Essay, Thinking, Hard and Soft
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On Government

Image: Amphora (neck-amphora): Berlin, Staatliche Museen F 1867; Beazley ABV 371, Leagros Group no. 148; Stähler no. 2.

Excerpted from Thinking, Hard and Soft

Huangdi and Chiyou clashed on the plains of Zhuolu. Huangdi (the ‘Yellow Emperor’), ruled the Huaxia tribes while Chiyou, his nemesis, commanded an alliance of barbarian tribes. Under the cover of heavy fog, Chiyou’s army attacked the Huaxia army and inflicted heavy losses as the Yellow Emperor’s troops got lost. The fog lingered and Chiyou had the advantage.

The emperor and his master craftsman retreated for three days and built a chariot. It was equipped with a wooden figure that had one arm extended, pointing southwards. The wooden figure was connected to the wheels of the chariot in a special way so that it always pointed south. When the chariot turned, a self-adjusting mechanism (a modern solution would use differential gears) translated the turn into an equal and opposite movement of the pointer. The reliable arm of the chariot’s wooden statue steered the army of the Chinese nation through the fog. Chiyou was defeated and captured. In some accounts, Chiyou is ritually sacrificed. The sacrifice marks his dual role: an evil nemesis responsible for chaos and disorder in the world, but also a divine enemy whose resistance and death laid the foundations for stable government.

The story of the battle of Zhuolu links the ability to provide stability for a nation with the ability to provide direction in a crucial moment. This link is captured by the etymology of the word ‘government’, which comes from the Greek word for steersman, kubernētēs. To govern means to keep a metaphorical ship on course. Huangdi showed that you don’t necessarily have to steer the ship yourself if you have a well-programmed machine.

Another example of good government is given in the following Homeric hymn to Dionysus. A ship of pirates veers off course, distracted by the god Dionysus who is spotted standing on shore.

The moment they saw him [= Dionysus], | they gave each other a knowing nod, and the very next thing, they were ashore, jumping out of the ship. Quickly they seized him and | sat him down inside their ship, happy in their hearts | because they thought that he was the son of a line of kings nurtured by the sky god. | That is what they thought he was.”

Homeric Hymn (7) to Dionysus 1-59 as translated in Nagy, Hour 24. The Hero as Saviour

Only the steersman of the pirate ship sees the mistake, but he is overruled by the commander. We can imagine an analogue situation at the Battle of Zhuolu taking place: the general in charge ignores the south-pointer, wary of the technology.

It does not end well for these ignorant men. The kidnapped Dionysus makes wine flow through the ship, then causes a vine to grow up around the mast. Grapes appear by the sail! Then Dionysus turns into a lion and summons a bear for good measure. The commander is singled out for special punishment. Only the steersman is saved and praised by Dionysus.

 The men, terrified, were fleeing toward the stern of the ship, | crowding around the steersman [kubernētēs], the one who had a heart [thūmos] that is moderate [sōphrōn]. | They just stood there, astounded [ek-plag-entes]. Then it [= the lion] all of a sudden leapt up | and took hold of the leader of the men, while they were trying to get out, rushing away from the bad destiny that was theirs. |They all together at the same time leapt out, once they saw what they saw, into the gleaming salt sea. | They became dolphins. As for the steersman [kubernētēs] – he [= Dionysus] took pity on him, | holding him back [from leaping overboard]. He [= Dionysus] caused it to happen that he [= the steersman] became the most blessed [olbios] of all men, and he [= Dionysus] spoke for the record this set of words [mūthos]: | “Have courage, you radiant man, reached by a force that works from far away. You have achieved beauty and pleasure [kharizesthai] for my heart [thūmos]…”

Homeric Hymn (7) to Dionysus 1-59 as translated in Nagy, Hour 24. The Hero as Saviour

In Homer’s Iliad, Nestor advises Antilokhos on how to win a chariot race. Chariot races went counter-clockwise around a turning point, which was sometimes set to be the tomb of a hero. The secret to success, Nestor advises, is to lean in to the left at the turning point while getting as close to the marker as possible. The right-hand horse must be goaded and given slack and at the same time the horse on the left must be reigned in and carefully controlled. According to Gregory Nagy, “it all comes down to this critical moment, this climactic moment… if you do this right, if you have a good balance, your recessive left hand, which reins in the left-hand horse, and the impulsive right hand, which whips the right-hand horse, as you make the left turn, you’re a perfectly balanced charioteer, and you’re a perfectly balanced person in life.”

