Editorial | Confrontation on the ASC Campus


An angry editorial about one of the most hilarious provocations of the Environmental Ecology Lab: the disruption of the second annual congress of the American Society of Cybernetics.

The time was about 3:32 in the afternoon and Charles Purcell of CDC was well underway on the delivery of his paper “Cybernetic Analysis of Large Scale Computers,” when suddenly, from the floor, came a voice: “I know I’m impolite, this I’m certain of, but…”

The voice belonged to Dr. Avery Johnson. His colleague, Dr. Warren Brody, proceeded to the stage and asked for company —“Anybody who would like to interact ’on line’—come on, come up and stand here.” Their basic intent was to feed back to the attendees that they did not care for the way the meeting was being conducted and to do it in rather dramatic fashion. Dr. Brody was joined shortly by Arthur Iberall of GTS, later by Dr. Frank Fremont-Smith (a psychiatrist) who was called upon to act as moderator to the unscheduled, interactive “happening”.

From this observer’s viewpoint, Drs. Brody and Johnson had commendable intentions, but incredibly poor sense of timing.

Although the ASC workshop the preceding day had been interactive in real time, the two-day public sessions consisted of invited speakers presenting prepared papers with a 10-minute Q-and-A at the end of each talk. Drs. Johnson and Brody bodily interjected themselves into this format, not to interact with the speaker, but to interrupt. A disorderly take-over of the majority’s rights by a minute minority intent on making their point of view known to the majority. Not  democratic process, and in retrospect, not a very effective process either. They managed to communicate their dissatisfaction but not their program.

For the information of our readers, Drs. Johnson and Brody would like to see all meetings—and especially a cybernetic meeting like ours—be more directly interactive. They want to reduce the delay time from output to feedback. They’d like to see feedback in “real time”.

They’d also like to bring in a 3rd or even 4th dimension to meetings. Talk about the urban problem of traffic pollution—fill the room with the noise of a freeway; discussing education— use closed circuit TV to look into the classroom; if it’s the room with smoke; and so forth. Create a center with five or ten television screens to cover ten technical session simultaneously with an audio controller to handle the switching. Viewers choose the subject they want and

go to that meeting.

Exciting ideas. Full of emotional impact. Full of possibilities. And also full of noise and confusion. With too low a signal to noise ratio—what will get communicated? Also, these are ideas with many contingent problems. Such programs not only take funding, they take manpower. Funding we can probably get. Capable, full time cyberneticians and/or professionals to put together such a program—much harder to obtain.

We are a young, growing society. There are literally hundreds of projects we would like to tackle that funding might be found for but capable manpower cannot. We are not yet ready to try a moon landing.

Our 1968 program was a first try at being experimental—our video-taped interactive workshop at NBS the day before the symposium formally opened—for example. The subject was Urban Problems, with the high-powered title “Methods for Finding Analogies Between Large Physical, Biological and Sociological Systems.”

We soon discovered that although we had common cybernetic motivations, we had different vocabularies. It appears we may have to develop a common language, a common semantic structure, if cyberneticists are to truly effectively communicate. We also found technical problems with video tape. One-inch tape is not easily edited. It is not always the best quality image. It is difficult to reproduce, only one good house has been found in the East that can

do the job well.

Ampex has kindly volunteered to go into this program with us on a volunteer basis, learning as we learn. Television looks like a good tool—an expensive tool—especially finding manpower with the time, inclination and creative overview to produce a meaningful end product.

ASC Newsletter editorial of June 1968. At that time, Dr. Brody chose to input our cybernetic system in a democratic way and he achieved very positive results.

We can only wonder (we still do not know) why he and Avery Johnson chose to disrupt our otherwise straightforward meeting on Thursday to present a concept to an unprepared audience that he had already sold to the ASC management

From the letters to the editor elsewhere in this Newsletter, you can see the opinions of the viewers who chose to write in on the subject. The response was decided against the method of proposal, if not the subject matter, and the ensuing confrontation.

This Society realizes, as does almost any current, progressive scientific organization, that scientific meetings could be much more effective than they are. Many exciting experiments are being carried out. One outstanding recent example was the Aerospace Education Foundation’s November 1968 “National Laboratory for the Advancement of Education.” Their methods were modern, their financial backing was impressive, and their audience included 1600 top educators from across the country. An article in a later issue will describe some of the techniques used.

As ASC Vice President Fogel said on the floor of the 2nd annual symposium at the height of the confrontation, “We are a new Society, built on tenuous grounds. We are trying to allow this new Society the greatest freedom of structuring possible. We are open to all suggestions…to improve the Society.I would hope that all of you who want to take active part, will participate to the fullest. You’re welcome, Please accept some of the workload.” 

Those of you who want a new look in format, publications, or concept—please step forward and join us. Give us your feedback and we will give you our support. Just one request. Let’s use the democratic process. —D. E. Knight