The Cybernetic Trinity

The Trinity is one of the more vexing doctrines in all of the Catholic tradition. God is one, and yet God is three: the father, the son Christ who walked on earth, and the Holy Spirit. To make matters worse, God even has a mother, to whom one prays quite like one prays to God. My understanding of this vexing system is that it encodes the concept of “auto-production” or “bootstrapping,” the paradoxical capacity of systems to generate themselves ex nihilo.

The Trinity provides an impressively intelligent counterpoint to the naïve creationist tendency, in which the Gospels sometimes sound as if some magical kind of person created the universe by himself. There's nothing evil about such a linguistic device, but it is obviously naïve and inadequate technically. Any half-educated atheist can tell you, correctly, that such a model cannot plausibly account for who or what created the conditions for the creator; that such a naive model merely halts an infinite regress by brute force. More realistically, as cybernetics and the study of complex systems have shown, systems can very well bootstrap themselves from random perturbations among a few initial elements or particles. Which particular element or particle moved first is often impossible to determine, for it is their interaction that kicks off the systems’ dynamics. Auto-production is at work in the cosmological model known as the Big Bang, for instance.

The Catholic Trinity, plus the strangely important figure of Mary, is an intuitive approximation of a complex-systems model. God is one, the one name for that which created everything, but the nature of this one is to be a set. It is the circulation and mutual-stimulation of the elements in this one set that is the essential miracle of life.

Deleuze, Cybernetics, Evolution, Academics

Alexander Galloway thinks that Deleuze sees cybernetics as an enemy, or even the enemy:

Such a strange little text, this 'Postscript on Control Societies.'... The complaint is articulated in terms of control, communication, and the 'harshest confinement' wrought by 'the new monster' of information society... So why not call Deleuze's adversary by its true name: the enemy is cybernetics...

I find this intriguing because I've never thought this at all. As the Postscript suggests, contemporary societies operate through cybernetic control processes, i.e. distributed feedback processes. Today, political oppression is cybernetic, in this sense. But in the Deleuzo-Guattarian perspective, as far as I can see, liberation will also be cybernetic. As Erinaceous points out on /r/CriticalTheory:

Guattari loved cybernetics. He was heavily influenced by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela who were second generation cyberneticians. [A Thousand Plateaus] is also loaded with references to early Chaos Theory which comes out of cybernetics... What bothered both Deleuze and Guattari was the idea of centralization and control...

So which is it? Here is a kind of meta-theory, which I think clarifies the Deleuzo-Guattarian perspective on cybernetics and also why people will disagree about it.

At the root of the confusion here is that theoretical models of empirical reality do not have normative charges, unless you subscribe to a strong version of social constructivism. If you're a social constructivist — if you believe that objective reality is downstream of language — then holding and abiding by a theory can be good or bad. Whether it's accurate or useful hardly matters, because it's the theory-holding that determines reality.

I do not know Galloway's work very well, but on this point, we can see that he is a strong social constructivist, simply because he thinks a theory (cybernetics) can be bad (an enemy).

I reject this view. In my view, objective realities exist outside of language, and human projects succeed only to the degree they abide by reality (though our projects can change reality, they can only do so if they abide by it). Therefore, empirical and normative "goodness" are perfectly aligned, necessarily. To the degree a theoretical model accurately fits the data of the world, it is good. That's that. If you would like to foment collective liberation, your only chance is to embrace the truest possible theories of reality, more radically than status quo institutions embrace them, and act on them with more fidelity than status quo institutions act on them. This is the vision of revolutionary politics held here at Other Life, and chief among our teachers were Deleuze and Guattari.

Deleuze and Guattari were not social constructivists in the way that has become fashionable since the 1990s. This is the reason Galloway's take feels off, and why so much Deleuze scholarship feels like it's from a different planet than the one Deleuze inhabited: Deleuze did not subscribe to a strong social constructivism, but most academic theorists today do, whether it be with deep personal sincerity or merely out of social/disciplinary necessity.

If cybernetics provides a useful model of empirical realities, then state-of-the-art political regimes will rule their subjects in a fashion consistent with its principles. Any successful project of liberation would use tactics equally consistent with its principles, if not more so. Cybernetics cannot be an enemy, unless you think it's bad to be right, and you actually have no interest or incentives to make a revolutionary project succeed — and here we see the problem. If you're an academic theorist in the humanities today, you generally think that the will-to-be-correct is an ethically dubious drive to dominate. It is now essentially the raison d'être of humanities academics to raise normative objections to the truest available theories. (All theories are false, technically, but "true" here just means optimally consistent with the data.) Reality is brutal, therefore the truest theories are the most brutal, therefore the highest-status work in the humanities will be that which makes the truest theories look as ugly as possible.

