Cybernetics is a wide-ranging field concerned with regulatory and purposive systems. The core concept of cybernetics is circular causality or feedback—where the observed outcomes of actions are taken as inputs for further action in ways that support the pursuit and maintenance of particular conditions, or their disruption. Cybernetics is named after an example of circular causality, that of steering a ship,[a] where the helmsperson maintains a steady course in a changing environment by adjusting their steering in continual response to the effect it is observed as having. Other examples of circular causal feedback include: technological devices such as thermostats (where the action of a heater responds to measured changes in temperature, regulating the temperature of the room within a set range); biological examples such as the coordination of volitional movement through the nervous system; and processes of social interaction such as conversation. Cybernetics is concerned with feedback processes such as steering however they are embodied, including in ecological, technological, biological, cognitive, and social systems, and in the context of practical activities such as designing, learning, managing, conversation, and the practice of cybernetics itself. Cybernetics' transdisciplinary and "antidisciplinary" character has meant that it intersects with a number of other fields, leading to it having both wide influence and diverse interpretations.
Cybernetics has its origins in exchanges between numerous fields during the 1940s, including anthropology, mathematics, neuroscience, psychology, and engineering. Initial developments were consolidated through meetings such as the Macy Conferences and the Ratio Club. At its most prominent during the 1950s and 1960s, cybernetics is a precursor to fields such as computing, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, complexity science, and robotics amongst others. It is closely related to systems science, which was developed in parallel. Early focuses included purposeful behaviour, neural networks, heterarchy, information theory, and self-organising systems. As cybernetics developed, it became broader in scope to include work in domains such as design, family therapy, management and organisation, pedagogy, sociology, and the creative arts. At the same time, questions arising from circular causality have been explored in relation to the philosophy of science, ethics, and constructivist approaches, while cybernetics has also been associated with counter-cultural movements. Contemporary cybernetics thus varies widely in scope and focus, with cyberneticians variously adopting and combining technical, scientific, philosophical, creative, and critical approaches.
Cybernetics has been defined in a variety of ways, reflecting "the richness of its conceptual base". One of the most well known definitions is that of Norbert Wiener who characterised cybernetics as concerned with "control and communication in the animal and the machine". Another early definition is that of the Macy cybernetics conferences, where cybernetics was understood as the study of "circular causal and feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems". Margaret Mead emphasised the role of cybernetics as "a form of cross-disciplinary thought which made it possible for members of many disciplines to communicate with each other easily in a language which all could understand".
Other definitions include: “the art of governing or the science of government” (André-Marie Ampère); "the art of steersmanship" (Ross Ashby); "the study of systems of any nature which are capable of receiving, storing, and processing information so as to use it for control" (Andrey Kolmogorov); "a branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness, and information, focuses on forms and the patterns that connect" (Gregory Bateson); "the art of securing efficient operation" (Louis Couffignal); "the art of effective organization." (Stafford Beer); "the science or the art of manipulating defensible metaphors; showing how they may be constructed and what can be inferred as a result of their existence" (Gordon Pask); "the art of creating equilibrium in a world of constraints and possibilities" (Ernst von Glasersfeld); "the science and art of understanding" (Humberto Maturana); "the ability to cure all temporary truth of eternal triteness" (Herbert Brun); "a way of thinking about ways of thinking (of which it is one)" (Larry Richards);
The word cybernetics comes from Greek κυβερνητική (kybernētikḗ), meaning "governance", i.e., all that are pertinent to κυβερνάω (kybernáō), the latter meaning "to steer, navigate or govern", hence κυβέρνησις (kybérnēsis), meaning "government", is the government while κυβερνήτης (kybernḗtēs) is the governor, pilot, or "helmsperson" of the "ship".
French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère first coined the word "cybernetique" in his 1834 essay Essai sur la philosophie des sciences to describe the science of civil government. The term was used by Norbert Wiener, in his book Cybernetics, to define the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. In the book, he states: "Although the term cybernetics does not date further back than the summer of 1947, we shall find it convenient to use in referring to earlier epochs of the development of the field."
Systems science, systems theory, and systems thinking
Systems approaches influenced by cybernetics include:
- Critical systems thinking, which incorporates the Viable System Model from the work of Stafford Beer.
- Systemic design, which has drawn on the work of cyberneticians Ranulph Glanville, Klaus Krippendorff, and Paul Pangaro.
- System dynamics, which is based on the concept of causal feedback loops.
