Interview with Anatol Holt conducted by Vincent Kenny, August 4, 1999.

Vincent Kenny: This is an opportunity to look forward to the Bateson congress in Naples in November of this year, and also to look back at various aspects of your involvement with Gregory Bateson, the man and his ideas. Let's start with Bateson & his ideas. You have a long and personal story connecting you with the Bateson family. Would you say a few contextualising words about that long history? (I ask this knowing that MCB is looking forward to 're-connecting' with you after many years)

Anatol Holt: I came to the United States with my mother at the end of 1939 as a 12 year-old. My mother had met Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson some 7 years earlier in Bali, while they were doing their anthropological film study of Balinese culture. Immediately upon arrival in N.Y. (tail end of '39) my mother got a job from MM and GB at the Museum of Natural History (classifying Balinese wood carvings). Soon (age 13) I established my own relationship with MM & GB - particularly with GB who (a) became a kind of surrogate father, and (b) a grown-up mentor who was obviously interested in things which I at once perceived were meaningful to ME and my long-range fate (which I had begun to take seriously quite a few years earlier). Both MM and GB took me seriously, liked me, and lavished attention on me. (I was on hand when MM brought MCB back from the hospital (1939)!).

Eventually. I grew up; GB divorced MM and re-married. As a grown-up I was privileged to help GB (as he had helped me as a child); (e.g., it was me that connected GB with the "dolphin man" (also of sensory deprivation fame), which began a GB phase with the dolphins)

VK: In your relationship with Gregory Bateson what events or experiences stand out as the most illustrative of his 'character' or of his personal approach to interpersonal relationships?

AH: GB seemed to me: a man obsessed by abstractions -- especially ones he deemed "scientific" - and also by a passionate wish to be an ordinary "earth man". (No doubt it is this combination that attracted him to oriental mysticism -- like Zen; no doubt MM and GB found each other intellectually/scientifically fascinating; she must have seen in him an abstraction capability that she admired and envied; he must have seen in her an unbelievable interest-in/capability-for "data" which he utterly lacked; but in the end he became disenchanted with her as an "earth woman".

As far as I was concerned: when I was 14 he bought me a bicycle; at that same age he also pushed books at me (such as Sir James Jeans, the Huxley's etc.); as adults we mostly disagreed -- he being much more "cybernetically" and "system" impressed and inclined than me.

VK: People often described Bateson style of talking-teaching-communicating as infuriatingly vague, rambling, obscure, confusing etc. Some other people claimed that he did this deliberately, preferring to 'give hints' rather than 'tell it' directly. What are your opinions on his style of communication?

AH: He couldn't help himself; he wanted desperately to "be like the others" but couldn't. Like many others who are forced into loneliness, he was inclined to feel worse than everyone else, and at the same time, better than everyone else. His inability to overcome the feeling of being "different" is part of what prevented him from ever becoming a world-class anything.

VK: What do you think you learned personally from your interactions with Bateson? What has remained with you over your life time?

AH: GB "saw a light" which, he thought, was intellectually/historically new and important. He identified this with "cybernetics" (the George Macy Foundation), "systems theory" and new approaches to "information". While these seem like "formidable" subjects he thought they held out new promise to the "common man" (someone he also wanted to be). His father was a biologist/evolutionary-theorist; MM was an anthropologist; later in his life he worked with dolphins and with mental patients; in the light of his "new light", I don't think, in his own mind, he ever switched from one thing to another; cybernetics, systems theory, "information theory" were, in his mind, gropings towards the commonality which made all of these "areas" one-and-the-same.

As to me: I too think the "new light" is real and really needed. The over-arching commonality between all of these ever-so-different-seeming subjects is also exhibited in the application of computer technology in ever-so-different-seeming domains (as also mathematics). Like GB, I too am fascinated by the "information" theme -- but, in my case (in contrast to GB) not a little because computers are so information oriented.

VK: Why do you think that there was so little 'uptake' of the Batesonian opus? For example his books have been out of print in English for many years. How do you explain that?

AH: GB strove for something new; something new which (by definition) goes against older habits and institutions; isn't likely to make anyone rich; therefore doesn't have much drawing power. (It didn't even make GB rich!). Furthermore: GB's "thing" was (and is) much more intellectually and economically risky than charming. "The Establishment" can more-than-do-without GB (and perhaps AWH as well! -- even though my "thing" has a better chance at making money.)

