The Relevance of Cybernetics to Contemporary Society

The following was written by, and is posted on behalf of, Tim Falkiner. Tim wrote this in response to the CybSoc’s 2021...

Written by Miguel Marcos Martinez · 5 min read >
Signal system for people

The following was written by, and is posted on behalf of, Tim Falkiner. Tim wrote this in response to the CybSoc’s 2021 Symposium, The Relevance of Cybernetics. The Symposium can be viewed online at


These are some comments on viewing the video of the Symposium on the Relevance of Cybernetics to Contemporary Society. This symposium asked questions of what is cybernetics? What is it for and what use is it? What does it mean and what do we do with it?

Also, what is the relationship between cybernetics and art?

Defining cybernetics

First, one must have a definition of cybernetics. (I have a cartoon showing protesters chanting at a policeman, “What do we want? We want a responsive, democratic, redistributive, economic system sensitive to all needs! When do we want it? Now!)

You see the point. One must have a name and it must be simple.

First, it must be asked, what area of science is intended to be covered by the Society? My experience as a homeskooled, colonial rustic is based on some 1980s planning theory and a limited reading of Norbert Wiener and Stafford Beer. But from what I have gleaned, I would say control systems theory is encapsulated within systems theory. Control systems theory focusses on the internal controls that keep a system stable or, if unstable, are responsible for moving the system wherever it is going. Cybernetics is the study of these control systems using scientific principles and a common language covering such natural laws as the law of requisite variety and the mathematics of positive and negative feedback. (Second order cybernetics is an application or extension of cybernetics.)

If the technical term “cybernetics” is narrower than what I have described, then does the society:

·        proscribe its activities to a narrower area of science falling within the term;

·        change its name; or

·        simply accept that some of the area of its deliberations may fall outside the technical definition of “cybernetics”?

Proscribing its activities would be, well, unscientific. Changing its name would throw away its special relevance and accumulated branding awareness and may compromise its relationship with other kindred organizations. And any likely new name would cause it to sink into obscurity in a sea of other management and organizational-named organizations. In my view, the Society should accept that some of the area of its deliberations may fall outside the technical definition of “cybernetics”. There are probably many other cases of organizations where this is done.

Elevator Pitch

Richard Berry made the point we must have an elevator pitch. My pitch is this.

I hold my hands up with my fingers interlocked. “You have heard of systems theory. In modern science we realize that things are interrelated and dynamic. Like the weather or the components of a motor car.” And systems are held together, they operate, by a set of internal controls. For example the body keeps an even temperature, your car engine maintains a consistent fuel/air mixture.” Here, I turn my hands around and wiggle my fingers. “These are control systems and they all operate in accordance with cybernetic laws. Cybernetics is the science of these control systems. Cybernetics is like systems theory inside out!”

“The laws of cybernetics are natural laws like Newton’s laws of mechanics or the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics and electromagnetism. And the laws of cybernetics are just as fundamental and just as important. Cybernetics makes your car engine run smoothly and not like the all-ordinaries index.”

Relevance of Cybernetics

Control systems theory and cybernetics are being applied in the hard sciences with astounding successes. Cybernetics is relevant in the same way as the other “scientific laws” such as the law of gravity. However, the success of the hard sciences has brought with it increases in the magnitude and complexity of our world, which increases require a matching level of scientific skill (control systems and cybernetic science) in the management of these new challenges.

We are forging ahead in the hard sciences whilst ignoring, or failing to recognize, that areas of government, law and economics are subject to the natural laws of control systems and cybernetics. Each nation is like a team of draught horses with one of the team pulling back, surging ahead, jostling the other horses or trying to head off in a different direction. Astounding advances in the hard sciences are being squandered or negated by naive blundering.

Image problems with cybernetics

Cybernetics is the pure science of control systems but areas such as government, economics and law are considered humanities and not sciences. The humanities are seen as fuzzier and not requiring the same level of intellectual discipline required by the sciences.

Many are hostile to cybernetics categorizing it as “socialist”. Others are afraid it is machines taking over and de-humanizing societies.

Finally, cybernetics is about reducing chaos and the big boys do not want that. If you are the strongest man in the public bar (and I am using the masculine purposefully) you want a mass of smaller disorganized customers crowding at the bar so you can push them aside and get lots to drink; you don’t want a queue.

A cybernetic view of art

Control systems theory and cybernetics involve the making of models of systems. Many of the systems to which cybernetics is applied involve humans.