Other intersecting fields
Cybernetics' broad scope and tendency to transgress disciplinary norms means its own boundaries have shifted over time and can be difficult to define. Many fields trace their origins in whole or part to work carried out in cybernetics, or were partially absorbed into cybernetics when it was developed. These include:
- Artificial intelligence
- Cognitive science
- Control theory
- Complexity science
- Computer science
- Information theory
Key concepts in cybernetics include:
The notion of eigenform is an example of a self-referential system that produces a stable form. It plays an important role in the work of Heinz von Foerster and is "inextricably linked with second order cybernetics".
Feedback and circular causality
Feedback is a process where the outputs of a system are taken as new inputs for the same system.
Law of requisite variety
Notable subfields and theories
Notable subfields and theories of cybernetics include:
Double bind theory
Double binds are patterns created in interaction between two or more parties in ongoing relationships where there is a contradiction between messages at different logical levels that creates a situation with emotional threat but no possibility of withdrawal from the situation and no way to articulate the problem. While the theory was first described by Gregory Bateson and colleagues in the 1950s with regard to the origins of schizophrenia, it is also characteristic of many other social contexts.
Good regulator theorem
Perceptual control theory
Second-order cybernetics, also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics, is the recursive application of cybernetics to itself and the practice of cybernetics according to such a critique. It has seen development of cybernetics in relation to family therapy, the social sciences, the creative arts, design research, and philosophy. It is associated with Margaret Mead, Heinz von Foerster, the Biological Computer Laboratory and the American Society for Cybernetics.
Viable system model
The word cybernetics was first used in the context of "the study of self-governance" by Plato in Republic and in Alcibiades to signify the governance of people. The word 'cybernétique' was also used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge.
The first artificial automatic regulatory system was a water clock, invented by the mechanician Ktesibios; based on a tank which poured water into a reservoir before using it to run the mechanism, it used a cone-shaped float to monitor the level of the water in its reservoir and adjust the rate of flow of the water accordingly to maintain a constant level of water in the reservoir. This was the first artificial truly automatic self-regulatory device that required no outside intervention between the feedback and the controls of the mechanism. Devices constructed by Ktesibios and others such as Hero of Alexandria, Philo of Byzantium and Su Song are early examples of cybernetic principles in action.
In the late 18th century James Watt's steam engine was equipped with a governor (1775–1800), a centrifugal feedback valve for controlling the speed of the engine. In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell published a theoretical article on governors, one of the first to discuss and refine the principles of self-regulating devices. Jakob von Uexküll applied the feedback mechanism via his model of functional cycle (Funktionskreis) in order to explain animal behaviour and the origins of meaning in general. Electronic control systems originated with the 1927 work of Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer Harold S. Black on using negative feedback to control amplifiers. In 1935 Russian physiologist P. K. Anokhin published a book in which the concept of feedback ("back afferentation") was studied.
The study and mathematical modelling of regulatory processes became a continuing research effort and two key articles were published in 1943: "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology" by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow –based on the research on living organisms that Arturo Rosenblueth did in Mexico–; and the paper "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity" by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. In the early 1940s John von Neumann contributed a unique and unusual addition to the world of cybernetics: von Neumann cellular automata, and their logical follow up, the von Neumann Universal Constructor. The result of these deceptively simple thought-experiments was the concept of self replication, which cybernetics adopted as a core concept.
The foundations of cybernetics were developed through a series of transdisciplinary conferences funded by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, between 1946 and 1953. The conferences were chaired by McCulloch and had participants included Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, Heinz von Foerster, Margaret Mead, John von Neumann, and Norbert Wiener.
In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy (France was an important geographical locus of early cybernetics together with the US and UK); the event was organized by the Bourbaki and mathematician Szolem Mandelbrojt. During this stay in France, Wiener received the offer to write a manuscript on the unifying character of this part of applied mathematics, which is found in the study of Brownian motion and in telecommunication engineering. The following summer, back in the United States, Wiener decided to introduce the neologism cybernetics, coined to denote the study of "teleological mechanisms", into his scientific theory: it was popularized through his book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. In the UK this became the focus for the Ratio Club. In 1950, Wiener popularized the social implications of cybernetics, drawing analogies between automatic systems (such as a regulated steam engine) and human institutions in his best-selling The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Houghton-Mifflin). Published in 1954, Qian Xuesen published work "Engineering Cybernetics" was the basis of science in segregating the engineering concepts of Cybernetics from the theoretical understanding of Cybernetics as described so far historically.