 I [= Nestor] will tell you [= Antilokhos] a sign [sēma], a very clear one, which will not get lost in your thinking. |327 Standing over there is a stump of deadwood, a good reach above ground level. |328 It had been either an oak or a pine. And it hasn’t rotted away from the rains. |329 There are two white rocks propped against either side of it. |330 There it is, standing at a point where two roadways meet, and it has a smooth track on both sides of it for driving a chariot. |331 It is either the tomb [sēma] of some mortal who died a long time ago |332 or was a turning point [nussa] in the times of earlier men. |333 Now swift-footed radiant Achilles has set it up as a turning point [terma plural]. |334 Get as close to it as you can when you drive your chariot horses toward it, |335 and keep leaning toward one side as you stand on the platform of your well-built chariot, |336 leaning to the left as you drive your horses. Your right-side horse |337 you must goad, calling out to it, and give that horse some slack as you hold its reins, |338 while you make your left-side horse get as close as possible [to the turning point], |339 so that the hub will seem to be almost grazing the post |340 —the hub of your well-made chariot wheel. But be careful not to touch the stone [of the turning point], |341 or else you will get your horses hurt badly and break your chariot in pieces. |342 That would make other people happy, but for you it would be a shame, |343 yes it would. So, near and dear [philos] as you are to me, you must be sound in your thinking and be careful.

Iliad XXIII 326–343 as translated in Nagy, Hour 24. The Sign of the Hero in Visual and Verbal Art

In China, after the mythical battle of Zhuolu, the south-pointing chariot had symbolic not practical importance. It was used for processions, representing good government and the ancient battles between heroes at the foundations of history. Similarly, in Greek mythology, the significance of a well-governed chariot transcends the athlete and his competition. Athletic games were ritual re-enactments of life-and-death battles between heroes, models for the critical moments that decide fate.

The Yellow Emperor, the pirate steersman and the balanced charioteer all stand for the importance of keeping a cool head in crisis. A good governor builds machines to keep direction in the fog, is sensitive to important signs and balances impulse with restraint.

In our modern era, the steam engine took the place of the south-pointing chariot. In Watt’s steam engine, a ‘governor’ kept the engine from running wild just like a gearing mechanism kept Huangdi’s chariot figure pointing south.

To Clerk Maxwell, who was the first to study the mechanism of the governor mathematically, the governor was “a part of a machine by means of which the velocity of the machine is kept nearly uniform, notwithstanding variations in the driving-power or the resistance.” Eighty years later, Norbert Wiener expanded on this example in a book that jump-started the discipline of Cybernetics, the directed study of governors in every conceivable setting.

Here there enters the principle of feedback, … which is older than its exemplification in the ship’s steering engine, and is at least as old, in fact, as the governor which regulates the speed of Watt’s steam engine. This governor keeps the engine from running wild when its load is removed. If it starts to run wild, the balls of the governor fly upward from centrifugal action, and in their upward flight they move a lever which partly cuts off the admission of steam. Thus the tendency to speed up produces a partly compensatory tendency to slow down. This method of regulation received a thorough mathematical analysis at the hands of Clerk Maxwell in 1868. Here feedback is used to regulate the velocity of a machine. In the ship’s steering engine it regulates the position of the rudder. The man at the wheel operates a light transmission system, employing chains or hydraulic transmission, which moves a member in the room containing the steering engine. There is some sort of apparatus which notes the distance between this member and the tiller; and this distance controls the admission of steam to the ports of a steam steering-engine, or some similar electrical admission in the case of an electrical steering-engine. Whatever the particular connections may be, this change of admission is always in such a direction as to bring into coincidence the tiller and the member actuated from the wheel. Thus one man at the wheel can do with ease what a whole crew could do only with difficulty at the old manpower wheel.”

Norbert Wiener in The Human Use Of Human Beings, Cybernetics and Society.

In ancient ‘cybernetics’, stability involved human control. The examples we saw in Greek myth were about humans maintaining balance under pressure. Similarly, the south-pointing chariot required human action to adjust the chariot’s direction with reference to a pointer. In contrast, Watt’s steam engine maintains equilibrium through an automatic self-control.

At its peak fifty years ago, public interest in Cybernetics was comparable to today’s interest in ‘Big Data’. But few people talk about Cybernetics today. The concerns are the same, but the names have changed. The self-steering car, applications to monitor our sleep, heart-rate or voice profile, recommender systems for films: these are all ‘cybernetic’ advances.

Will  the accelerating innovation in automatic government reduce our ability to act in those critical situations that defy automation? Who governs the governors to keep progress “from running wild when its load is removed”?

Let us remember that the automatic machine, whatever we think of any feelings it may have or may not have, is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor.

Norbert Wiener in The Human Use Of Human Beings, Cybernetics and Society.

Technology can become a received wisdom that we rely on blindly. We grasp at the promises of automation. Forebodings are outweighed by obvious convenience. But our co-evolution with technology is not predictable. Are we steersmen or slaves?

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