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Between an Animal and a Machine

Stanisław Lem’s Technological Utopia


Paweł Majewski

The subject of this book is the philosophy of Stanisław Lem. The first part contains an analysis and interpretation of one of his early works, The Dialogues. The author tries to show how Lem used the terminology of cybernetics to create a project of sociology and anthropology. The second part examines Lem’s essay Summa technologiae, which is considered as the project of human autoevolution. The term «autoevolution» is a neologism for the concept of humans taking control over their own biological evolution and form in order to improve the conditions of their being. In this interpretation, Summa is an example of a liberal utopia, based on the assumption that all human problems can be resolved by science. Various social theories, which can be linked to the project of autoevolution, are presented in the final part.

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2 Cybernetics in Poland

2Cybernetics in Poland

The situation of cybernetics in Poland was peculiar. Up until 1956 it was seen as “a reactionary pseudoscience … a form of contemporary mechanicism … targeted against materialistic dialectics, against contemporary scientific philosophy established by I. P. Pavlov, and against a scientific approach to the laws of social life.”29 After that date, the political pendulum swung to the other side and very quickly – within a few years – cybernetics was made one of the main disciplines in the USSR, which was certainly connected to the utopian endeavors in social engineering undertaken there. Wiener and Ashby were translated into Russian in the 1950s.30 Many volumes of translations from Western languages were published, as well as Russian works. The boom lasted until the 1970s and it quickly spread into USSR’s satellite states.

First, in 1957, a number of translations of minor books were released; in 1959 Henryk Greniewski published his Elementy cybernetyki sposobem niematematycznym wyłożone [Elements of cybernetics laid out in a non-mathematical manner],31 in 1960 Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings came ←23 | 24→out, and in 1961 – Ashby’s Introduction to Cybernetics.32 The dates are important: they clearly show that Lem’s Dialogues, which were first published in 1957 and were largely based on works by Wiener and Ashby, which Lem read in original English, were bound to fall on deaf ears.33 It could hardly have been otherwise in a country where a year earlier the word “cybernetics” would have been used in the context defined by Krótki słownik filozoficzny [“A short dictionary of philosophy”]34 – if at all. In Lem’s essay Niebezpieczne związki [“Dangerous liaisons”] (1962), devoted to vain attempts to apply Shannon’s theory of information in the humanities, there is a following remark: “Eleven years ago I sat in the Czytelnik café in front of a learned gathering who were to decide about the publishing of The Magellan Nebula. This harmless book aimed for teenagers, was accused of smuggling, among other things, cybernetics, which I have not managed to successfully camouflage with a pompous term ‘mechaneuristics’.”35 Moreover, as usual, Lem never provided any of the most basic explanations, instead dropping the reader right into the middle of his own observations, which constituted a very unorthodox approach to cybernetics. I shall try to prove how unorthodox it was later, for now suffice it to say that it could not have made understanding Dialogues any easier for the readers of their first edition (or the following ones). ←24 | 25→

Lem should then be located outside the entire Polish cybernetics – and it needs to be emphasized right away here. It is telling that one would search in vain for references to texts by Polish cyberneticists in his works, or even for their names. From the Annexes to Dialogues, it is clear that Lem saw the fall of cybernetics a few years before others saw its greatness.

Let us not get ahead of ourselves though. In 1962 the Polish Society of Cybernetics (PTC) was set up; its first chairman was Oskar Lange. The same year, he published a treaty titled Calość i rozwój w świetle cybernetyki [“Totality and development in light of cybernetics”], which includes an attempt at a cybernetic interpretation of Marxist laws of social development.36 Summing up his very mathematical arguments, Lange suggests that cybernetics allows for discarding earlier philosophical interpretations of development processes:

All these qualities, characteristic of biological processes, occur in a variety of physical and chemical processes, as well as sociological and economic ones. They occur in automata built by humans too. The intellectual apparatus provided by cybernetics allows us to explain them without recourse to the notion of an immaterial being, which would regulate the dynamics of nature and social development: to any “life force,” “entelechy,” “elan vital,” “soul”, “spirit of the time” or “spirit of a nation,” Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” etc. At the same time this explanation does not negate the empirical fact that systems have a way of operating which cannot be derived from the ways of operating characteristic of its constitutive elements; they have their own law of development, and, finally, under certain conditions the development of any system is an ergodic process,37 in which developmental disorders disappear with time, and the period of a process’s ergodicity may be limited, the pace of disorders retraction and their scale which does not affect the system, can change over time, etc.38

This passage follows the same line as other attempts at determining the philosophical context of cybernetics (to which I will return later), and it is certainly the most intellectually thorough among Polish authors (Lem excluded).

After Lange’s death (1965), Henryk Greniewski took over as a chairman of PTC – the most famous popularizer of cybernetics at the time. PTC initiated ←25 | 26→a publishing series at PWN titled Information and Control. A Series Devoted to Cybernetics. Wiener’s first Cybernetics was published in the series in 1971. A year earlier it published a book by Józef Konieczny titled Cybernetyka walki [“Cybernetics of combat”]. The conclusions of chapter two (Łańcuch niszczenia [“Chain of destruction”]) are as follows:

Summing up all that has been said so far about the chain, system and destruction, one can provide a few precise conclusions that will be pertinent for a military cyberneticist.

(1)Targeted destruction is a peculiar kind of action, which can only take place as part of a chain of destruction.

(2)A destroyer consisting of a shooter, crew, weapon and missiles is a crucial component of any chain of destruction.

(3)A theory of destruction based on at least four axioms: self-destruction, common sense, shield and sword, as well as universal destructibility seems close to reality …

(6)Any object belonging to the chain of destruction can be in any state among three categories: vitality, readiness or activity …

(8)Connections between elements are an important immaterial element of any chain; connections human-human and human-machine have a primary role.

(9)History of any chain of destruction can be divided into three separate phases: composition, implementation and use …

(11)Chains and their surroundings form systems of destruction, among which we can distinguish specifically destroying and destroyed systems … (78–79)

The author defined each notion in the fragment quoted above (such as “destroyer,” “weapon,” “shooter”) precisely, using algebraic formulae. However, the explanatory power of these definitions is no bigger than that of the “conclusions” I have quoted here. The fact that works of Wiener and Józef Konieczny fill the same shelf is a clear symptom of the backwardness of Polish cybernetics.

In 1973 Mały słownik cybernetyczny [“A small dictionary of cybernetics”] was published, resembling similar publications in the USSR and East Germany.39 It brought together the knowledge about complex systems and controlling them available at the time. It included information about computers available at that point, about neurophysiological processes (to the extent to which they had been researched by then) numerous entries on the theory of probability and game theory, as well as a mention that Norbert Wiener had family roots in Poland.40

In 1978 PTC started publishing a quarterly Postępy Cybernetyki [“Developments in Cybernetics”], which would come out up until 1993. The Institute for Research ←26 | 27→on Systems at the Polish Academy of Sciences still publishes a quarterly Control and Cybernetics. Both periodicals mostly consist of detailed expert treaties on various aspects of control in technical systems.

Oskar Lange and Henryk Greniewski treated cybernetics the way scientists usually treat their fields: as a tool to describe reality, but not as a key to the ultimate truth and theory of everything. Unfortunately, other Polish cyberneticists failed to follow this path.