The Biological Computer Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, under the direction of Heinz von Foerster, was a major center of cybernetic research for almost 20 years, beginning in 1958.
Cybernetics in the Soviet Union
Cybernetics in the Soviet Union was initially considered a "pseudoscience" and "ideological weapon" of "imperialist reactionaries" (Soviet Philosophical Dictionary, 1954) and later criticised as a narrow form of cybernetics. In the mid to late 1950s Viktor Glushkov and others salvaged the reputation of the field. Soviet cybernetics incorporated much of what became known as computer science in the West.
Split from artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) was founded as a distinct discipline at the Dartmouth workshop in 1956. After some uneasy coexistence, AI gained funding and prominence. Consequently, cybernetic sciences such as the study of artificial neural networks were downplayed; the discipline shifted into the world of social sciences and therapy.
Further development and new directions
In the 1970s, new cyberneticians emerged in multiple fields, but especially in biology. The ideas of Maturana, Varela and Atlan, according to Jean-Pierre Dupuy (1986) "realized that the cybernetic metaphors of the program upon which molecular biology had been based rendered a conception of the autonomy of the living being impossible. Consequently, these thinkers were led to invent a new cybernetics, one more suited to the organizations which mankind discovers in nature - organizations he has not himself invented". However, during the 1980s the question of whether the features of this new cybernetics could be applied to social forms of organization remained open to debate.
In the 1980s, according to Harries-Jones (1988) "unlike its predecessor, the new cybernetics concerns itself with the interaction of autonomous political actors and subgroups, and the practical and reflexive consciousness of the subjects who produce and reproduce the structure of a political community. A dominant consideration is that of recursiveness, or self-reference of political action both with regards to the expression of political consciousness and with the ways in which systems build upon themselves".
One characteristic of the emerging new cybernetics considered in that time by Felix Geyer and Hans van der Zouwen, according to Bailey (1994), was "that it views information as constructed and reconstructed by an individual interacting with the environment. This provides an epistemological foundation of science, by viewing it as observer-dependent. Another characteristic of the new cybernetics is its contribution towards bridging the micro-macro gap. That is, it links the individual with the society". Another characteristic noted was the "transition from classical cybernetics to the new cybernetics [that] involves a transition from classical problems to new problems. These shifts in thinking involve, among others, (a) a change from emphasis on the system being steered to the system doing the steering, and the factor which guides the steering decisions; and (b) new emphasis on communication between several systems which are trying to steer each other".
Recent endeavors into the true focus of cybernetics, systems of control and emergent behavior, by such related fields as game theory (the analysis of group interaction), systems of feedback in evolution, and metamaterials (the study of materials with properties beyond the Newtonian properties of their constituent atoms), have led to a revived interest in the field.
Practice and application
Cybernetics' transdisciplinary origins have led to a wide variety of applications, approaches and associations.
In the natural sciences and technology
Other applications of cybernetics in biology include the physicist George Gamow's article in Scientific American called "Information transfer in the living cell", and biologists Jacques Monod and François Jacob use of cybernetics as a language for formulating their early theory of gene regulatory networks in the 1960s.
Engineering and computing
Medicine and medical technology
Cybernetics has been used as a general reference for the science between the interjection of disciplines Medicine and technology. This involves sciences such as Bionics, Prosthetics, Neural network, Microchip implants, Neuroprosthetics and Brain-computer interface.
- In Earth system science. Geocybernetics aims to study and control the complex co-evolution of ecosphere and anthroposphere, for example, for dealing with planetary problems such as anthropogenic global warming. Geocybernetics applies a dynamical systems perspective to Earth system analysis. It provides a theoretical framework for studying the implications of following different sustainability paradigms on co-evolutionary trajectories of the planetary socio-ecological system to reveal attractors in this system, their stability, resilience and reachability. Concepts such as tipping points in the climate system, planetary boundaries, the safe operating space for humanity and proposals for manipulating Earth system dynamics on a global scale such as geoengineering have been framed in the language of geocybernetic Earth system analysis.
- In physics. Cybernetical physics is an approach to studying physical systems using cybernetics.
Economics and economic planning
Psychology and cognitive science
Concepts from cybernetics spread throughout psychology from the 1950s onwards. The psychological theory, reversal theory, was rooted in cybernetics and continues to be the basis of research and practice.