Evolution is another example. Traditional Christians once seemed stupid and backward for their horrified opposition to the implications of evolutionary theory. Today, academics in the humanities seem smart and sophisticated for their horrified opposition to the implications of evolutionary theory. Evolutionary psych is sexist and racist, machine learning and AI are sexist and racist, everything that works becomes an enemy.

Cybernetics and evolution name basic principles of reality, and they help to explain our oppression as well as our flourishing. These concepts help to explain why capitalism is so hard to overthrow, but they also explain how we heat our homes (the thermostat being a classic textbook example of a cybernetic device). Humans flourish through technoscience as intelligence instantiated, and we try politically to contain the anti-social implications of technoscientific reality-penetration, but capitalism is what happens when intelligence escapes its last political box and starts replicating until we eventually become the objects of its manipulation. We started with the idea that we’d buy and sell things to advance our interests, leveraging the cybernetic price system like we leverage the thermostat to keep our house’s temperature in equilibrium. Before we knew it, the price system evolved new types of people that better suited its interests, and now we are so many thermostats in the service of capitalism.

There is still, in principle, the possibility of generating systemic liberation dynamics via cyberpositive tactics. The big questions of the late 21st century, however, will be: Can the human desire for liberation dynamics beyond capitalist exploitation pass the empirical bottleneck of intelligence takeoff, given the brutally unforgiving requirements involved, and can the intelligent pass the bottleneck of destructive hordes who fear they cannot pass the bottleneck of intelligence takeoff?

Stream Theory

As a livestreamer, you ignore the entire world to focus your attention on a subset of people who are genuinely interested in you. Entrance into the practice of livestreaming immediately leads you to ask yourself questions such as: Why should I pay any attention, or have any interactions physical or virtual, with people who are only vaguely interested in me, who expect me to modulate my organic intensity levels to a normal range, and who only hang-out with me for incidental reasons of geography and sociology? Since I've started livestreaming, it's become very difficult to find answers to this question.

My very modest livestreaming audience does not pay attention to me for incidental reasons such as living nearby or because the relationship benefits their career path. I am exactly as I want to be, and every time a small number of regulars are always there, watching and listening for no reason external to the transmission itself, for the simple reason that they have nothing to win or lose by watching me or not watching me. This absence of an external reason for watching is the definition of sincere attention: they are watching me to learn why they are watching me, a radical and pure form of openness to the other. If they are drawn to my world, they'll stay and/or return. If they are not attracted to my world, they might leave and never come back — but even still, for the short time they were watching me, they were not doing it for any reason other than some strangely unadulterated interest in what I was saying or doing. There's just no other reason, good or bad, because I'm not famous, or obviously representative of anything in particular. I'm not especially entertaining, I'm not even especially smart, but they'll watch and listen for hours while I be as I wish to be.

If attention is, in the words of Simone Weil, the "rarest and purest form of generosity,” to livestream is to immediately incur a profound debt. Your first viewer is a gift of which you are not yet worthy; they are gambling a precious resource on you. The same could be said of the book shopper who reads the first line of your book, but the key difference — and there are many — is that the book author does not experience this gift. The relationship is so institutionally mediated and temporally chopped-up, that the communicative investment runs only from book author to reader, with so much skimmed off the top by various brokers. In a strange way, the livestreamer is bootstrapped into motion by the investment of attention coming from the audience, and only from there does the livestreamer take up the reins. One learns this most clearly when you initiate a stream and nobody enters; it feels wrong even trying to begin, and if you do, it feels uniquely stupid and motivation dwindles rapidly, even though it's no more lonely than writing an essay.

As for physical humans, I have my wife and my family — by far the most important human beings in most individuals' lives, ultimately — with whom I have dedicated and sincere relationships. Other than these few deep bonds, do I really still need a typical network of normal friends?

In contemporary Western society, any given person's network of normal friends — characterized by periodic face-to-face interaction in geographically localized milieus — seems increasingly evacuated of authentic emotional investment: a convenient web of polite dissimulation, hidden disappointments, lowered expectations, spinelessly lax ethical relativism. Who today could say with a straight face that maintaining all of these weak ties is still of any ethical or practical importance? By all means, build local relationships, especially in case "shit hits the fan," but if shit really hits the fan, the overwhelming majority of one's social "friends" — especially in young adult urban milieus — will be as good as strangers, and they'll line up however self-interest dictates. Getting drunk together ~4-9 times a year will not substantially alter the cleavage structures into which you and your "friend" will be sorted in the event of a severe crisis. And as for the common idea that this type of half-assed face-to-face interaction with semi-strangers makes life a fuller and more joyous experience, to be celebrated and preserved for its own sake — well, maybe a little bit, but if it's so intrinsically valuable then why will people only do it on condition that they can also spend the whole time sating their basest appetites in the most decadent way possible, such as drinking alcohol or eating prepared foods. "Having friends in real life" strikes me as an increasingly hollow proposition. This sorry excuse for "community" is merely the dead skin of a bygone social form.

