China's mass surveillance and pervasive social controls are based on a rocket scientist's advocacy for "systems thinking"


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/03/15/wuli-shili-renli.html


#2

So Mccarthyism is responsible for the Chinese nuclear program.?


#3

Not responsible, but seems like it helped.


#4

Deporting people is often good for the country that receives them. First thing we do, let’s kick out all our talent!


#5

This isn’t what I think of when I think of systems thinking, but I suppose it fits the category…


#6

Why the scare quotes around the phrase systems thinking? It isn’t some bogeyman, nor is it some communist plot. It’s increasingly used in design science, ecology, management, etc, to help understand why simplistic, reductionist solutions often fail. For a great primer, try:


(which is much better than its title would suggest).

And the original article is entirely wrong when it says “In the West, systems engineering’s heyday has long passed”. Try telling that to anyone working on large aerospace projects today.


#7

Yeah, it kinda surprised me to learn that we deported a teaching scientist at JPL. He tried to go back to China but we arrested him and exchanged him for some missing pilots which seems like a good way to piss someone off who knows an awful lot about making some really dangerous weapons.
And I’ll never understand how the “greatest generation” went along with the Red Scare crap. Suddenly in this supposedly free nation, you could be arrested for liking a political system. Greatest generation my ass.


#8

I’ll take your word for it. Usually I give books with “for managers” in the title a wide berth.
Not that I haven’t thought about writing one myself.


#9

Definitely not a communist plot, but I think that it was popular among some communists and socialists in the 1970’s as a dynamic alternative to Soviet-style grain- and widget-quotas. i.e. You try to get the dynamical system (balancing supply and demand, etc) aspects of market economies without capitalism. I think that this was part of the idea of Chile’s Project Cybersyn:

I might have read about that here; I forget.


#10

Project Cybersyn gets a mention (although not by name) in John Brunner’s excellent novel The Shockwave Rider (Ballantine, 1975):

When the short-lived Allende government was elected to power in Chile and needed a means of balancing that unfortunate country’s precarious economy, Allende appealed to the British cybernetics expert Stafford Beer.

Who announced that as few as ten significant quantities, reported from a handful of key locations where adequate communications facilities existed, would enable the state of the economy to be reviewed and adjusted on a day-to-day basis.

Judging by what happened subsequently, his claim infuriated nearly as many people as did the news that there are only four elements in the human genetic code.

– John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider


#11

Yeah, Stafford Beer’s Cybersyn project was definitely featured here, after Morozov wrote about it for the New Yorker. I’m amused that BBers are more likely to know about an obscure failed project in Chile than they are all the other work on Systems Thinking in the west, especially given how much it’s been a focus of research at MIT. How come, for example, Forrester’s work on simulation modelling, and the Limits to Growth study, aren’t better known? Or John Sterman’s work on systems thinking and climate change? Or Peter Senge’s work on systems thinking and learning organizations?


#12

I figured that it was a little more relatable than a discourse on Weiner’s Cybernetics, control systems theory, or a rather disappointing conversation that I had a few months ago with an economist at the IMF. (I was canvasing for ideas for a simulations and modeling class that I was going to teach.)


#13

In fairness, it does sound like he was a communist sympathiser.

I think Limits to Growth is pretty well-known notorious, and part of the reason why this kind of sixties / seventies holistic thinking is now viewed skeptically.

As I understand it, people are still broadly aware that systems thinking is an exciting area with a lot of potential, but it also has some serious baggage when it comes to applying it at scale. Part of that is that it’s associated with communism (see e.g. Red Plenty), since it was a natural fit for communist countries, and there’s still an exaggerated aversion to anything that communists were excited about. But it also has some purely capitalist baggage (see e.g. The Fires), which I think points to problems deeper than fashion.

I think the nub of it is to do with scale. Systems thinking leads to large human systems being directed by the small group of people who actually understand the model, and that magnifies any problems with the model, and often the “cogs” will start to go off-script to try to mitigate their local problems, which messes up the flow of information, which undermines the whole basis of cybernetics.

It’s obvious to everyone that the world could be much better if we all coordinated our efforts, so I am sure people will keep trying, but it seems like the devil is in the details, so there will probably be a lot more spectacular failures before we get it right. (I am assuming that China’s experiments with total surveillance will come to be seen as the former, but if it doesn’t end in mass death then I guess that’s progress?)


#14

My first exposure to systems theory



#15

Wallerstein’s world systems


#16

From the OP:

“… Researchers in China often approach megaprojects like Three Gorges “from the perspective of how to successfully implement the project whose execution has already been decided politically,” says Yoshiteru Nakamori, …”

Yeah, sounds bad when you put it like that, but going forward that is pretty much the only option left for sorting out the environmental damage we are causing. Not so sure we can sort this out by informed consumer choice etc.


#17

The story is much bigger and sadder. Qian Xuesen was not a teacher at JPL. He received his Ph. D. from Caltech and was one of von Karman’s students at the original Guggenheim Aeronautical Lab at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT - the entity that became Jet Propulsion Lab aka JPL). He was brilliant and was part of the “Suicide Squad” that was the beginning of JPL. He was the second Director of JPL. During WWII he was commissioned as a Colonel in the U.S. Army. When Werner Von Braun and the German rocket scientists surrendered intentionally to the U.S., von Braun was debriefed by Qian. He lived on freaking Orange Grove Blvd in Pasadena and was no more communist than any other American. He was brilliant and we furthered his brilliance by educating him at the finest University on the planet. We then gave him and Parsons, etc. Lab access to exceed what Robert Goddard had accomplished with liquid fuel rockets, encourage him to complete the solid fuel boosters that were the foundation of Aerojet, had him involved in the creation of the world’s first ICBM’s (created at JPL) and then during McCarthyism, accused him with no hard evidence of being a communist sympathizer, took away his passport and deported him. Some of the other members of the suicide squad were more seat-of-the-pants experimenters where Qian had the theoretical chops to do the hard computation and theory. In essence, we used Fake News to deport the second director of JPL after educating him at our finest university, engage him with the most brilliant German engineering minds of their time and then sent him packing to start the Chinese Space Program. Go US! To this day nothing exists that substantiated the claims that he was a communist sympathizer other than his parents lived in China as is the case for almost every first generation Chinese immigrant that comes to the United States. Face Palm America.


#18

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