People with the city in their persons

Article by Angus Jenkinson FCybS, June 2021

This page introduces the relevance of cybernetics to ‘People’: i.e. a synthesis of fields related to individuals, groups, and society for those who might wish to know about cybernetics or be a member of the Society. It is a sketch not a thorough introduction and does not aim to be definitive, it is indicative. It concerns transdisciplinary aspects of the human and societal situations within a transdisciplinary scientific and cultural frame. Complicated problems rarely sit in subject silos.

Rather than assume a unitary cybernetics, I ask how its disunity mattered to the history of the human sciences …Herbert Simon, George Miller, Karl Deutsch, and Talcott Parsons …created cybernetic models in psychology, economics, political science, and sociology with the work of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, [in relation to] such well-known cyberneticians as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, W. Ross Ashby, and Heinz von Foerster.

— Ronald Kline⁠1

In a certain sense, cybernetics is even more relevant to understanding the human being than ‘Life’ in general.  Most animals are born fairly competent, adept in their own specie’s way of skilful coping (a phrase of the philosopher Dreyfus) in their Umwelt or experiential environment.  What they are not born with they learn quickly.  Humans are not so smart.  We are often still figuring out how to live our lives at the end of our days — or lifelong learning.  Learning involves recursive navigation, exploring our own knowledge and modifying it in the processes of engaging with the world and our errors (btw, the original Hebrew meaning of ‘sin’).  That’s obviously relevant to what has been called “Knowing”, but it’s also relevant to understanding human beings and cybernetics.  Like all living organisms we navigate our world but we also navigate our navigation. 

During the second half of the 20th century, cybernetics influenced very many fields including sociology, psychology and other psychotherapies, management, neuroscience, linguistics and more: 

Cybernetics saturates the humanities. [It]… gave vocabulary and hardware to developments all across the early digital era, …talk of feedback and information and pattern had spread to popular culture… [and] created a shared language…, and it refracted or channelled currents developing in fields from manufacturing to human physiology. It produced conceptions of the political world, as well as new forms of historical consciousness. It offered frameworks for structuralist thought, but also for policies regarding manufacturing and technology, international relations, and governmental decision-making. But the rising sense of the breadth, importance, and even shock of cybernetics long remained understudied, even as its intellectual assemblages continued to, well, relay. In devices and the so-called ‘digital humanities’, a refracted legacy of cybernetics is also visible. From mainframes to category-frameworks, cybernetics is everywhere in our material and intellectual worlds… [It]permeates the human sciences and our culture at large…

—Stefanos Geroulanos and Leif Weatherby⁠2

 An illustration of this diversity it is given by Jim Wynter Porter in relation to Chinese linguistics:

As one of the most famous Chinese intellectuals of the twentieth century, Chao Yuen Ren is known primarily for his founding of modern Chinese linguistics. …When he taught at Berkeley in 1947, he read Norbert Wiener’s book manuscript and gravitated toward the subject. His participation in the 1953 Macy Conference marked the beginning of his decades-long work that used the concepts of feedback and information to understand language in general and Chinese in particular. …Chao’s exploration of cybernetics was influenced not only by the rise of information science in the midcentury United States but also by the movement to modernize the Chinese language two decades earlier. His phonetic research for dialect surveys, involvement in language reform, and appropriation of structuralism when he worked in China in the 1920s and 1930s shaped his cybernetic interpretations of language in the 1950s and 1960s. …an East Asian context affected an aspect of the early development of cybernetics… [and] transnational science.

— Jim Wynter Porter⁠3

 In another example, consider the field of sociology.  Autopoiesis is a biological field has been discussed in relation to Life — The Scientific Discipline scientific discipline inaugurated by Humberto Maturana and developed with Francisco Varela.  But this was then picked up and transposed into a sociology by Luhmann, as a method of understanding society.  Less overtly cybernetic, one of the most influential sociologists of recent decades, Anthony Giddens, deploys innumerable cybernetic concepts in his development of structuration theory as an explanation of society’s order and working. 

In Gadamer’s developed work, the concept of ‘play’ (Spiel) has an important role here. Gadamer takes play as the basic clue to the ontological structure of art, emphasizing the way in which play is not a form of disengaged, disinterested exercise of subjectivity, but is rather something that has its own order and structure to which one is given over. The structure of play has obvious affinities with all of the other concepts at issue here—of dialogue, phronesis, the hermeneutical situation, the truth of art. Indeed, one can take all of these ideas as providing slightly different elaborations of what is essentially the same basic conception of understanding—one that takes our finitude, that is, our prior involvement and partiality, not as a barrier to understanding, but rather as its enabling condition.⁠4


“A Jazz musician is someone that puts a $5,000 horn in a $500 car and drives 50 miles for a $5 gig.” This quotation from the famous thinker, Anonymous, surely illustrates the fundamental orientation of the human, from which any other behaviour is a deviation, i.e. the quest to do what one is truly motivated to do.

