Systems Seduction: The Aesthetics of Decentralisation
“Ecology in the widest sense turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (i.e. differences, complexes of differences) in circuits.”
Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind1Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972), p. 491.
How do we deal with unimaginable complexity? Today, the prospect of ecological crisis looms over our every move, as new technologies unfurl absentmindedly into the political realm, somehow managing to disrupt a biosphere in the process. In so many areas of art and science, our situation demands that we think in terms of heterogenous systems and porous boundaries. Today, as the artist Hito Steyerl once put it, ‘an upload comes down as a shitstorm.’
What is lost and what is found when we answer the call to think ‘ecosystemically’? In what follows, I want to take a step back, in order to contextualize the resurgence of the ‘systems approach’ and its bearing on how we understand technology and society. In doing so, I consider this nebulous discourse as a both an ontological enquiry and increasingly, a design brief. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, the political economist Adam Smith refers to the ‘spirit of system’ as an ‘intoxicating’ impulse which is ‘founded upon the love of humanity’, yet whose trajectory can also be ‘[inflamed] to the madness of fanaticism’. For Smith, the zealous ‘man of system’ imagines he can ‘arrange different members of a great society' like pieces on a chess board.
I call this the aesthetics of decentralization because it deals not with a particular set of facts, but something more like a diagram, a ‘spirit’, and a mode of production visible across many disciplines, throughout the last century and increasingly in the present. Here I follow the philosopher Jacques Rancière’s understanding of aesthetics as the ‘distribution of the sensible’, a sensorial training through which we learn to acknowledge the world, and correspondingly, the techniques by which the world is ‘given’ to our senses.
The Seduction of Systems
The history of systems thinking is a story of desire and anxiety, as Norbert Wiener, the pioneer of cybernetics, knew well. ‘Like the red queen’, he wrote, ‘we are running as fast as we can just to stay where we are’.’
is […] organizing or disorganizing. This means that any human activity, whether it is technical, social, cognitive or artistic, can be considered as some material of organizational experience and be explored from the organizational point of view.7George Gorelik, ‘Bogdanov's Tektology: Its Nature, Development and Influence’ in Studies in Soviet Thought, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jul., 1983), p. 40.
Tectology is seldom discussed today, but readers of Wiener’s cybernetics or Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s general systems theory should notice deep affinities with those later sciences of organization within Bogdanov’s writing. Later, Wiener would argue that ‘information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day.’
Bogdanov’s ideas echoed a late-nineteenth century impulse towards a totalizing system of nature, combining the natural sciences with a nascent social science and moral philosophy. The term ‘tectology’ was in fact borrowed from the German artist and naturalist, Ernst Haeckel (renowned for his richly detailed illustrations of flora and fauna), who coined it to describe the ‘science of structures in the organic individual.’ For Haeckel, the organization of biological species formed part of a ‘world riddle’, by which he understood the nature of matter and energy to be consistent with that of consciousness.
For Spencer, the growth of increasingly complex systems produced a ‘mutual dependency between parts’ by which different ‘organisms’ could be understood by analogy. Moving fluidly between scientific inquiry and social comment, he mobilized his theories in support of a radically libertarian agenda which was at turns utilitarian, individualist and ultimately, profoundly conservative. A fierce critic of social reform, he viewed social welfare as enslavement to the state; societies, like species, were subject to the ‘survival of the fittest’ (a phrase he coined), and thus develop most ideally unrestrained by government. Indeed, today Spencer is perhaps best remembered (along with Haeckel) as one of the founding thinkers of what became Social Darwinism, a discourse whose darker tones led to eugenics. ‘The law of organic process’, he wrote, ‘is the law of all progress’.
Ecology and the Rationalization of Nature
As Adam Smith observed, a utopian impulse underlies the ‘spirit of system’. ('Whose utopia?’, remains the question). Furthermore, systems are beautiful: modern, biologically inclined theories of organization were not mechanistic, but unpredictable, dynamic and creative. They invoke a choreography of lively actors whose aggregate local interactions seemed to produce a universal harmony. By intimating these rhythms and cadences, systems theory promised to reveal deep structures about the world. As a boy, Wiener was himself an aspiring naturalist; he would later reflect that ‘diagrams of complicated structures and the problems of growth and organization […] executed my interest fully as much as tales of adventure and discovery’.
The dawn of analogue electronics introduced the rational language of electrical engineering into the ecosystemic imaginary. Circuit notation enabled the spatial representation of dynamic systems through electrical schematics, lending systems theory the logical aura of mathematical equations. In the 1950s, the pioneer of systems ecology, Howard T. Odum, developed an ‘energy circuit language’ called ‘energese’. In his wide-ranging analysis of pine forests, atmospheric gas cycles, and socio-economic systems, Odum utilized an inventory of symbols borrowed directly from electronics, while also adding a host of his own, more abstract glyphs, such as a hexagon representing ‘self-regulation’, or dollar signs representing an economic transaction.
