The Genealogy of Chinese Cybernetics
Qian Xuesen helped China gain nuclear weapons and theorized Dengist cybernetics. Although a brilliant physicist, he made dangerous missteps as an advisor to power.
Palladium Correspondent Dylan Levi King has come out with a new article on the history of cybernetic planning in China.
Cybernetics, generally known as computer science today, looks at the computer as not just a tool for calculations or executing tasks but as a model for the management of complex systems—from precision weapons to economies.
In the Soviet Union, cybernetics had mainly been used for central economic planning, but chronic underinvestment in computer technology prevented it from reaching its full potential. For a brief period, socialist Chile would use a centrally managed computer system, Project Cybersyn, to model and organize the national economy. But it was actually capitalist megacorporations that would perfect cybernetic techniques to manage the logistics of huge flows of goods and information.
Qian Xuesen (1911-2009) was a pioneer in the field. A Chinese national by birth, for a time he worked in the U.S. defense industry before unwarranted anti-communist pressure made him resign. After house arrest and a prisoner swap during the Korean War he returned to China, where the sweeping changes of the Great Leap Forward gave him the opportunity to implement theories of systems control he had only speculated about in the U.S.
But during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Qian Xuesen ran into consistent problems. Directives from Beijing were ignored by local cadres who saw them as too impractical or out of touch.
It’s also obvious now that Qian, despite being occasionally pressed into catching flies and digging latrines, did not have access to a full picture of what was going on.
A lack of insight into how policies would be received by the populace became a repeated issue in the implementation of cybernetic management. But this systems thinking would end becoming the basis for the One-child policy:
Three decades of communism in China had not extinguished the anti-natalist tendency that had consumed the elite since the New Culture Movement. Pro-natalist policies only held sway for a few years in the 1950s before the party answered the calls of the All-China Women’s Federation to provide contraception. It seems clear from the way that Song Jian writes about population growth that he was scientifically convinced, but also viscerally disgusted by surplus humanity:
In 1957, Mao Zedong said ironically: “In terms of child births, human beings seem to be least capable of controlling themselves and there does exist a situation of anarchism…” […] In 1964, seven years after Mao’s remarks, the second census showed an increase of another 100 million, making a total of 700 million. Soon the “Cultural Revolution” came. By 1969, even before people could extricate themselves from chaos and agony, an increase of another 100 million people was recorded. By 1974, the total reached 900 million. During that time, people lived in confinement, yet they were completely free to indulge themselves in reproductive capability.
He recalls from his 1978 visit that he was “extremely excited” and “determined to try” new cybernetic methods for population control. He did not have access to anything as sophisticated as the global simulations commissioned from MIT for The Limits to Growth, so he began by plotting population growth on Seventh Ministry computers using data pulled from state databases.
He gathered cybernetics experts from within the Seventh Ministry and the larger military-industrial ecosystem and began applying ideas from Qian’s systems engineering. Many of them came from the limited collection of cybernetic population theory papers he brought back from Helsinki.
His work involved finding “the feedback mechanism of [the] population system,” its parameters, and how to achieve optimal control. His conclusion, based on a model that took into account “studies of natural resources, the level of socioeconomic development, living standards, and ecological equilibrium” was that the target population for China should be 700 million. The only way to get there within a decade was by restricting all women to a single child.
Once he had a sound mathematical model, Song Jian, the cyberneticists, and Qian went to state planners with a plan to apply systems engineering to the problem of population growth.
It was easy to sell state planners on the conclusions arrived at by their model. The alternative would be runaway population numbers sandbagging modernization and economic growth. China began to implement the One-child policy in 1980.
What happened next was a chaotic social experiment that exposed just how hard it was to build a cybernetic political apparatus, especially one functioning on the level of a great power numbering hundreds of millions. As with the Leap, there was an extreme dichotomy between the level of institutional control that scientific planners assumed, as opposed to what the institutions were actually capable of.
The One-child policy would go on to be a humanitarian and political failure. Women were able to bribe local officials and give birth in different districts, and birth records were haphazardly shared between different government departments. The draconianism of the policy was probably unnecessary; urbanization, the education of women, and contraceptive availability seem to have caused a more effective fertility decline. If anything, low fertility could threaten China’s demographic future.
Political attempts at cybernetic planning—both in China and elsewhere—have never overcome the problem of limited sensors and weak effectors. The ubiquity of mobile internet technology and surveillance, the advances in artificial intelligence, the improvement of bureaucratic information sharing, and the mechanisms to integrate private with government data have not sharpened sensors so much as inundated them. Even with high-quality data and enormous computing power to sort through it all, there remains the problem of figuring out how to find the key signals, and how to do anything with them.
Qian and his successors had been skilled scientists, but poor political operators. They did not understand the degree to which disorder reigned in the rest of the country. Nor did they comprehend the real signals on which officials made decisions. While the researchers worked away in their labs, local officials calibrated their plans by who was winning the factional battles in the central party, which they figured out by soothsayer-like interpretation of slogans, headlines, and turns of phrase from the leadership.
The paradox of cybernetic governance is that it uses signals to make decisions that will generate new signals. On an abstract level, or that of an actual computer, all the inputs and outputs are perfectly knowable. But the workarounds, information overloads, and communication errors inherent to human social organization will always confound attempts at automated governance. There will always need to be someone making decisions from first principles.
Event in Palo Alto
Palladium Correspondent Ginevra Davis is giving a talk for the Zephyr Institute in Palo Alto on October 19th. This event will be a good opportunity to meet Palladium readers, writers, and editors. We look forward to seeing you there—we’ll also be bringing some back issues of our print editions to view! You can register for the event here.
Since 2013, Stanford has been consistently ranked first by students and parents as “America’s Dream School.” However, in the past decade, Stanford’s administration has systematically destroyed the wild and experimental campus life that made Stanford so desirable. The new social order – defined by unmarked houses with names like “550,” “680,” and “675” – offers a peek into the bureaucrat’s vision for America. Stanford is just one example of a broader movement that sees joy as inherently unequal and dangerous, or at least unnecessary. How can we fight back against the demonization of spontaneity? Is fun dead, or can the war on fun be a call to arms?
Drinks and snacks served at 5:15 p.m., with lecture and discussion to follow.
In the meantime, Ginevra’s article “Stanford’s War on Social Life” can be read here.
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Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
The Genealogy of Chinese Cybernetics by Dylan Levi King. Qian Xuesen helped China gain nuclear weapons and theorized Dengist cybernetics. Although a brilliant physicist, he made dangerous missteps as an advisor to power.
The Transformations of Science by Geoff Anders. Science originated in taking no one at their word, but today we’re told to “trust the science.” Can we balance these two impulses?
Science Needs Sovereigns by Samo Burja. Powerful individuals are the best allies to crazy new ideas. Science is no exception.
Palladium Podcast 81: Dylan Levi King on East Asian Ecotheology. Dylan Levi King joins Wolf Tivy to discuss his featured 07 article on North Korean environmentalist policies, Japanese whaling, and the ecotheology that undergirds them.
When Elite Physicists Advised Washington by Brian Balkus. In 1959, the U.S. government gave an elite group of physicists classified information and free reign to research. The JASON program’s rise and fall tracks a golden age of American science.
That’s all for now.