By examining group behavior through the lens of cybernetics, sociologists can seek the reasons for such spontaneous events as smart mobs and riots, as well as how communities develop rules such as etiquette by consensus without formal discussion. Affect Control Theory explains role behavior, emotions, and labeling theory in terms of homeostatic maintenance of sentiments associated with cultural categories.
The most comprehensive attempt ever made in the social sciences to increase cybernetics in a generalized theory of society was made by Talcott Parsons. In this way, cybernetics establishes the basic hierarchy in Parsons' AGIL paradigm, which is the ordering system-dimension of his action theory. These and other cybernetic models in sociology are reviewed in a book edited by McClelland and Fararo.
In creative, practical, and therapeutic disciplines
Architecture and design
Cybernetics was an influence on thinking in architecture and design in the decades after the Second World War. Ashby and Pask were drawn on by design theorists such as Horst Rittel, Christopher Alexander and Bruce Archer. Pask was a consultant to Nicholas Negroponte's Architecture Machine Group, forerunner of the MIT Media Lab, and collaborated with architect Cedric Price and theatre director Joan Littlewood on the influential Fun Palace project during the 1960s. Pask's 1950s Musicolour installation was the inspiration for John and Julia Frazer's work on Price's Generator project.
Cybernetic art is contemporary art that builds upon the legacy of cybernetics, where feedback involved in the work takes precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. The relationship between cybernetics and art can be summarised in three ways: cybernetics can be used to study art, to create works of art or may itself be regarded as an art form in its own right.
The prominent and influential Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1968 curated by Jasia Reichardt, including Schöffer's CYSP I and Gordon Pask's Colloquy of Mobiles installation. Pask's reflections on Colloquy connected it to his earlier Musicolour installation and to what he termed "aesthetically potent environments", a concept that connected this artistic work to his concerns with teaching and learning.
The artist Roy Ascott elaborated an extensive theory of cybernetic art in "Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision" (Cybernetica, Journal of the International Association for Cybernetics (Namur), Volume IX, No.4, 1966; Volume X No.1, 1967) and in "The Cybernetic Stance: My Process and Purpose" (Leonardo Vol 1, No 2, 1968). Art historian Edward A. Shanken has written about the history of art and cybernetics in essays including "Cybernetics and Art: Cultural Convergence in the 1960s" and From Cybernetics to Telematics: The Art, Pedagogy, and Theory of Roy Ascott (2003), which traces the trajectory of Ascott's work from cybernetic art to telematic art (art using computer networking as its medium, a precursor to net.art).
Cybernetics has been influential in the development of educational technology, notably in the work of Gordon Pask, and in theories of teaching and learning, including Pask's Conversation Theory, Ernst von Glasersfeld's Radical Constructivism, and Gregory Bateson's conception of deuterolearning.
Management and organisation
Management as a field of study covers the task of managing a multitude of systems (often business systems), which presents a wide natural overlap with many of the classical concepts of cybernetics. Management cybernetics includes approaches such as Stafford Beer's Viable System Model and Syntegration.
The method of levels is an approach to psychotherapy based on perceptual control theory where the therapist aims to help the patient shift their awareness to higher levels of perception in order to resolve conflicts and allow reorganization to take place.
Notable devices and projects
A distinctive quality of cybernetics, especially as developed by British cyberneticians, is that it was often progressed through experimental devices and social projects. Notable examples include:
Colloquy of Mobiles
Colloquy of Mobiles was an installation by Gordon Pask at the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition in 1968.
Elmer and Elsie
Elmer and Elsie were a pair of robot "tortoises" developed by William Grey Walter.
The Fun Palace was a radical architectural project developed in the 1960s by the architect Cedric Price, theatre director Joan Littlewood, and cybernetician Gordon Pask. Although unbuilt, the project was widely influential, notably on the design of the Centre Pompidou.
The Homeostat was a device built by Ross Ashby that was capable of adapting itself to the environment, exhibited behaviours such as habituation, reinforcement and learning through its ability to maintain homeostasis in a changing environment.
Musicolour was an interactive light installation developed by Gordon Pask during the 1950s. It responded to musicians' variations and, if they did not vary their playing, it would become 'bored' and stop responding, prompting the musicians to respond.
School for Designing a Society
The School for Designing a Society is a project of teachers, performers, artists, and activists, influenced by cybernetics, where the question “What would I consider a desirable society?” is given serious playful thoughtful discussion. Founders and guests include Susan Parenti, Mark Enslin, Herbert Brun, and Larry Richards. A premise of the school was that social change can be realized in a transformation from the current to a new society (a change of system), not only in improvements to the current society (changes in a system).
