J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Dealing With Cybernetic Discombobulation

Everyone should have a dedicated recombobulation space.

Losing your phone, moving to a new country, breaking your leg, your laptop self-destructing, getting a concussion — all these disruptive events can be described as cybernetic discombobulation.  The systems, body, habits, technologies, and databases we rely on to navigate daily life occasionally break or corrupt or become obsolete (or we break them on purpose in pursuit of growth or change or freedom).

Not robots, but still programmable.

For the purposes of this post I’m using an expansive definition of the word cybernetic; I’m including control systems within our bodies and brains, i.e. habits.  Cybernetics usually refers to automation and control systems in machines, but human beings also have the capability to reprogram ourselves.  We can consciously decide what kind of people we want to become and then change our own behavior (and consciousness) by establishing new habits, learning new skills, and adopting new attitudes (you could call this type of work metaprogramming, intentional meta-cognition, or the less glamorous term “self-help”).  In any case, we are remarkably adaptable creatures capable of at least partial self-determination.

How do we deal with cybernetic discombobulation?  Some events are so disruptive (war, major illness, the death of a loved one, one’s house burning down, financial ruin) that recovery may require a ground-up restructuring of identity.  Others are minor enough to hit “restore from backup” and be on our way.

The Self Is The Network

Disconnect from your grid and you become an isolated, inactive node.

Human beings exist within survival matrices (or networks) — without them we are basically helpless.  We depend on social matrices (family, friends, co-workers), and infrastructure matrices (cities and town with their transportation, food, water, energy, and communication networks).  All living creatures exist within an ecological context (a food web, a protective ocean or atmosphere), and human beings have built-up layers of technological and cultural networks on top of our biological foundation.

The identity of an individual human being includes our networks.  There is no “I” without a context (a familial role, a social role, a cultural role, maybe even an “online” or virtual role or roles).  If you take away an aspect of the network, you take away part of human identity.  Without genuine emotional interactions with other people, most human beings easily become depressed and cynical.  Parts of the brain shut down (for example the mirror neurons have nothing to react to).  Without a food matrix (modern agriculture with trucking, a local farming community, a game-rich forest or fish-rich reef system) we starve.

Tools and technology are part of identity too.  A violinist can’t make music (and isn’t really a violinist) without a violin (and creating a violin requires a network of other people and sources of material).  Without writing implements we’re unable to organize and refine our thoughts in sophisticated ways, and without computers or smartphones we lose access to the vast digitized knowledge base that is the internet (alongside the porn and lolcat pictures).  We’re not really “us,” in many important ways, unless our gear is accessible and in working order.

I know I pick on Ayn Rand a lot. She's such a great target.

This is the fatal flaw of Objectivism and other philosophies that espouse the pursuit of “rational self-interest.”  These philosophies are grounded in the false dichotomy of self vs. environment.  In reality, you can’t effectively pursue your own interests while ignoring the state of your networks.  The self is the network, in very concrete ways.  It’s not that we aren’t personally responsible for our own individual lives (we are, whether or not we acknowledge it our not), it’s just that our own individual fates are enmeshed with the fates of our families, friends, employers, communities, cities, and nation-states.  This is true both for the traditional hunter-gatherer (dependent on her local ecology/microclimate, and familial and tribal relationships) and the modern information worker (dependent on his iPhone, AT&T network, employer paycheck, trucked-in factory-farmed food, local power plant, thousands of government workers, thousands of private companies, etc.).  The ideals of personal responsibility and individuality shouldn’t eclipse this observation: if the network thrives, so does the node (and if the network is disrupted, so is the individual).

Bring it on, apocalypse, bring it on.

A highly skilled survivalist, soldier, or wilderness expert might be able to eke out a living if dropped in the wild with only the bare necessities.  This kind of voluntary discombobulation or disconnect might even have short term benefits — the self, removed from habituated daily stimuli, gets to “reboot.” But in the long-term, without certain types of interactions (social, technological), large parts of the brain go dark.  For most people, an isolated life is an incomplete life, a shadow life.  Even introverts and recluses occasionally crave company and human touch.  When our “network of self” (physical identity, social/familial identity, societal identity) breaks, we need to rebuild.

Are the networks that we exist within complex?  They usually are, but that doesn’t mean they’re difficult to understand or even manipulate.  This short TED talk from ecologist Eric Berlow illustrates this point perfectly.

Preventing and Mitigating Cybernetic Discombobulation

There are numerous approaches to preventing and mitigating cybernetic discombobulation, including:

1) Safety/security

This is a broad category that includes everything from minimizing statistically dangerous behaviors (driving + texting, for example) to avoiding certain neighborhoods at certain times of day.  It’s important to take a statistical approach to safety — otherwise life can become a fear vortex, an exhausting, joyless toil of threat avoidance (the TSA approach to airport security, for example).  In terms of my own daughter’s safety, I’m very careful around bodies of water, cars, and poisons, because those things are the most statistically dangerous to toddlers.  On the other hand if she falls or gets scratched up climbing a tree, it’s no big deal.

In case of mountain lion, pick up children without bending.

2) Liquidity

A wealthy friend of mine works a corporate job, but keeps a checking account with a few hundred grand in it.  He calls it his “fuck you money.”  His boss is aware of the existence of the account (though maybe not its name).  My friend works hard at his job, but he has the option to walk away.  If his company goes down in flames, if his clients prove to be intolerable, if he’s fired — he’ll be just fine.  It’s nice to have cash in the bank (and the liquidity is more important than net worth — equity in your house or stocks you don’t want to sell don’t serve the same function as easily accessible cash).

As long as you have some income, achieving a moderate degree of liquidity is more about money management and fiscal discipline (spending less than you earn) than it is about gross earnings.  There are plenty of rich kids out there who would be left in the cold if their income suddenly dried up, and plenty of middle class families who have a six month emergency fund in the bank.