And finally. Perhaps GB bit off more than he could chew.

VK: You participated in the 1968 Burg Wartenstein conference event - along with Bateson, McCulloch, Pask, and others. What were the essential problems to be solved for the conference group? In what way was it a success and where did the whole thing break down?

AH: GB placed too much faith in the power of thought -- in comparison with, say, the power of money. What is more. Not too much good can EVER come out of convening a lot of stars each of whom wants, above all, to shine -- which guarantees that the success of any ONE is certain to be an anti-success for everyone else.

 VK: Did Bateson ever have afterthoughts about the way he had convened and organised the conference conversations?

AH: not that I know of.

 VK: Now let's come to some of your own ideas. In what ways - or with what aspects - do you disagree with Bateson's ideas? Where did he get it wrong according to you?

AH: (a) GB was premature; (b) GB was "against" too many others who did have and do have more power than he; (c) GB was more interested in evolutionary theory than in the computer (d) GB placed too much confidence in the Macy Conferences.

VK: As an inventor of games, among your many other talents, why do you think that playing games is such an important feature of human experience?

AH: I don't think that "playing games is an important feature of human experience"; rather I think: games are a fascinating special type of ORGANIZED ACTIVITY -- a subject that I THINK is of profound importance to our age (and by the way to "information") (more than cybernetics, system theory, semiotics, etc.)

VK: How did you elaborate or develop your ideas on Petri nets / flow processes (which you spoke about in the 1968 conference) - as a mapping of networks of interactions in a system?

AH:: In answering this question I leave its language to one side, ...because I do not understand it well enough.

In effect: I have always "been after" the organized activity (OA) idea. "OA" (to me) MEANS human activity. (For this reason I think I was attracted to the biological/anthropological side of GB).

I got hooked on Petri nets, and on Petri, (a) partly because he too seemed to be -- at least partly -- focused on human activity; (b) because my nose told me that his "nets" promised a revision of mathematics in the right direction; (c) for mysterious reasons that go beyond all discussion.

In a sense I am STILL hooked on Petri nets, but not so much as a new approach to mathematics (which, to the present day, fascinates Petri) but more as leading to, and well representing, deep aspects of OA understanding.

 VK: Mary Catherine Bateson commenting on your '68 presentation said that 'concurrence turned out to be one of the most important concepts we discussed.' Can you say a few introductory words about this concept and why it was seen by the conference group as such a puzzle for them to get hold of?

AH: Yes, ... I DO think that concurrency is a concept of fundamental importance, and naturally difficult for our culture. What is this concept all about?

1. In his more recent work CAP (Carl Adam Petri) has shifted the emphasis from concurrency to similarity relations -- which, in contrast to equivalence relations, lack transitivity; (and, of course, concurrency is an example). Still I THINK that concurrency has an importance all its own because it uniquely relates to TIME.

In his earlier work, CAP related concurrency extensively to relativistic physics (Minkowski cones, and the like) -- a connection which I do not see as unimportant, but not of primary importance.

2. I once noticed: there must be a biological sense of time which is more important than the "time" that is measured by clocks. For, ... as regards clocks, ... without a pre-clock biological sense of time, clocks would be useless: one would never know when to look!!

3. Concurrency as a formal relation is well adapted to picturing coordination between human actions in a pre-clock sense. For clearly: without coordination between human actions there is no OA; therefore also no possibility for the construction and subsequent use of clocks.

Unfortunately we (Western philosophers, scientists, thinkers) have IMAGINED that clocks and their synchronized networks somewhat imperfectly mirror an underlying (physical) reality -- whereas (in my opinion) OA and the concurrency on which it depends is all there is to say about the "underlying reality" (more so than relativistic physics). (This is a point of view that doesn't "sit well" with us-guys, even if we are special and brilliant, ... or perhaps ESPECIALLY then.)

VK: Thanks a lot Anatol, we'll continue this a little later on….


anatol holt.jpg (3671 bytes)


Anatol Holt -

In 1997 Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht Holland, published a book of his titled"Organized Activity and Its Support by Computer" (available throughamazon); more recently (1998) Masson/Dunod published a short book  in English, also into Italian, under the Italian title: "Ripensare il mondo:il computer e vincoli sociali". This little volume is (or will be) available in Italian bookstores . He's currently writing a new book (probably with an Italianprofessor) focused on "information".


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