Feedback at the Meetings


Another entertaining write-up of the ASC confrontation.

Cybernetics is the study of automa­tically controlled systems, be they elec­tronic computers, home thermostats, or the human brain and nervous system.

Feedback is an essential part of cybernetics. An automatically controlled system is supposed to feed its results back to its controller, and this informa­tion leads the controller to perfect the working of the system.

So it is appropriate that when a revolt over the question of feedback in scientific meetings occurred, it was during a meeting of the two-year-old American Society for Cybernetics. Appropriate, but upsetting, at least to one society official, who complained, “Why pick on us? Why not some old established society that can take it?”

Feedback, in the sense of instant, continuous alteration, is not part of the program at traditional scientific meetings. For 300 years, since the first meetings of the Royal Society and the Academia della Crusca, scientific meet­ings have proceeded by having a series of individuals mount the podium and read papers. If there was any discus­sion, it came at the end of the pre­sentation; reactions of the audience did not affect the speaker or cause him to alter his presentation in midflight.

Over the generations many scientists, even the old-fashioned ones, have ex­pressed boredom with such proceedings. Some aver that much of what is said is so much crusca (chaff).

But the format makes it easy for papers to be published later.

The tradition was followed, perhaps automatically, by the cybernetics society when it programmed its symposium on Cybernetics and the Management of Large Systems, at the National Bureau of Standards. However, some of the society’s members are not cast in the old-fashioned mold.

“I don’t know who you are, sir,” a voice from the back of the room inter­rupted a paper on cybernetic analyses of large scale computers, “and this isn’t meant personally for you. But I’m tired of listening to this.”

Dr. Warren Brodey of the Environ­mental Ecological Laboratory at Mas­sachusetts Institute of Technology, strode to the stage, and a five-minute insurrection followed.

“Last night,” said Dr. Brodey, who had been joined by his colleague, Dr. Avery Johnson, “the two of us talked to the Board of Directors. We turned that board on. Overnight something has turned them off.”

The activists want to change the format of all scientific meetings, to make them exciting, “to make it hap­pen in a microcosm,” in Dr. Brodey’s words.

They came up against a conservative faction that shouted back at them from the floor: “Once you have activists, you can no longer control the bastards.” “When I come to listen to somebody, I want to sit and listen and then inter­act.”

Society officials moved quickly to regain control. A group of them took the microphone and promised that if the speaker could finish, part of the discussion time would be devoted to matters of format.

Later, society officials announced a happening for the next day’s lunch hour to discuss format. “All those in­terested in the happening please con­geal at lunch,” said the session chairman. “You are all allowed to eat during the happening so long as there is no throwing of food.” Dr. Frank Fremont-Smith of the New York Academy of Sciences volunteered as “immoderator” of the happening. “He will serve,” said the chairman, “as a stabilizing influence to prevent violence.”

What the activists are after is a total remaking of scientific meeting format. Especially in the cybernetics society, says Dr. Brodey, where the subject is elegant communication between ma­chines and men, one should spend some time discussing how communication can be best achieved at the meeting. And one should use cybernetic tech­niques in the meeting format, he feels.

Participants in symposia should be immediately confronted with the prob­lems they discuss. At a discussion of urban problems, for example, a model of the city could be present instead of having experts come and describe the city. The room could be filled with smog and there could be an occasional bus to drown out the speakers.

To this an objector responds: “Imag­ine trying to hold a scientific meeting on a damn freeway.”

Six or seven sessions going on at once could be presented on closed circuit television, and a viewer could turn his attention to what interests him at the moment. The viewer could interject comments or questions by a TV feedback. Such proceedings could be recorded on tape, edited and sent around to interested parties. To the tapes could be added comments and communication by the receivers and a continuing interchange could develop.

Other scientific societies report no revolutions, but several are moving to alter format for various reasons.

Much discontent centers on contrib­uted papers—those which are offered by members rather than being invited by the meeting organizers. These are usually short. Ten minutes is the tra­dition in the American Physical Society.

One suggestion to the physical soci­ety has been that ten-minute papers be replaced by sessions in which people state informally what they are going to do instead of reporting what they have already accomplished, and a free discussion is held of future trends.

Both the American Chemical Society and the American Geophysical Union have experimented with cutting con­tributed papers to very short state­ments of what has been done and spending most of the session on ques­tions and answers.

The Institute of Electrical and Elec­tronics Engineers continues to hold meetings in which formal paper proce­dure is adhered to, but in fast breaking fields like solid state physics they find small symposia with little formal pro­gram most effective.