Inherently reductive in its methodology (Odum called his method a ‘detail eliminator’), the systems approach is characterized by a tension between its expansive application to ever more complex worlds which, in turn, would inevitably overflow its capture. Odum’s analysis is curiously resonant with the writings of surrealist French philosopher Georges Bataille, for whom the surplus energy of society — the ‘accursed share’ — would find its ultimate expression in the glorious excess of opulence or war. In the allegory of the ‘Solar Anus’, Bataille imagines the earth as a planetary organism, sublime and abject, in the cyclical throes of of erotic eruption. At every moment, like entropy’s ‘disordering fire’, the ontological anxiety of chaos seeped into the sciences of control. Whether in Spencer, Odum, or Bataille, the nominally rationalistic schema was seldom more than a few steps away from theodicy. In a very real sense’, Norbert Wiener would write in The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), ‘we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet.’
The Aesthetics of Decentralization
Like the cybernetics of Wiener and his colleagues, Odum’s systems ecology invoked a world of lively matter, both living and inert. ‘Purposeful mechanisms’, he wrote, ‘are self-organized into a decentralized program of ecosystem control.’
From the systems view, decentralization involved the automation of control: decentred from the behavior of individual agents, organization was an emergent property of the system as a whole. The idea that systems were, to some extent, essentially autonomous would be of powerful inspiration to artists, dreamers and technocrats alike. It evinced unpredictable, responsive and creative systems — more collaborator than instrument — producing intricate patterns of order far beyond their designers’ limited prescriptions. These patterns were to be found everywhere, from computational cellular automata to the distribution of human societies. Stewart Brand’s countercultural ‘bible’ of the late 1960s, The Whole Earth Catalog, is littered with references to chaos theory, ecological metabolisms and ‘whole systems’. For Brand, Buckminster Fuller and other leading futurists of the hippy generation, the beauty of self-organization affirmed the ‘bottom-up’ transformation of society and the self, against the destruction wrought by centralized governments and corporations. Self-organization gave them hope: the dissemination of technology and knowledge would engender forms of individual self-actualization they believed necessary for a more utopian society to take shape.
In 1968, Jack Burnham, an artist and writer who was then a fellow of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, published an essay entitled ‘Systems Esthetics’. ‘We are now in transition’, declared Burnham, ‘from an object-oriented culture to a systems-oriented culture.’ For Burnham, the ‘creation of stable, on-going relationships between organic and non-organic systems’ within all ‘matrixes of human activity’ was now the primary context for artistic and aesthetic investigation.
Meanwhile, over at RAND corporation, Paul Baran was working on the schematics for a distributed communications network which would become ARPANET, the precursor to the internet. The principles of decentralized organization reified the idea that stability and control could be built into a system through its morphological, protocological and infrastructural design. Not only were decentralized systems more resilient to perturbation, their asynchronous logistics and self-regulating feedback could efficiently automate complex processes once relegated to burdensome (and vulnerable) centralized management. Again, Bogdanov was prescient here. In his science-fiction novel Red Star (1908), the Soviet theorist imagines a decentralized, self-regulating economic organization known as the ‘Institute of Statistics’. Set in a communist society on Mars, the ‘Institute’ would
keep track of the flow of goods into and out of the stockpiles and monitor the productivity of all enterprises and the changes in their work forces. […] The Institute then computes the difference between the existing and the desired situation for each vocational area and communicates the result to all places of employment. Equilibrium is soon established by a stream of volunteers.23Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star, translated by Loren Raymond Graham and Richard Stites. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,  1984), p. 66.
Bogdanov’s technocratic utopia, imagined four decades before the invention of computers, bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘smart cities’ of today, in which omniscient sensors and ubiquitous computing promise to solve all manner of socio-technical challenges. In Bogdanov’s city, through a non-coercive machinery of urban-scale regulation and control, ‘equilibrium is soon established’ by a labors of a voluntary citizenry. As the historian of science Orit Halpern points out, contemporary ubiquitous computing is ‘imagined as necessary to supplant, and displace, the role of democratic governance.’
Therein lies the contemporary dogma of decentralization. Since the early days of the internet, the design of decentralized information networks have developed in tandem with the libertarian ideal that, with technologies to ensure the secure and unfettered communication between individuals, governance would organize itself. Though the early dreams of crypto-anarchy were short-lived, the dramatic and egregious centralization of power on the internet by corporations and states in the past two decades has returned the question of decentralization to the fore. The emergence of blockchain’s decentralized, ‘trustless’ networks are perhaps the most concrete iteration of this fantasy to date. Viewed energetically, ‘proof-of-work’ implementations of blockchain automate the labor of institutional ‘trust’ to the cryptographic infrastructure of the network, securing by algorithmic consensus and computational work, rather than the physical, political and emotional labor involved in forming and maintaining social institutions. Similarly, smart contracts bind individuals via the insurance of executable code, rather than a social contract per se.