The most famous among them at some point was Marian Mazur (1909–1983). He was an engineer by training, and a professor at the Warsaw University of Technology, who created a system of cybernetic psychology, laid out in his big oeuvre, Cybernetyka i charakter [“Cybernetics and character”].41 The book reiterates words like “homeostat,” “feedback,” “information” and system as a mundane mantra; it is replete with mathematical formulae and diagrams that are supposed to depict the functioning of human psyche, and it is permeated with the author’s devotion to scientific precision. The first chapter includes – a very accurate – list of sixteen differences between a scientist and a doctrinarian. The problem is, though, that his own theory and the way he lays it out makes it seem like a doctrine much more than a science in light of his own argument, which makes it ironic. Most of the book is taken up by enunciations about the advantages of cybernetics over other sciences and a discussion of the functioning of human psyche in cybernetic terms. The latter, however, has nothing to do with Wiener and his colleagues’ research on nervous system, as Mazur is not interested in the physiological aspects of psychology. His arguments are merely a transposition of one terminology to another: classic (not to say common sense) psychological notions (such as character, temperament, emotions and impulses) are translated into cybernetic concepts. The entire operation remains unrelated to any empirical data, but it relies heavily on “life truths” that are scattered among innumerable prepositions, formulae and graphs. The crowning moment of Mazur’s argument is the concept of five “dynamic types of character” (exodynamic, exostatic, static, endostatic and endodynamic), which, combined, can produce hundreds of configurations. Mazur is convinced it constitutes an absolute sum of knowledge about human character, grounded in unshakeable foundations of cybernetics and mathematics. Each type is illustrated with examples from literature and ←27 | 28→history: Horace, Caligula, Proust and Carmen represent the exodynamic character; Petronius from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis serves as an example of an exostatic character, while Caesar and Cromwell – endodynamic and so forth.

Mazur’s work is one of the countless attempts to overcome humanities’ perennial weaknesses: blurriness of notions. It is an attempt, which sees cybernetics as a remedy to this ailment – a science combining physics and biology, which in Mazur’s view consequently included mathematics and psychology. The attempt ended the same way as all other endeavors of the kind: confirming an old truth that in the humanities precision in terminology is paid for with their meaning. The book’s reviews published by scholars in the humanities basically all boiled down to this one point.42 Nevertheless it became quite popular with technicians and engineers, and the author spent the last few years surrounded by a circle of loyal followers (the so-called “Mazurians”). Traces of Mazur’s influence can be seen in writings of an eminent Polish scholar of religions, Andrzej Wierciński.

Lange applied cybernetics to economy, Mazur – to psychology, and Józef Kossecki undertook an ambitious attempt to apply it in social sciences. Kossecki saw himself as Mazur’s disciple and had a passion for quoting him extensively. He accepted Mazur’s theory of psychological types. His most important achievements include two books: Cybernetyka kultury [“Cybernetics of culture”]43 and Cybernetyka społeczna [“Social cybernetics”].44 The first one discusses history and culture – globally – in terms of cybernetics. Here, too, those terms have no connection to their homonyms known from the works of Wiener, Ashby and their forerunners. When analyzing history, Kossecki relies on syntheses and popular works about foreign cultures written by other specialists. The result is a “third-degree essay” of sorts – a text based on texts that are already a rewriting of other texts, but which are treated as source material. The distance from any actual sources, historical, cultural or even cybernetic is monstrous. I will quote a passage about the history and culture of Poland. It is representative of the whole work.

Analogous processes are observed in the history of the Polish nation. During feudalism we had strong nobility, which served as a homeostat. However, as capitalism developed the nobility was growing weaker, becoming less and less capable of serving as a nation’s homeostat, while the Polish bourgeoisie was not strong enough. It is no surprise that this is the period when the country was partitioned – the absence of a strong social class ←28 | 29→serving as the nation’s homeostat at that time increased the likelihood of the fall of the entire state – although, of course, this was not the sole reason of the fall. (81)

