The Biological Computer Laboratory

Alternative and Demilitarized Design

Heinz von Foerster, as I said in the dedication of my book, taught me how to think. He probably taught all of us how to think. . . . I’ve watched him tell the story of “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain” to non-technical people and they just eat it up. We’d be trying to explain something and Heinz would stop us and say, ‘Make it a story!’ One of the things he always beat on us about was looking at things from the point of view of the organism, not the observer. There were all sorts of funny exercises he would do in his heuristics classes.

John Day, Interview with Tom Misa, Charles Babbage Institute (2010) 

John Day was a student in von Foerster's Heuristics seminar (a controversial but innovative class discussed later in this book) who first encountered von Foerster as a junior in a lecture von Foerster gave for Illinois' Centennial celebration. von Foerster’s approach would later influence Day's own work on alternative designs in internet standards greatly. Through the social circles he entered via his attachment to von Foerster, Day eventually became involved with work on ILLIAC IV, a source of great consternation among students at the time.

ILLIAC IV was one of several military projects on campus that student activists found detestable. Urbana-Champaign's anti-war sentiments opposed corporate on-campus recruitment in cases where the corporation was vital to the war effort - most notably Dow Chemical. Dow manufactured napalm for the war and was at the center of a student sit-in that resulted in seven expulsions and 47 students disciplined.

Though military-funded, the BCL as a design site attracted a great deal of students that were quite involved in such efforts and were looking for an educational environment that provided what they were growingly sensing the university as a whole was failing to give them. BCL students saw the university as a system wherein dissent plays a vital role, one that was being stifled to stave off campus unrest.

Stuart Umpleby is one BCL student that embodies this stance well. A double major in Engineering and Political Science, Umpleby's political stances and the ways in which he explored them brushed colleagues the wrong way at times. One instance of this was his moderation of a five-part series of PLATO notes (one of many PLATO innovations in online communication) on the possibility of a Nixon impeachment. PLATO was a pioneering computational network for distance education developed at Illinois that served as an early, if not the first, virtual community. But it was also employed by the BCL for experimental purposes - not just by its undergraduate students, as this book discusses, but also for simulations of principles in self-organization by BCL faculty.

Umpleby begins the aforementioned PLATO notes thread without advocating anything in particular. He only expresses interest in starting a conversation on the political controversies of the moment. As more users chime in, however, and accusations grow, Umpleby writes two comments that he deletes weeks later urging users to inform students of the options at their disposal “to coordinate actions if necessary” and “to pass around bright ideas” toward campus activism calling for impeachment. He also urges users to mention a book entitled The Impeachment of Richard Nixon, and in later comments brings up conspiracy books like Six Seconds in Dallas, Rush to Judgment, and Accessories After the Fact.

Don Bitzer prompted Umpleby to delete these particular comments after the Pentagon contacted Bitzer over them. Given ARPAnet’s military funding, the concern was that a government project was actively endorsing impeachment. In many ways, as Umpleby points out, this comes into tension with PLATO’s aim as a site in which one could broach any topic that would be taken up in a classroom environment.

Various publications afterward picked up the story that a government-funded project stirred up such contention. This resulted in Umpleby sending several publications a letter to the editor that qualifies what he argues is a melodramatic, but not completely off-base, take on what transpired. Overall, the entire episode shows how students with BCL affiliations looked at technical systems being built on campus at the time through their utility or position within the sense of campus dissent. 

Many projects experimented with the capacity for such platforms to provide the caliber of information necessary to ensure an informed citizenry and to facilitate dialogue over issues affecting the citizenry. Paul Weston, for instance, was concerned with thinking about natural language processing in ways that contrasted from the AI models discussed previously. He proposed an information system he called SOLON to improve users' capacity to search for information.

Albert Müller details Weston's proposed SOLON system below:
The assumption behind these projects was that individual members of society had a knowledge deficit relative to the knowledge base of the collective as a whole. The projects envisioned terminals in the sphere of the users’ everyday lives. The SOLON system was to be accessed via natural language. The user would receive either the required answer or a further question that would lead toward a solution. The question itself would become part of the database.

Albert Müller, "A Brief History of the BCL: Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory" (2000)

This is in stark contrast with contemporary search engine design. Müller writes that in the BCL's work, "one is reminded of advanced, non-commercial conceptions of what was to become the Internet." He deems it promising work within information design addressing problems that have yet to be solved and might have had the BCL been funded further.

Weston mentions by the end of an interview conducted by Jan Mueggenburg and Jamie Hutchinson and was published in an Austrian journal, “When you really think about it, a lot of the things you can do with things like Google are coming remarkably close to what we had in mind.” This nicely sums up the scope and the precocious nature of the BCL’s work. It rightfully historicizes the ambitions of a project like Google as being thought out before in less recognized places in innovation histories like Champaign-Urbana.

The next section continues the trend within BCL work to find interfaces for dissent and dialogue in issues relevant to student interests and the local community at the time. The BCL's undergraduate students, whose diverse interests would become the sustaining legacy of the BCL, put the BCL front and center in conversations on education reform and the demands of the New Left on campus.

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