3) Redundancy

If you are highly dependent on your phone, laptop, or car, then you should have a backup — keep the old model operational and accessible just in case.  Backing up crucial data is even more important — and all hard drives fail eventually.  At least two backups — one of them off-site in case of fire or theft — provides some baseline degree of data-security.  And use the cloud (Google Docs, etc.) for important low-sensitivity data.

Keep spares on hand.

When the technology comes online and becomes affordable, we should all do the same for our vital organs — grow a spare liver, heart, and pair of kidneys from our own stem cells and keep them “on ice.”  Does this seem like an unrelated point?  It isn’t.  We are all highly dependent on our internal organs, and if it’s possible to keep spares on hand, we should.

4) Wide networks

Deep connections are important, but so are shallow ones.  We have greater access to novelty (information and experiences) and new connections via our acquaintances, as opposed to our close friends.  The wider our networks, the less disastrous our disasters will be.  You’ll have greater access to information, money, specialized skills, employment — whatever you need for recovery.  Should you leverage your acquaintances and always be expanding your social networks into relevant areas?  Yes, definitely.  This doesn’t necessarily mean you should strive to have 2000+ Facebook friends.  But you *should* have the number of the guy with 2000 Facebook friends on autodial.

5) Don’t panic

Cybernetic discombobulation (aka shit) happens.  Life throws curve balls.  Entropy and chaos will always find a way to mess you up.  Even an unremarkable life will include moments of extreme distress, disorientation, fear, temporary helplessness, and uncomfortable degrees of novelty and change.

Still, much of the distress is avoidable.  While major disasters sometimes happen in a split second, lightning-strike style, most of the time disasters are created by bad decisions in the face of moderate adversity.  Poor judgment creates compound negative karma.  The shit (debt, ill will, unmet obligations, clutter, arterial plaque, excess body fat, overdue tax forms, repressed emotions, legal problems, child support payments, micro-fractures in the pipeline, engine gunk) piles up.

It’s helpful to remember that almost anything can be rebuilt, relearned, fixed, paid off, or at least atoned for.  When the shit hits the fan, or the going gets tough, the cool head prevails (and if you find yourself in a deep hole, stop digging).

Intentional Reboot / Emergency Eject

Ejection seat.

Some of us exist in supportive, loving networks.  Children who have this advantage are lucky.  Adults in supportive networks (of friends, family, co-workers, communities) have probably either created them or sought them out consciously.  If, for whatever reason, you find yourself in a highly destructive network (a spouse or parent who beats you, a tyrannical boss trying to break you, a country engaged in attempted genocide against your ethnicity) then intentional cybernetic discombobulation is the only solution.  You have to eject out of your own life, leaving everything that is familiar, understood, and stable behind.  You will have to rebuild all your survival and support systems from scratch.

I’ve never had to do this myself, but I have tremendous admiration for people who do.  I can only imagine the bravery and fortitude of spirit required to resist inertia to this degree, to purposefully uproot your life and begin anew (instead of waiting around to be destroyed by your past mistakes or the hand fate dealt you).  You would think, if a person is miserable enough, that it would be an easy decision, but I don’t think that’s the case (though hitting the eject button may be easier for those people who naturally crave novelty and adventure).

What’s My Point?

My smaller point is that some disasters or disruptions can be prevented or mitigated via various measures.  My larger point is that we each have an identity within framework of multiple layers of networks (somatic/ecological, social/familial, cultural/societal/economic/technological), and that these networks will invariably get disrupted from time to time.  When we want to pursue our self interest, we need to consider, at the very least, the interests and well-being of the nodes closest to us within our various networks.  And if our networks are destroying us (or are on the path to destroying us), we need to eject and find (or create) a new network.

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6 Comments

  1. This statement in this post reflects a common misunderstanding: “Cybernetics usually refers to automation and control systems in machines…”

    Cybernetics was specifically called out by its creators in the 1940s — who were anthropologists (Margaret Mead), linguists (Gregory Bateson), psychiatrists (Ross Ashby, Grey Walter), philosophers (Northrop Frye), physicists (Heinz von Foerster), neurophysiologists (Warren McCulloch) and many others — as a trans-disciplinary enquiry that was independent of embodiment: the system under scrutiny could be biological, technological (mechanical, electronic, …), social, or any combination. The key ideas of cybernetics are that [1] systems can be viewed as having goals and the relation of such systems to their environment requires circularity.

    That is the important contribution of cybernetics—the recognition of goal-directed systems and what is required for their functioning, independent of their make-up. Because of robotics, AI, and other domains that drew on cybernetics but have greater fame, such misunderstandings have arisen.

  2. Thanks for your comment Paul. I thought I was playing a little loose with the word “cybernetic,” but perhaps not. Cybernetic discombobulation = disruption in habituated feedback systems.

  3. Another absolutely incredible, spot on post. I’m terrified/excited how little thoughts I think about in the past month miraculously appear as a full blown post on your blog. Have you tried submitting these articles to LifeHacker.com or similar sites? I think it might drive some much deserved traffic!

  4. Thanks Jason — I think we are thinking along similar lines these days. I saw Renee at Qoöl and she mentioned you are moving back to SF? That’s great news — I look forward to hanging out.

    I do submit a link once in awhile. Some crazy traffic from reddit pops up now and then.

  5. nefnie

    great post jd

  6. Thiago

    Very creative article. How many books have you read in your lifetime if you mind me asking? I like the point about entropy and backing up our most important assets. These are the things I have been doing to live an increasingly mobile lifefstyle. With the emergence of the 2TB SD Card, we’ll most definitely have more space at home and in the office. It will cause other forms of entropy though, such as security issues.

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