The Rise of the Cyberneticists: The Return of Systems Thinking to Prince Edward Island Politics

In his book The Human Use of Human Beings, first published in 1950, author Norbert Weiner describes his coining of the term cybernetics:

Until recently, there was no existing word for this complex of ideas, and in order to embrace the whole field by a single term, I felt constrained to invent one. Hence “Cybernetics,” which I derived from the Greek word kubernetes, or “steersman,” the same Greek word from which we eventually derive our word “governor.”

He goes on to elaborate:

It is the purpose of Cybernetics to develop a language and techniques that will enable us indeed to attack the problem of control and communication in general, but also to find the proper repertory of ideas and techniques to classify their particular manifestations under certain concepts.

It was impossible not to think of cybernetics while watching Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s address to senior provincial public servants yesterday, The Premier as Public Servant Leader.

In his address, MacLauchlan clearly demonstrates that he is, at heart, a cyberneticist – a “steersman,” if you will – and that he views his role as Premier to manage a complex system of people, resources, and motivations to, as he references several times, “move the trend lines” of prosperity, demographics, revenue, and expenses.

The Premier’s construction of “ten lenses” through which policy will be regarded – collegial, people, prosperity, engagement, ethical, strategic, rural, frugality, entrepreneurial, small is big – surely equips his office, and his government, with a set of tuned “organs” that Weiner describes:

Much of this book concerns the limits of communication within and among individuals. Man is immersed in a world which he perceives through his sense organs. Information that he receives is co-ordinated through his brain and nervous system until, after the proper process of storage, collation, and selection, it emerges through effector organs, generally his muscles. These in turn act on the external world, and also react on the central nervous system through receptor organs such as the end organs of kinaesthesia; and the information received by the kinaesthetic organs is combined with his already accumulated store of information to influence future action.

This approach to Prince Edward Island as a cybernetically-governable system is echoed when MacLauchlan discusses his “strategic lens”:

The first role of the premier as a public servant leader is to identify strategic priorities and communicate them to the public service and the entire community. Without prosperity, we do not have a pretty future. Economic growth must be our top priority. With prosperity, our demographic trend lines will adjust, with the right strategic efforts and policies, to reflect the fact that we are retaining, repatriating and recruiting a younger, talented and entrepreneurial population.

These strategic priorities, prosperity and population, will be reflected across government. They are not a substitute for commitments to deliver services such as health, education, social assistance or environmental stewardship. However, if we cannot grow the economy and rejuvenate our population, our ability to deliver services in other areas will become increasingly stressed.

The premier’s leadership role, in addition to identifying strategic priorities, is to ask the right questions, repeatedly. I think of this as a Socratic form of leadership. Specifically, I will be heard to ask regularly, in response to proposed initiatives: Where’s the growth? How will we measure the return on investment? What does this do to change our demographic trend lines?

In saying this, MacLauchlan echoes Weiner’s description of the role of information in cybernetics:

Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and of using information is the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information than ever before, and our press, our museums, our scientific laboratories, our universities, our libraries and textbooks, are obliged to meet the needs of this process or fail in their purpose. To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.

The Premier’s “What does this do to change our demographic trend lines?” is Weiner’s “the information received by the kinaesthetic organs is combined with his already accumulated store of information to influence future action.”

MacLauchlan is not alone in being a cyberneticist; newly-elected leader of the PC Party, Rob Lantz, is, both by inclination, chosen career as a digital worker, and demonstrated action as a member of Charlottetown City Council, a cyberneticist in his own right.

While his convention speech this weekend at the PC Party Leadership Convention was for a political audience, not a public service one, and therefore was less finely drawn than MacLauchlan’s address to the public service, Lantz demonstrated evidence of his own cybernetic approach to governance:

Lantz, like MacLauchlan, speaks of the twin pressures of demography and prosperity, and positions himself as a “problem solver”:

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, nobody does, but I’m a problem solver, I know how to listen, I know how to weigh the evidence, analyze the facts, and I know how to make decisions… It’s time for hard work, smart decisions, humility and listening. It’s time for building on our strengths and tackling our weaknesses.

That’s political rhetoric for a political audience, yes, but combined with the evidence of Lantz’s approach to government on city council, an approach that was generally regarded as open and collaborative, it suggests that he would be well-equipped to be a manager, a filter, an amplifier of the type of “messages” that Weiner writes about:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives. Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.

