The Biological Computer Laboratory

Interdisciplinarity and the BCL

The atmosphere and the Biological Computer Lab was an atmosphere of trust. It helped create a network of friends that made the individual people so very productive and happy, whether it was the leading minds like Ross Ashby and Gordon Pask, or the students that fell into this net, who felt incredibly well, and suddenly saw that their so-called professors were their friends.

Heinz von Foerster/Monika Silvia Broecker, Part of the World: Fractals of Ethics - A Drama in Three Acts, ed. Jamie Hutchinson, trans. Barbara Anger-Diaz.

One of the products of the Centennial events, including Paul Schroeder's stirring speech, was an open course listing - LAS 199 - that would allow for more interdisciplinary seminar designs based on student interests. It was a course listing that Heinz von Foerster would use to set up unique and creative courses that set up the work of student-produced publications. von Foerster ran four of these courses in total.

The first, the Heuristics seminar, would set the tone and produce perhaps the most well-known publication of the four in 1969: The Whole University Catalog. von Foerster recognized that heuristics had a double meaning; it could relate both to mathematics as well as a student-centered education system. When a student approached him initially to teach a course on heuristics, von Foerster suspected the student was unaware of this double meaning. When he asked which the student intended to focus on through the course, the student replied "Both!" von Foerster then asked if Herbert BrΓΌn, an innovator in electronic music who taught at Illinois and had ties to the BCL - would teach the course with him, who accepted, responding that he prioritized any student requests for courses.

The students for the Heuristics courses comprised quite an interdisciplinary cohort. According to von Foerster's course directory, which lists students' names, contact information, majors, and interests, the most popular disciplinary backgrounds include LAS (the most popular with 10 students), Chemistry, Economics, Psychology, English, Philosophy, Political Science, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical Engineering. But other listed disciplines include Graphic and Industrial Design, Music, Pre-med, Biophysics, Spanish, Home Economics, History, Rhetoric, Psycholinguistics, Pre-Dental, and Commerce. One discipline listing that particularly stands out is the one provided by Richard Herbert Howe, who simply writes “long-time undergrad.”

The course itself was first taught in the Fall ‘68 semester. von Foerster conveys that the syllabus that resulted from this request aimed not only to expose students to the “heuristic procedures” of problem solving, but also to put them to practice and test their efficacy in class and through assigned exercises. After finding a suitably sized classroom given its popularity, the course structure soon became one that fluctuated between a typical classroom experience and a more experimental one predicated on improvisation as a mode of learning. The students insisted the course continue into the following semester, and von Foerster would also offer it again in the Fall ‘69 semester.

Course assignments were unique to say the least. For at least the first iteration of the course, students came together to decide on the logistics of the class and when they should meet weekly, after which von Foerster provided the first assignment: to list their desires in order of how they need to be met to fulfill them all. While the initial expectation was for the assignment to take them a week, it became the center of the next six weeks of discussion. The class used the papers to help define their shared desires as a student group. Given this, it is not surprising that The Whole University Catalog, the text the students would collaborate on in which each student was given a page to highlight whatever they saw fit to include, reflects many of the countercultural, anti-war, and education reform sentiments of the time.

Needless to say, The Whole University Catalog emerged as a highly controversial text. von Foerster had to testify in Springfield over it amid a swarm of hearings about campus protest in Illinois universities. Though Brian Clardy includes a chapter on the Horsley Committee (also known as the Joint House and Senate Committee on Campus Unrest), he only briefly touches on the Springfield hearings in September 1970. The Committee overall focused on getting to the bottom of how university policies and faculty may have contributed to the surge of campus activism and how to quell it moving forward. Clardy brings up the testimony of a “Hans Van Forrester” (which impressively gets all of von Foerster’s name wrong) on the publication of The Whole University Catalog:

Hans Van Forrester . . . testified that one of his former students had published a seditious manual that was circulated widely among the student body. Within its contents, the manual gave students instructions on how to start a riot and defraud both the local phone company and their landlords. The manual gave meticulous instructions on how to find “pot” within the county; other drug-related information pertained to instructions about how to inject narcotics like heroin and cocaine. And others pertained to how to put drugs into the campus food supply and “how to cheat parking meters.”

Brian K. Clardy, The Management of Dissent: Responses to the Post Kent State Protests at Seven Public Universities in Illinois (University Press of America: Lanham, 2002)

The Ecological Source Book, published a year after The Whole University Catalog, proves far more conventional in comparison. The topics the book covers include abortion, air and water pollution, water conservation, reusing and recycling, oil slick, noise pollution (even getting into the biology of the ear - a reflection on Murray Babcock's own work within the BCL - to explain its ramifications), the rise in world population (which it treats in a similar fashion as von Foerster’s Doomsday paper), war/nuclear accident effects, and wilderness preservation. But more broadly, the book has a keen interest in the need to think more ecologically toward engineering, particularly considering the context of industrialization at the time, and how to effect environmental change through activist work. Unsurprisingly, as was the case with The Whole University Catalog, von Foerster's course directory indicates that students came from a span of different majors, and many expressed concerns over the environmental impact of industrialization.

Aside from Cybernetics of Cybernetics, the final of the four BCL student publications discussed in the previous section, the remaining BCL seminar publication to discuss is Metagames. Metagames, according to a Daily Illini article from May 26, 1972 on the publication paraphrasing BCL student Steve Sloan's explanation, "was an attempt to reveal the basics of human relationships" via a series of games that were a product of explorations within von Foerster seminars on the elements that make up situations one would deem as a game. The focus of Metagames on the intersections of cognition, interpersonal relationships, and gaming is a highly interdisciplinary area of study that in some respects foreshadowed current academic interests in game studies.

The next section charts the BCL's interdisciplinary endeavors within social and computational histories through a series of timelines.

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