To the degree any of "my friends" read this and speak to me personally about it, that could be considered falsification of this particular thesis. If none of "my friends" read or care about this, that would be evidence consistent with the thesis. Typically, none of "my friends" know or care much about what I think/write/speak online. You might say that's normal, and you'd be right, but stupidity and evil are also normal, so you're not helping your case.

If there are people online who care about what I think/write/speak, while "my friends" do not, then why should I not simply fire "my friends" and redirect the time and energy I once gave them to those who are actually interested in that which is most me? That is what this comes down to: most of your normal friends do not really like you, and they never have. They generally don't want to know what you think or feel, except in very short and infrequent doses, which they are merely willing to tolerate. If even one person is watching your livestream, even for one second, that one person in that one second is more genuinely interested in you than probably all of your normal friends put together throughout your entire life.

Stream theory mercilessly disenchants meatspace, diverting enchantment to the livestream relation and endowing it with correspondingly redemptive potential.

To normal people who still take it for granted that "real life" is the base and cyberspace a superstructure, livestreams just seem dull, but for those who have gone all-in on the livestream relation — for whom it can be said that the stream is the base and "real life" but a superstructure — the stream is the very possibility of life amidst a dead world. If you think it's "boring" it's because you incorrectly compare it to bourgeois entertainment media. Bourgeois entertainment media serve a consolation and restoration function for the modern person whose everyday life is absorbed by alienating IRL labor. The livestream experience serves the function of life itself for those whose life is no longer absorbed by alienating IRL labor, either because of unemployment, underemployment, or socio-emotional flatlining. If the IRL political economy deals you a bad hand, there is now a fairly transparent and reproducible mechanism for defaulting on God-forsaken meatspace and reversing your fortune. Go all in.

I came across some profound corroboration of this thesis, in the testimony of a doctoral student, Dino Zhang. Zhang's work focuses on livestreaming culture in China:

...seen from the outside (often through only a few distracted glimpses), zhibo [livestreaming] is mostly boring and meaningless, and is regularly disregarded as the lowest tier of Chinese cultural consumption; yet, many people who enter a zhibo channel with this prejudice still get hooked and go back to it regularly. Is it boring? If you look at zhibo generically, of course it seems absurd that anyone would be watching this sort of stuff regularly. But if you start engaging with individual users, the situation becomes way more nuanced. For example, I was talking to a livestreamer called Yuwen who is a disabled young man living in rural Sichuan. His life, according to most standards, is quite tragic. Despite the often abusive comments he receives in chat, Yuwen still carries on streaming because zhibo is an important opportunity for him to speak to a broader audience and receive some money through donations. Yuwen’s zhibo is extremely slow due [to] the long pauses and interruptions resulting from his precarious Internet connection, the resolution of his webcam is very low and even his voice is barely heard over the microphone, yet he speaks in his own capacity and patiently responds to his viewers’ questions. The banality of zhibo contents can be a difficulty because genuine reflexive moments are buried by the duration itself – a six hour-long livestream may contain five minutes of extremely revealing and inspiring conversation about contemporary working life in the Chinese countryside, but only few people would be there to witness, record and publish them. How can we accuse livestreamers of producing “endless banal entertainment” if we have not yet tried to sit there and watch a six hour livestream in its entirety?

"Is it boring?" Or is it camouflaged, sneaking moments of life into the nether-regions of a social fabric where life is supposed to be on lockdown, by sandwiching it in between pauses and interruptions too long for forces of suppression to even get through? When one realizes that the livestream is a mechanism for converting IRL misfortunes into spiritual/interpersonal and even monetary fortunes, suddenly you are watching something very different. A disabled Chinese peasant with bad WiFi might not sound very fun to watch, but a disabled Chinese peasant who has discovered a mysterious technology for making himself a charismatic national figure earning good money — who would not want to watch such an extraordinary magic trick?

The livestreamer, although accountable to the audience, is radically unaccountable to all competing reality-programmers, ranging from other entertainers to legislators and law-enforcement. The streamer is an audience-bootstrapped sovereign who inaugurates a new plane of immanence. There are no rules outside of those set by the streamer within the bounds accepted by the audience. Facts, norms, laws, and incentive structures from institutional society are easily ignored, altered, and even regularly manipulated or overthrown by streamer-audience feedback loops that overflow their container in ungovernable ways. Entire conspiracy-theory universes are now old news, spectacular crimes are regularly committed by livestreamers on air, and the biggest streamers are frequently "swatted," which means receiving a home invasion by a SWAT team after an audience member reports a bomb threat. Media consumers order real-life SWAT teams to perform live-action role-plays in their favorite livestream and the livestreamer gets paid for the SWAT team's slave labor, by corporate advertisers who are running out of options.

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