Heinz von Foerster and "Ordering Machines"

Original CCSWG Discussion

This is a "code critique" posted in the 2018 Critical Code Studies Working Group on the 2nd generation cybernetician Heinz von Foerster's presentation juxtaposing a theoretical algorithm for Maxwell's Demon and another for a simple Turing machine. It is found in “Responsibilities of Competence”, from Understanding Understanding, a reprint of a keynote address adapted to a 1972 Journal of Cybernetics article.


“The essential function of a Turing machine can be specified by five operations”

        (i) Read the input symbol x.
        (ii) Compare x with z, the internal state of the machine.
        (iii) Write the appropriate output symbol y.
        (iv) Change the internal state z to the new state z´.
        (v) Repeat the above sequence with a new input state x´.

“Similarly, the essential function of Maxwell’s Demon can be specified by five operations equivalent to those above”

        (i) Read the velocity v of the upcoming molecule M.
        (ii) Compare (mv^2/2) with the mean energy mv^2/2 (temperature T) of, say, the cooler container (internal state T).
        (iii) Open the aperture if (mv^2/2) is greater than mv^2/2; otherwise keep it closed.
        (iv) Change the internal state T to the new (cooler) state T´ .
        (v) Repeat the above sequence with a new incoming molecule M´.


Heinz von Foerster is known as a second-order or second-generation cybernetician, establishing his theoretical program after Norbert Wiener and other first-generation theorists. The code / pseudocode above comes from a keynote address of 1972 in which he problematizes our notions of “hard” and “soft” sciences, arguing that physics and other hard sciences deal with soft problems, but that so-called soft sciences such as sociology deal with hard problems. For Foerster, cybernetics is the use of competencies acquired in the hard sciences to tackle difficult problems in the social sciences.

Having established this alliance of hard and soft sciences, Foerster laments, in an anecdotal way, that it is difficult to discern the “muse” of the discipline. In a way that shows considerable male bias, he decides that this muse is neither the Urania of astronomy nor the Demeter of agriculture, but the creature “sitting beside his desk”, a demon, none other than the being first postulated by James Clerk Maxwell in his Theory of Heat (1871). Maxwell’s demon is a thought experiment in which this intelligence inside a chambered heat canister “beats” entropy, but only on a molecular level in which individual particles can be ordered or kept hot. With the demon, Maxwell had intended to demonstrate the statistical nature of the second law of thermodynamics, that a system ultimately moves towards a greater state of entropy, showing that where larger groups of particles are concerned, negentropy, or order in disorder, is relative.

So in the code above, Foerster suggests that a Turing machine is nearly homologous to a demon machine. The differences in these procedures, although slight, come down to the fact that the demon machine conditionally modifies state, whereas the Turing machine processes state at a level of abstraction above the control structures of the demon machine. For the latter, refraining from opening a valve to let a faster molecule go into a hotter chamber is still a propagation if not modification of state. A point made by Foerster is that this is an order- producing regulatory process, part of a triad of regulation, entropy retardation, and computation.

Foerster, in this case, is well aware of the relativity of this order production and in no way believes that one can move beyond the second law. So he argues, humans must take responsibility for the justice and progress of the social sciences and do the best possible with computers, these (relative) order-producing machines. Still, these machines bridge the gap between the thermodynamic demon and information theory, but they also carry a “closed” quality that seems less desirable in the context of the open source movement and of distributed computing today. The gesture of Foerster’s informatics applied to the social is that it must be a closed system:

“As long as humanity treats itself as an open system by ignoring the signals of its sensors that report about its own state of affairs, we shall approach this singularity (the instability of humankind) with no breaks whatsoever. (Lately I began to wonder whether the information of its own state can reach all elements in time to act should they decide to listen rather than fight.) The goal is clear: we have to close the system to reach a stable population, a stable economy, and stable resources.” (Understanding, 197)

The cybernetic system he describes (perhaps puzzling to us now in its "closed" quality) instead only retains a metaphoric image of closure. A schematic, for instance, can be drawn up to represent or describe its functional basis, even if it remains non-isolated, in the world. What Foerster is calling for is feedback, that pockets of nature / culture reflexively interrogate themselves. Yet they are not completely closed. This notion in part resembles Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic heterogenesis in which an actor behavior is autopoietic or closed on itself, but at the collective level of world / society.

So a closed system is rather reflexive, one of the ways in which Katherine Hayles redeems Foerster in her How We Became Posthuman. But this opening of the closed system can go further. It is known that James Clerk Maxwell was devout and that the demon was like a monotheistic god, while also in Thompson’s interpretation, it becomes distinctly male and/or devoid of gender as an abstract boîte noire. This male aspect of the demon infiltrates Foerster’s keynote and has continued in the scientific literature of Maxwell’s demon, which often hopes that a true order will prevail, in the ordinary sense of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In contrast, could we not substitute the feminine goddess Sophia of the wisdom tradition as an intelligence with foreknowledge of particles or computational states, a "gendered" Maxwell’s demon? This would be an opening of the closed systems of classical cybernetics and a location of clarity in the gnostic embrace of entropy and irreversibility, and which would approach the reflexivity of Foerster in a quite different, radical way.