The Times They Are a-Changin’

Last week, an episode of De Wereld Draait Door looked back on the past year. It mainly concerned further emancipation of women and minorities. This is visible in developments such as #metoo and the black beetle discussion, but also in an increasing uncertainty about how we can and may approach each other. I see these developments as forerunners of a society in which cybernetics will have to play a prominent role. However, to recognize that you have to place them in a wider frame than happened in DWDD.

In his magnum opus "The logic of feeling", the philosopher Arnold Cornelis convincingly showed that our human history has striking similarities with the course of life of each individual. It is difficult to do justice to the 800 pages of Cornelis in a single blog, but in short it comes down to the following. Everyone starts their life in the so-called natural system, in which you (if it is good) are protected by the family in which you grow up. Puberty is the transition to the second phase in our lives, in which our own ability is central. We learn a profession that is characterized by a specific collection of rules, knowledge and skills and thereby influence the world around us. Finally, through the midlife crisis, we enter the third and final phase of our lives, in which we often make fundamental choices about what we ultimately do and do not consider important. Before the midlife crisis, we creatively acquire our own place within the standards of the organizations around us; after the midlife crisis, we steer our own lives more and more on the basis of our own core values.

Our common history is developing in a similar way. Our "cultural puberty" can be found in the scientific as well as the French revolution. Both the notion of "truth" and the arbitrariness of the king were tied to these revolutions: for the first time in history, general rules and standards were to apply to all. And our society is still characterized by rules. Through policy in organizations, through legislation at national and international level, through written and unwritten rules that characterize our culture.

All these rules have brought us much good. They have been a prerequisite for our increasing civilization. But not a sufficient condition. More is needed. And that is what we have seen happening more and more since World War II. We are in the midst of our “cultural midlife crisis”. We no longer have enough standards, but we also demand that our values are managed. And standards, rules and laws are too rigid for that; there is no flexibility, no learning ability.

Unlike norms, our values are driven by our human ability to adapt. And that need for adaptation is fueled by our emotions, the same emotions that we also encounter in a #metoo and black beetle discussion. That need for adaptation is a need for self-direction, a need to guide our own lives.

Emancipation is more than everyone's personal freedoms and rights. The social debate is about more than the sum of all individuals. The question goes out to a society that is designed in such a way that everyone's personal choices are supported as well and as honestly as possible. Just as unemployment benefits are a social variant of the security of the natural system, just as our legal system helps when individual control systems collide, we now need systems that help people with their self-management.

Let cybernetics be the science that can tell you everything about control systems, about control mechanisms, about self-management. Both about the laws that we can find about this in people and society, but also about shaping the systems that the social debate now requires.

Our midlife crisis is ongoing. A revolution in our thinking is irrevocable. We can manage this with the available knowledge of cybernetics. I personally think that is a better idea than muddling through until the guillotines are taken out of the mothballs.