Even if we are to ignore proof-of-work’s disastrous impact on the environment, the contemporary discourse around crypto-currencies largely rests on the notion that with the right technological conditions, politics and society will follow — in this case in the direction of individual emancipation from silos of institutional power. As journalists Michael Casey and Paul Vigna write in The Age of Cryptocurrency, ‘It speaks to the tantalizing prospect that we can take away power […] from the banks, governments, lawyers [...] and transfer it to the periphery, to We, the People.’
My intention here is not to dismiss the potentials of distributed ledger technologies, which clearly represent a important milestone in the development of secure, decentralized databases. Rather, it is to reject the implication that technological decentralization in our ever more informatic world is inherently aligned with a more progressive trajectory for society as a whole. Despite the cacophony of political conjecture, the story of blockchain so far is a tale of financial speculation, in which the cash rewards reaped by bankers and venture capitalists are largely a result of the techno-utopian hype. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The prospect of decentralizing control does not absolve us of the hard work of politics, and blockchain has so far failed to transfer power to ‘We, the people’, whatever the white papers might claim. Political economy cannot be replaced by technology alone. As Karl Marx understood over a century ago, the worth we attach to technological progress is not intrinsic: it is only as valuable as the relations amongst people that they produce. Today, technological wealth produced by society as a whole largely oils the machinery of capitalist accumulation for the few. While we have yet to witness the decentralization of control, the collective wealth produced by of the decentralization of production — that is, the ‘sharing economy’, the big data industry, and other platforms that monetize our daily social interactions — remains firmly in the service of exploitative (centralized) corporations. Whether in logistical services like Uber or social media platforms like Facebook, it is not so difficult — nor even particularly radical — to imagine decentralized, peer-to-peer services which value is produced by and for society as a whole. Nonetheless, it would require governance, by nationalization or other means: the distributed network is not identical to the commons.
What does it mean to design decentralized systems that sit so comfortably within the regime of contemporary capitalism? If our current systems are flawed, then the technologies we build cannot be tolerant of the power structures in which we’re enmeshed — attending to business as usual, albeit at accelerated pace. ‘All is well since all grows better,’ reflected the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, happily inspired by Spencer’s evolutionist thought. Uncritically, the seductive power of the systems approach seems to reveal an intricate map that affirms the ‘nature of things’ as the way they ought to be — a conservative tendency that must be resisted. As the feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks declare in their ‘Xenofeminist’ manifesto, ‘if nature is unjust, change nature!’.
In ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, the feminist technology scholar Donna Haraway describes an emancipatory figure that is ‘wary of holism, but needy of connection.’
Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women, (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 151.
Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010), p. 70.
Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, p. 154.
 Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972), p. 491.
 Hito Steyerl, ‘Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?’, E-flux Journal #49, November 2013. URL: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/49/60004/too-much-world-is-the-internet-dead/
 Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford: Oxford University Press,  1976), p. 185.
 The word ‘data’ originates in the Latin ‘to give’, or ‘that is given’.
 Norbert Wiener, I am a Mathematician, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964), p. 324.
 Quoted in Arvid Nelson, Cold War Ecology (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), p. xvi.
 The word “tectology” was first coined by Ernst Haeckel to describe the “science of structures in the organic individual”, though Bogdanov generalised the term. The Science of Life, 97
 George Gorelik, ‘Bogdanov's Tektology: Its Nature, Development and Influence’ in Studies in Soviet Thought, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jul., 1983), p. 40.
 Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (London: Free Association Books,  1989), p. 132.
 Gorelik, ‘Bogdanov's Tektology’, p. 40.
 Ernst Haeckel, Monism as Connecting Religion and Science, trans J. Gilchrist (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1895), p. 46.
 Quoted in Walter M. Simon, ’Herbert Spencer and the “Social Organism”’, in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr. - Jun., 1960), p. 295.
 Quoted in Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labour in Society, trans. W. D. Halls (New York: Free Press, 1997), p. 98.
 Herbert Spencer, ’Progress: Its Law and Cause’ in Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative (London: Williams and Norgate, 1891), p. 9.
 Stephen Shapin, ‘Man with a Plan’, The New Yorker, August 13, 2017. URL: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/13/man-with-a-plan
 Norbert Wiener, Ex-Prodigy: My Childhood and Youth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1953), p. 64.
 Karl Marx, Capital Volume I (New York: The Modern Library, 1906), p. 198.
 Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1977), p. 12.
 Explored in depth in: Irina Chernyakova, ‘Systems of Valuation’, M.Arch thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013.
 Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings, p. 40.
 Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power and Society, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007 ), p. 170.
 Jack Burnham, ‘Systems Esthetics’ in Artforum, September 1968., p. 31.
 Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montford, The New Media Reader, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), p. 253.
 Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star, translated by Loren Raymond Graham and Richard Stites. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,  1984), p. 66.
 Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), p. 25.
 Michael Casey and Paul Vigna, The Age of Cryptocurrency (New York: Picador, 2016), p. 8.
 Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation, URL: http://www.laboriacuboniks.net
 Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010), p. 70.