When we look into his explanation of individual and group behaviour in the constitution of society, it is profoundly imbued — whether discussing the workplace or children’s play, or indeed play throughout life, or the way that social forms arise in different cultural societies with notions of recursion, feedback, purposeful behaviour, observer responsiveness, context, and other fundamental concepts of cybernetics.  Take this for example:

“A person’s identity is not to be found in behaviour, nor — important though this is — in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going. The individual’s biography, if she is to maintain regular interaction with others in the day-to-day world, cannot be wholly fictive. It must continually integrate events which occur in the external world, and sort them into the ongoing ‘story’ about the self.” (Op. cit.)

To keep something going is to maintain a steady-state (a homeostat), to maintain a condition by internal self reference in relation to an external changing environment.  That is a fundamentally cybernetic approach.  As Maturana discusses how this happens biologically, here Giddens is discussing it at the level of personality and behaviour.  Take this excerpt from his fundamental summary of his theory:

The social systems in which structure is recursively implicated, on the contrary, comprise the situated activities of human agents, reproduced across time and space. Analysing the structuration of social systems means studying the modes in which such systems, grounded in the knowledgeable activities of situated actors who draw upon rules and resources in the diversity of action contexts, are produced and reproduced in interaction. (Op. cit.)

Situation, reproduction, contexts, diversity (variety), and interaction — and earlier on the hermeneutic understanding, that is interpretation: all of these play a part in cybernetics. The founders of cybernetics were deeply involved in psychology and psychotherapies.  When NLP was developed it primarily drew on principles of cybernetics.


Perceptual control theory, which its founder Bill Powers described early on as fundamentally cybernetic, provides an extremely powerful explanation of human and all living behaviour.  In the case of humans, how we form objectives (for example as mental pictures or motives) like making or getting a drink and then we steer our way towards it by observing what we observe and adjusting what we do in order to bring about the observation of the world that we want, such as going to where the kettle is or the café and accurately going through the necessary procedures.  It’s entirely a process in which we as human beings steer our activities by observing and steering the feedback, that is our own perception of what we see.  What does not look right we adjust around.  Cybernetics, let us remember, derives from the root Greek word meaning steering or the steersman.  

Prof Tom Scholte, UBC, Vancouver, initiated the session by interviewing Warren, who described his first encounter with PCT, the development of PCT by William T. Powers in the 1950s onwards, and PCT’s unique conceptualisation of behaviour.

A world to navigate — and how much time?

Over time the Society will produce no doubt contributions of principles and theory, key persons, research methods, examples and cases, and the significance of these disciplines for cybernetics. Many already exist in our archives and texts. Examples include:

  • Aid and development
  • Anthropology
  • Art
  • Conversation theory
  • Crisis solutions (global warming, degradation, political breakdown, etc)
  • Cultural theory
  • Domain analysis & transdisciplinary methods
  • Economics, macro and micro
  • Education & training
  • Governance and the law
  • History
  • History of science as a social activity
  • Impact and ethics of AI on society
  • Impact of society on ecology
  • Integrated Sociology: General theory, Political Theory; Economic Theory, Cultural Theory
  • Linguistics and language games
  • Media studies
  • Nudge, behavioural economics
  • Pandemic and crisis management
  • Political theory;
  • Psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapies
  • Social and societal design
  • Social anthropology
  • Social autopoiesis, Luhmann
  • Social ecology
  • Social planning
  • Sociology and Anthropology
  • Sociology and social structuration
  • Therapeutics (inc psychotherapy, PCT theory of levels, medical science)

Like all living organisms humans navigate their world but they also navigate their navigation

— Angus Jenkinson FCybS, 2021. (In noting myself as the author, I intend to take responsibility for errors and mistakes, the moral responsibility of the author, rather than searching for credit.)


1 How disunity matters to the history of cybernetics in the human sciences in the United States, 1940–80

2 Introduction: “Cybernetics and the human sciences

3 A “Precious Minority”: Constructing the “Gifted” and “Academically Talented” Student in the Era of Brown v. Board of Education and the National Defense Education Act

4 Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration, Wiley.