To understand systems involving humans it is necessary to understand how the human mind works. One needs to develop models of the human mind. One useful model of the human mind considers the human mind as comprising a conscious and unconscious mind. The conscious and unconscious minds use different languages. The conscious mind uses reasoning, logic and written and spoken language.  The language of the unconscious is patterns, symbols, motifs, emotions and feelings. As Jung wrote, “Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purpose through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is “man” in a higher sense— he is “collective man”— one who carries and shapes the unconscious, psychic forms of mankind.” [C.G. Jung “The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature” CW: 15 page 158 1930)]

Art accesses the unconscious mind and it can help in at least three ways.

One way is by giving us a better picture of the nature of the unconscious mind, a mind which is not a blank sheet or a new piece of random access memory but which has been shaped over the course of human existence into patterns which Carl Jung termed “archetypes”. We can examine art which the unconscious is producing and get a back-bearing on the structure and behaviour of the unconscious. We can also observe the effect of art on behaviour. Applying Jung’s principles, the unconscious can be viewed as a grey, rather than a black, box. This enables us to build better models.

Another function of art is to tap into the immense processing power of the unconscious. This is adverted to by Stafford Beer in his 40 years in cybernetics lecture when he suggests the use of runes to assist in decision-making in the face of complex problems. Art can carry meanings which can only be expressed clumsily in words and bring out things that were not in conscious thought. (Jung wrote, “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.”) [C.G. Jung “The Practice of Psychotherapy” CW 16 para 181]

Finally, the libido is located in the unconscious. It is the unconscious that moves us to action. Art can be used to motivate. With art, we can alter the zeitgeist, the common mood and values of the people. Art can be used for positive goals or for exploitation. Udo Becker, in the introduction to a book on symbols writes, “Usually, discussing symbols is a benign activity, one that points the way to the intellectual treasures of the past and revitalizes them.  But unscrupulous use of this coded world can trap people and turn them into robots.” Udo Becker, “Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols” 1994.


Name – There is a hard science behind the controlling of large systems. We have to give it a name and (I am open to be convinced otherwise) the best name we can give it is cybernetics – realizing that, technically, the term may overlap with other terms.

Hard science – We must differentiate cybernetics from the plethora of management theories on the basis that cybernetics is hard science; though, of course, its application may involve uncertainties just as a bridge builder must combine mechanical laws with the materials at hand.

Importance – Cybernetics is more important today than ever before, due to the advances in the other hard sciences generating increased complexity.

Role of Art – One of the most difficult systems to model is the human mind and yet it is one of the most critical elements of many cybernetic models. Art is part of the language of the unconscious and it can be used for understanding, for effecting fundamental change in the common psyche and for motivation.

Tim Falkiner

3 Replies to “The Relevance of Cybernetics to Contemporary Society”

  1. Just a clarification- The intention for cybernetics, as outlined by Wiener and played out and applied by the Ratio club was that it was a common language and tool to be used by scientists that bridged the disciplines and thus the divides between them. This was only possible because of the universality of its application and relevance.
    After a very productive burst of activity of 20-30 years that broad application seemed to wane, settling much where it currently is.. The reasons why are a matter for debate!

  2. Thank you Tim (and Miguel for posting). Much of interest here! So deserving attention. You make 3 assumptions, a) that Cybernetics is a “hard science”, b) that it is a system science, and c) that it is in principle one with control systems theory. All of these can be challenged. There is “good” science and the rest is not scientific. Yes, however, that does not mean all science is the same. We have realised that the epistemology of the scientific process or method is part of the scientific method. In this, cybernetics challenged the causal logic that dominated scientific method and axioms since c1600. At last, it provided answers to fundamental questions (of biology, sociology, design, ecology…) that cannot be answered by the logic of what is reducible to physics. The purposeful or directive is fundamental to the rationale of feedback and the significance of Ashby’s hypothesis, et al.

    That’s also why the notion that it is a system theory, as conceived today, can be challenged. It’s perfectly true that we can create cybernetic devices that use physics and controls systems tools in their construction, but that’s different from the fundamental theory that informs their design. I join with a number of esteemed cybernetic scientists in claiming cybernetics has a different frame from “system science”. It confuses people because it explains and predicts “systemic” patterns.

    That members of the founding group had a background in control systems can confuse us. However, the cybernetic model is radically different. This is revealed in the self-organizing biology of life, including conscious and unconscious sentence and (in some organisms) self- or reflective-consciousness. If it was only control systems theory, then we would not have needed a new name. But it’s an advance that leads towards a better understanding of the nature and working of life and indeed art. A short reply like this is not the best place to amplify. I shall consider one.

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