Gregory Bateson saw the world as a series of systems containing those of individuals, societies and ecosystems. Each of these systems has adaptive changes which depend upon feedback loops to control balance by changing multiple variables. He saw the natural ecological system as innately good as long as it was allowed to maintain homeostasis, and that the key unit of survival in evolution was an organism and its environment.
Bateson, in this subject, presents western epistemology as a method of thinking that leads to a mindset in which man exerts an autocratic rule over all cybernetic systems and in doing so he unbalances the natural cybernetic system of controlled competition and mutual dependency. Bateson claims that humanity will never be able to control the whole system because it does not operate in a linear fashion, and if humanity creates his own rules for the system, he opens himself up to becoming a slave to the self-made system due to the non-linear nature of cybernetics. Lastly, man's technological prowess combined with his scientific hubris gives him the potential to irrevocably damage and destroy the "supreme cybernetic system" (i.e. the biosphere), instead of just disrupting the system temporally until the system can self-correct.
Epistemology and the philosophy of science
Second-order cybernetics is associated with a radically constructivist approach to epistemology and the philosophy of science.
The critique of objectivity developed in second-order cybernetics led to a concern with ethical issues. Foerster developed a critique of morality in ethical terms, arguing for ethics to remain implicit in action. Foerster's position has been described as an "ethics of enabling ethics" or as a form of "recursive ethical questioning". Varela published a short book on "ethical know-how". Glanville identified a number of "desirable" ethical qualities implicit in the cybernetic devices of the black box, distinction, autonomy, and conversation. Others have drawn connections to design and critical systems heuristics.
Deleuze and Guattari
The Gaia hypothesis was informed by the first wave of cybernetic concepts - homeostasis, self-organization, negative feedback, and self-regulation - and later by the second-order cybernetic theory of autopoiesis.
Cybernetics' relevance across and between the domains of "the animal and machine" have been an influence on the development of posthumanism, such as in the work of N. Katherine Hayles.
- A model of cybernetics in Sport was introduced by Yuri Verkhoshansky and Mel C. Siff in 1999 in their book Supertraining.
- Psycho-Cybernetics is a self-help book written by Maxwell Maltz in 1960.
- Constructivist Foundations
- Cybernetics and Human Knowing
- Cybernetics and Systems
- IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics: Systems
- IEEE Transactions on Human-Machine Systems
- IEEE Transactions on Cybernetics
- IEEE Transactions on Computational Social Systems
Organisations primarily concerned with cybernetics or aspects of it include:
American Society for Cybernetics
IEEE Systems, Man, and Cybernetics Society
Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics
The Metaphorum group was set up in 2003 to develop Stafford Beer's legacy in Organizational Cybernetics. The Metaphorum Group was born in a Syntegration in 2003 and have every year after developed a Conference on issues related to Organizational Cybernetics' theory and practice.
SCiO - Systems and Complexity in Organisation
SCiO (Systems and Complexity in Organisation) is a community of systems practitioners who believe that traditional approaches to running organisations are no longer capable of dealing with the complexity and turbulence faced by organisations today and are responsible for many of the problems we see today. SCiO is the Body of Knowledge in Systems Practice in the UK, delivers a apprenticeship on masters level and a certification in systems practice.
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- ^ See also: https://asc-cybernetics.org/definitions/
- ^ "La cybernétique est l’art de l’efficacité de l’action" originally a French definition formulated in 1953, lit. "Cybernetics is the art of effective action"
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artificial intelligence was born at a conference at Dartmouth in 1956 that was organized by McCarthy, Minsky, rochester, and shannon, three years after the Macy conferences on cybernetics had ended (Boden 2006; McCorduck 1972). The two movements coexisted for roughly a de- cade, but by the mid-1960s, the proponents of symbolic ai gained control of national funding conduits and ruthlessly defunded cybernetics research. This effectively liquidated the subfields of self-organizing systems, neural networks and adaptive machines, evolutionary programming, biological computation, and bionics for several decades, leaving the workers in management, therapy and the social sciences to carry the torch. i think some of the polemical pushing-and-shoving between first-order control theorists and second-order crowds that i witnessed in subsequent decades was the cumulative result of a shift of funding, membership, and research from the "hard" natural sciences to "soft" socio-psychological interventions.
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His complicated but interesting book Knots (1970) further enhanced his status as an original thinker in understanding universal family dynamics in dysfunctional families.
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