In the later work, Cybernetyka społeczna, Kossecki’s ambitions have grown and the contents of the previous book are elaborated upon extensively. The author produced detailed analyses of economic and historical processes, focusing on modern Europe and introducing his periodization (whereas earlier he would only roughly separate epochs). For example, chapter 13 is titled “Cybernetic Analysis of International Politics,” and its section 13.3 is “Cybernetic analysis of international politics between the Congress of Vienna and the First World War.” For each of the periods, the author calculates the percentage of “control factors” for each country in the global political scene. A yet newer work by Józef Kossecki featuring cybernetics (but also discussing the role of secret organizations in history and politics) has an extremely long title, which is nevertheless worth quoting in full: Elementy nowoczesnej wiedzy o sterowaniu ludźmi. Socjotechnika, socjocybernetyka, psychocybernetyka. Skrypt dla oficerów policji [“Elements of modern science of human control. Social engineering, sociocybernetics and psychocybernetics. A manual for police officers”]. He recommends Marian Mazur’s theory as a modern useful tool for police investigators.

One could expect that Józef Kossecki is the last link in the intellectual chain of Polish social cybernetics. That is not the case however. In 1986 the “Książka i Wiedza” publishing house released a book by Olgierd Cetwiński, titled Między buntem a pokorą [“Between revolt and submissiveness”]. In the introduction the author declares himself indebted to Mazur and Kossecki’s achievements. It is a study of cybernetic psychology and political sciences, in which the terminology of cybernetics (or rather, by then, merely cybernetic imagery) has become even blurrier than in the writings of Cetwiński’s idols. The last chapter (“Quo vadis, Polonia?”) contains a cybernetic account of Polish history between 1795 and 1981. Here is an excerpt:

… the Polish Enlightenment is a period when a dynamic template of correlational homeostasis developed. The process was powerful: even though the Polish society had been incorporated into other typically homeostatic systems (the dynamic Prussian one, and the more stagnant Russian and Austrian ones), it managed to retain its own type of homeostasis, and even grew its own homeostat and its own battery to some extent. The invaders realized that. Hence their later efforts – coming after the failed uprisings – aimed at disempowering the Polish correlator … The nation’s survival through the partitions was largely – if not solely – made possible by the fact that it retained a correlational system of homeostasis. It will not be an exaggeration to compare it to the type known from Athens. (298–299) ←29 | 30→

The above gives an idea about the Polish works on social cybernetics. It is worth adding that in 1988 Piotr Sienkiewicz – the editor-in-chief of Postępy Cybernetyki – published a book Poszukiwanie Golema. O cybernetyce i cybernetykach [“Searching for Golem. On cybernetics and cyberneticists”].45 It is an intelligent and thorough overview of the history and themes of the field. The author writes: “If I were to point to one of the living authors as ‘the father’ of social cybernetics, I would point to Stanisław Lem with no hesitation” (118). I fear, however, that Lem would not approve of the idea that he might have been the spiritual father to Marian Mazur and Józef Kossecki – nor would they likely be satisfied with the concept.

This overview of Polish social cybernetics should not be treated as a full picture of the discipline as a whole, not in Poland, and certainly not in the world in general. It would be an extremely distorted image. Technical cybernetics and bionics developed quite differently; they never lacked precision, quite the opposite: precision and narrow subject matters locate them at the other end of the spectrum than the lucubrations I have quoted. It proves the diversity within the field of cybernetics, which I have pointed out before. Where did it come from?

The answer requires that I produce an interpretation of the phenomenon of cybernetics in the science and culture of the 20th century. I will make such an attempt – preliminary, of course – and it will be the final part of my introduction to an analysis of Lem’s Dialogues.

29Krótki słownik filozoficzny, ed. by M. Rozental and P. Judin (Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1955), 76–77.

30For example: Wiener’s Kibernetika i obshchestvo, 1958, and Ashby’s, Vvedenie v kibernetiku, 1959, with an introduction by Kolmogorov; Wiener’s autobiography was also translated, as well as his minor essays, such as “God and Golem, Inc. A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion,” was translated as: “Tvorets i robot. Obnizdenie niekotorych problem, v kotorych kibernetika stalkivaetsja s religiej.”