I had a spirited discussion yesterday with a good friend with a deep knowledge of Island politics; I suggested to her that Lantz and MacLauchlan were opposites: Lantz the digital tradesman, MacLauchlan the intellectual, Lantz the self-styled realist, MacLauchlan the self-styled optimist. She reminded me that Lantz and MacLauchlan are, in far more ways, cut from exactly the same cloth. What she meant was that they are both men, both well-off, both from “strong Island stock,” and so forth.

And of course she was right: they are more alike than they are different.

And perhaps in no way more so than their shared vision of Prince Edward Island as a system that can be managed and, what’s more, a system they are capable of managing.

While it might seem self-evident that anyone putting themselves forward to be premier would necessarily regard themselves in this light, there is less evidence to suggest that Prince Edward Island premiers-recent – Ghiz, Binns, Milligan, Callbeck – viewed themselves as tacticians to the extent that MacLauchlan and Lantz do, as tacticians able to – through collaboration, analysis, planning, and action – “move the trend lines” to such an extent that Prince Edward Island emerges from their tenure substantially changed.

This is not to suggest that our recent premiers have been do-nothings, simply that their approach has drawn from different approaches to leadership and governance, ones not so seemingly-rooted in notions of systems theory: there have been substantial rearrangements to specific parts of Island society over the last two decades, but they have been more “strategic” in nature than “systemic.”

The last time the Island was governed by a premier with this approach was from 1966 to 1978, the tenure of Alex B. Campbell, a man MacLauchlan has studied closely. Campbell’s Comprehensive Development Plan was nothing if not the product of a cyberneticist. As MacLauchlan relates in his book on Campbell:

With the signing of the Comprehensive Development Plan in March 1969, things changed for Campbell and his government – and for Prince Edward Islanders. In a February television address, Premier Campbell spoke with Islanders about the difference the CDP would make, telling them that this “may be our last chance to provide a future for this province.” He went on to say that PEI’s economic and financial condition was “precarious” and that stop-gap remedies and short-term policies “will no longer service the purpose.”

In other words, Campbell was suggesting that the Island’s future demanded planned, systematic change. You will find shadows of Campbell in both MacLauchlan and Lantz inasmuch as they both regard the Island, as Campbell did, as a system in need of substantial adjustment, and they both have confidence that this adjustment can be carried out through a careful process of adjusting systems, controls, and messages.

What is different this time around from the Campbell era is that while in the late 1960s Campbell saw a need to import systems expertise from off-Island, both Lantz and MacLauchlan see the resources they need to marshal in the people who are here already. This suggests that their comprehensive plans for the development of the Island, while they might share the same confidence in cybernetics as Campbell’s, will be enacted in a way that’s more homegrown and locally rooted.

I am myself a cyberneticist at heart, and so it should go without saying that I greet the renewed ascendance of the cybernetic mindset with considerable optimism, especially as it appears to cross party lines and so, one way or the other, is likely to underpin the next generation of PEI politics.

These are interesting times.


Ken's picture
Ken on March 4, 2015 - 13:32

I think the Ghiz-Myers dynamic was like a one way game of Battleship, with Myers mostly taking shots and Ghiz mostly being shrewd. I would guess the dynamic in a Wade-Lantz debate will be more nuanced and entertaining. Let's hope for a balanced number on both sides of the house, and better debates!

Alan Hickn's picture
Alan Hickn on March 5, 2015 - 07:09

Thanks for an interesting article. I would be interested in how you would add the Dynamics of Harper who's shrewd divisive politics has changed the Canada we know. Analytics where wedge politics is used to gain political power regardless the cost or rights trampled in the process. Be careful what you wish for as Germany' Stazi were analytical as well, only recorded all their atrocities for the perfect race!

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on March 6, 2015 - 17:05

I think that's weird or vague or wrong about entropy. Entropy is basically about redundancy: As in, there is a huge redundancy of ways for a 1000-piece puzzle to be in disarray, but only one way for it to fit together. That's why the likeliest way to find pieces, when you shake the box, is in disarray (and that would be true even if the pieces were magnetic and could snap themselves together). It's why it's most likely you read bazillions of years of not-Hamlet from the immortal monkey at the typewriter before Hamlet comes out. But in what sense is a cliche more likely to come out than "To be, or Not to be"? If Weiner has an analogy in mind here, I think it needs better spelling out. BTW, very politically correct of you, Peter, not to refer to the candidates as "cyborgs."

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on March 6, 2015 - 17:12

Relating information to entropy is classic, on the other hand, and practically the basis of information science, if I remember right. So I think he's saying something at least vaguely sensible, in that respect.

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