John Bowlby and the Glass Cage of Automation

Share this Blog post

I recently finished reading Nicholas Carr’s 2014 book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. In many ways Glass Cage is a follow up to Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. As you may recall, the FHL Foundation brought Carr in to speak about The Shallows as a part of its RYOL Lecture series. I thoroughly enjoyed Glass Cage because Carr, in speaking about automation, brought in many of my favorite themes and topics (many of which I have covered in this blog). Here are but a few:

  • Embodied cognition
  • Norbert Wiener, arguably the father of cybernetics
  • Automation and aviation
  • Automation and health care
  • Google and cybernetics
  • Procedural (or tacit) memory
  • Systems engineering
  • The future of AI or artificial intelligence
  • Automation as a way toward emancipation from work
  • Guided missile systems
  • Feedback loops

If you are interested in any of these topics (or how they tie together), then definitely grab a copy of Glass Cage.

When I study the above topics, I try to bring them back to John Bowlby’s attachment theory. I consider Bowlby to be an interesting historical figure because he had a front row seat (starting at about the beginning of WWII) from which he witnessed the emergence of an important dichotomy, one that dogs us today: mechanical systems (i.e., the work of Norbert Wiener) versus biological systems (i.e., the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy). As I talk about in some detail in my book Bowlby’s Battle, today I see mechanical systems short-circuiting against biological systems resulting in an arcing that is lighting the way toward posthumanism.

At about the beginning of WWII, Bowlby found himself in a bit of a quandary. Allow me to describe this quandary. Bowlby essentially embraced biological systems theory. He surrounded himself with others who also believed in the organic systems theory movement that existed at that time in a number of fields: Julian Huxley (evolution), Konrad Lorenz (ethology), Margaret Mead (anthropology), Ludwig von Bertalanffy (organic systems theory), Erik Erikson (social psychology), Jean Piaget (developmental psychology), and others. Biological systems theorists believed that organic systems displayed “purpose” or “goal-directed behavior.” As an example, a motivational system moves you toward a goal: thirst to water, hunger to food, and sex to a partner. Bowlby successfully raised attachment to the level of an innate motivational system: attachment guides us to a protective caregiver. Here’s the rub: back in the 1940s if a scientist talked about such things as purpose or goals, he or she risked being labeled a vitalist. Being labeled a vitalist was the kiss of death because one of the main goals of “respectable” science back in the middle of the last century was to eliminate any and all vitalism on the grounds that it was too metaphysical, too spiritual, too immaterial, or too beyond physics, which then meant it was beyond the study of science. Here’s one of my favorite Bowlby quotes from his trilogy on attachment:

At one time to attribute purposiveness to animals or to build a psychology of human behavior on the concept of purposefulness was to declare oneself a vitalist and to be banned from the company of respectable scientists. The development of control systems of increasing sophistication, such as those that control a homing missile, has changed that. Today [the mid-1960s] it is recognized that a machine incorporating feedback can be truly goal-directed. Thus it comes about that nowadays to attribute purposiveness to behaviour and to think, if not teleologically, at least teleonomically is not only common sense, as it always was, but also good science.

Bowlby recognized that systems engineers were increasingly putting purposefulness or goal-directed behavior into their mechanical systems: a missile finds its goal of a target; a home thermostat finds its goal of a set temperature; an autopilot finds its goal of a set course. Bowlby naively assumed that if vitalism was now “cool” as far as the science of mechanical systems was concerned, it should then be cool to talk about vitalism in organic systems. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Today, it is very definitely cool to talk about the vitalism of mechanical systems (i.e., guiding you to the target of a new purchase, or Apple’s Siri guiding you to a street addres), however, biological systems are still often framed using simple cause and effect thinking (also known as “billiard ball thinking”). Suffice it to say that Carr’s Glass Cage does a great job talking about mechanical systems and their associated vitality (i.e., planes fly themselves, information systems make medical diagnoses, Amazon recommends a book we would like, etc.), but does not specifically bring in the vitality of organic systems. And I don’t blame Carr: there’s been a huge effort to keep vitality out of organic systems since the 1940s. In contrast, we seem to fawn at the feet of mechanical vitality these days. Bowlby thought that the vitalism of biology would simply ride on the coattails of mechanistic vitality. This did not happen. Instead a pernicious bias for mechanical vitalism and against biological vitalism developed. I’d be remiss if I did not point out that the desire for mechanical vitalsim shares a common thread with the fight against biological vitalism: both express a desire to transcend biology, to become post-biology.

In my next blog post I’ll try to bring some of Carr’s observations expressed in Glass Cage back to a Bowlbian perspective and, in doing so, bring in a bit of the biology or organic systems theory perspective. Like Bowlby, I believe that if we value the mechanical system that allows a plane to seek out and follow a course, then it follows that we should value the organic system that allows a child to seek out and follow a protective caregiver. If nothing else, Carr’s book demonstrates how much we value mechanical systems as we continue to devalue biological systems. Again, this is a trend that gained momentum as Bowlby worked on his theory of attachment starting in the late 1940s and extending into the 1970s.

PS – For a good book on the history of systems thinking—both mechanical and organic—see Deborah Hammond’s 2003 book entitled The Science of Synthesis—Exploring the Social Implications of General System Theory. You may also be interested in reading the paper we commissioned by Gary Metcalf entitled John Bowlby—Rediscovering a Systems Scientist. Contact the Foundation for a copy of Dr. Metcalf’s paper.