31Henryk Greniewski (1903–1972) was a logician and a mathematician, a professor at the University of Warsaw, a disciple of Tadeusz Kotarbiński; cf. Elementy… (Warszawa: PWN, 1959); his other books on cybernetics include Cybernetyka z lotu ptaka (Warszawa: KiW, 1959), 2nd edition amended and co-authored by Maria Kempisty (Warszawa: KiW, 1962); or Cybernetyka niematematyczna (Warszawa: PWN, 1969). In the latter book, part one repeats the text of Elementy…, while part two consists of Greniewski’s original input to the theory of complex systems, while part three includes his theory of Golems, that is, “models imitating humans in at least one of the following areas: (1) imagination and dreams; (2) mastering language or languages; (3) conceptual thinking (especially deduction); (4) introspection”; this part is accompanied by a rich “Historical background” section. Greniewski’s works are elegant, clear and precise.

32William Ross Ashby, Wstęp do cybernetyki, trans. by B. Osuchowska and A. Gosiewski (Warszawa: PWN, 1961); 2nd edition 1963 [original edition: An Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Chapman & Hall, 1958)]. It is an extensive, formal description of the functioning of a general model of a machine as a complex system (automaton), with a transition to biological systems in part three; it includes numerous references to Shannon’s mathematical theory of information.

33“I have probably written this book too early, so all these issues seemed outworldly and did not resonate as a whole, it went to waste completely” (Tako rzecze … Lem, 84).

34It is telling to read Dialogi o cybernetyce [“Dialogues on cybernetics”] by Stanisław Bogusławski, Henryk Greniewski and Jerzy Szapiro from that perspective. The text was published in a quarterly Myśl filozoficzna [no. 4 (1954), 158–212]. In the introduction the authors write: “Dialogues are between a supporter of cybernetics – Z., and its critic – K. They are both conceived as members of the contemporary academic circles of the Polish People’s Republic. The critic wants to subject cybernetics to a judgment from a Marxist point of view, whereas the supporter is a person of good will who wants to follow the progress of science, but he does not always choose the right path.” The last sentence from Z. is: “After all, you are inviting an ex-follower of cybernetics [to join you in a thorough research – PM].” There are six dialogues. Lem probably read them and they might have influenced the form of his own Dialogues to some extent, but certainly not their content.

35Trans. by Olga Kaczmarek from the Polish edition: Stanisław Lem, Mój pogląd na literaturę (Kraków: WL, 2003), 15.

36It was included in the last volume of Lange’s collected works: Oskar Lange, Dzieła, vol. 7, Cybernetics (Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne, 1977), 375; part one: Cybernetyka a filozofia [“Cybernetics and philosophy”] and part two: Cybernetyka i ekonomia [“Cybernetics and economy”].

37Ergodic process – a process during which information about the system’s initial state disappears; ergodic theory, one of the fields of statistical mechanics, studies ergodic processes.

38Oskar Lange, Dzieła (Warszawa: PWE, 1977), vol. 7, 84–85.

39Mały słownik cybernetyczny, ed. by M. Kempisty (Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna, 1973), 533.

40Mały słownik …, 504.

411st edition (Warsaw: PIW, 1976); amended 2nd edition came out with a subtitle Psychologia XXI wieku [“Psychology of the 21st century”] (Podkowa Leśna: Wydawnictwo Aula, 1996); 3rd edition (Warszawa: Wyższa Szkoła Zarządzania i Przedsiębiorczości im. Bogdana Jańskiego w Warszawie, 1999).

42Cf. Małgorzata Szpakowska, “Z życia żółwi,” Twórczość, no. 4 (1977), 119–122.

43Józef Kossecki, Cybernetyka kultury (Warszawa: PIW, 1974).

44Józef Kossecki, Cybernetyka społeczna (Warszawa: PWN, 1981); amended 2nd edition.

45Piotr Sienkiewicz, Poszukiwanie Golema. O cybernetyce i cybernetykach (Warszawa: KAW, 1988), 258. ←30 | 31→