Friday, January 15, 2016

W. Ross Ashby's Journals and Index Cards

According to Wikpedia, "was an English psychiatrist and a pioneer in cybernetics, the study of complex systems. His first name was not used: he was known as Ross Ashby. His two books, Design for a Brain and An Introduction to Cybernetics."[1] He was also an inveterate keeper of journals and index cards. He was self-critical, saying "my early notes, especially Volumes 2 and 3, are appalling even for their simple ignorance and inaccuracy. They are quite unfit for any human eye." But he was also rather ambitious. In fact, his self-criticism is a function of his ambition, or so it seems to me.

What draws me to him is this: He had not just ambition but also pursued hobbies. For instance, "he enjoyed browsing second-hand book shops which years ago could be found in most towns" and "he taught himself watch and clock cleaning and repairing. Later he bought a watchmaker’s lathe and made the tools he needed and a cabinet to hold them in with all the drawers carefully labelled." But even in his hobbies, he seems to have been more ambitious than I could ever be.[1]

1. It is perhaps not uninteresting that Luhmann refers to him in his essay on "Communicating with Slip Boxes": "Vgl. W. Ross Ashby. The Place of the Brain in the Natural World, in: Currents in Modern Biology I (1967), S.95-104."
2. See his life.


A Ja said...

If I've understood W. Ross Ashby's method correctly then is it fair to say it is nothing like a zettelkasten, save for the fact that both used index cards? Ashby seems to have simply made notes as he read in notebooks, in this sense they are in chronological order, then later indexed these notebooks by subject on index cards. There is not possibility of having a 'conversation' or being 'surprised' as Luhmann would with his zettelkasten. Is this a fair understanding?

MK said...

That's how I understand it, too. Though his notebooks seem to be more or less independent reflections of his own on topics that interested him and not so much reading notes.