singularity, closure, one dimensionality,
determinism, symmetry, sameness, simplicity, competition, short-range
survival, and the past. Context theory,on the other hand, is
oriented to information, goal seeking, relationships, reciprocity,
levels of reality, levels of responsibility, levels of communication
and control, requisite diversity, innovation, openness, co-operation,
the capacity to utilize unexpected novelty and thus toward long-range
survival and the future. (4)
Gregory Bateson in
Pathologies of Epistemology sees the problems of social and
ecological degradation as deriving from the tendency of the
prevailing world view to exclude mind from the universe. When
you separate mind from structure in which it is immanent, such
as human relationships, the human society, or the ecosystem,
you thereby embark, I believe, on fundamental error, which in
the end will surely hurt you (5). From a systems perspective,
information is part of the feedback process by which societies
adapt to changes within themselves and in the environment. In
treating information merely as a commodity we run the risk of
distorting that process.
of Information as a Commodity
Because of these
epistemological deficiencies, the economic paradigm has great
difficulty in accommodating the phenomenon of commoditized information
even on its own terms.
Because the full
value of information depends on its future use, the value of
an information good cannot therefore be determined before it
is used. Thus since the traditional economic model is deterministic
it is not capable of easily incorporating information goods.
There are other differences
between information and other commodities. The value of information
good for the consumer lies in its content, the cost for the
supplier lies in its physical form. Thus, although the physical
form of the information may involve costs, the marginal cost
of broadcast or networked information is zero.
Information is nonmaterial
requiring the use of no other resources in its replication.
Thus information is infinitely reproducible a piece of information
may be used many times and be possessed by many people.
As Bates (6) points
out, information goods generate social benefits which are not
reflected in price; in economists' jargon, they are "externalities."
But because it does not pay the private sector to produce them,
the benefits for society may not be reaped. There is thus a
case for public intervention in order to ensure that information
necessary to the exercise of effective citizenship is equally
available to all.
The aim of free market
economic policy has been to maximize the value of monetary transactions
involving information. This puts no value on the quality of
information in terms of the recipient's improvement in knowledge,
insight or consciousness its value lies in the fact that someone
is willing to pay to consume it.
If we cannot rely
on a private, profit-maximizing information industry to provide
the information services to which all citizens of a democracy
are entitled, then there should be public intervention to ensure
that this takes place.
This is not so much
to do with the dangers of creating a divided society of information
haves and have-nots although this is a real danger. Such a policy
objective arises from a view which sees the free flow information
as a source of new ideas crucial to informed debate and so to
the adaptive processes of society.
ensure that certain types of social, economic and commercial
statistics are published and made available on publicly accessible
digital networks free of charge. This might be done by subsidizing
commercial information providers, imposing legal obligations
on licensees or by setting up separate public service providers.
should also try to nurture the unrestricted interactivity which
has evolved on the Internet to enable a wider section of the
population to both participate in convivial communities of interests
and have access to a wide variety of on-line information sources.
The problem with
the bastardized form of economics which inspires politicians
is that it has conflated the technical question of monetary
value as a means of economic measurement with value in the sense
of a desirable end.
In the first sense,
money is seen to represent a quality of a good or a factor of
production. This is a necessary social arrangement in a culture
based on commodity exchange.
Value in the second
sense does not correspond to particular material qualities within
things but to a relationship between human actions and the social
contexts in which they take place.
has tried to eliminate value by reducing it to monetary terms
what is good is what people will buy. But as Lewis Mumford has
said: value comes into existence through man's primordial need
to distinguish between life-maintaining and life-destroying
processes and to distribute his interests and his energies accordingly
Where economic theory
puts value on the private consumption, context theory stresses
the social and adaptive qualities of information. It is my contention
that we are unlikely to realize the full democratic and liberatory
potential of information technologies until policy is based
on a cybernetic paradigm for a cybernetic age.
1. ROUTH, G., The
Origins of Economic Thought, Macmillan 1989
2. DEMAC, D. A.
"Hearts and Minds Revisited: The Information Policies of
the Reagan Administration" in Mosco V. & Wasko J, The
Political Economy of Information, University of Wisconsin 1988
3. Most famously
in the 1930s John Maynard Keynes pointed out that equilibrium
was unlikely to coincide with a full use of resources, particularly
labour. The philosophical deficiencies of the mechanistic economic
paradigm have also been criticised by Joan Robinson (Robinson,
J., Economic Heresies, Macmillan 1971) and Hollis & Nell
(Hollis, M. & Nell E., Rational Economic Man: A Philosophic
Critique of Neo-classical Economics, Cambridge University Press
1975) among others. Critiques of the conventional model from
an ecological perspective have also been mounted by E. F. Schumacher,
Gregory Bateson, Anthony Wilden, K. William Kapp, Herman E Daly
4. WALDEN, A , "The
Rules are No Game," The Strategy of Communication, London,
Routledge Paul, 1987, p310.
5. BATESON, G , Steps
to an Ecology of Mind, Paladin, 1973, p461.
6. BATES B. J., "Information
as a an Economic Good," in Mosco V. & Wasko J. The
Political Economy of Information, University of Wisconsin 1988.
7. MUMFORD L, The
Condition of Man, Sacker and Warburg , 1962 p270
Richard Wise can be contacted at email@example.com