Estonian National Orchestra

By Angus Jenkinson FCybS, 2021

Both cybernetics and an organism can be related to a great piece of orchestral music, perhaps a Shostakovich Symphony.  In such a piece, there are various themes and tunes that are interdependent in producing the overall result.  The processes also moved between them and return to them.  Themes and tunes, musical patterns, are transformed — variations in key and form and tempo — as well as being played on different instruments.  Themes may also be played with and against each other.  The full picture does not need explaining, but what is important is that each of the elements also depends for what it is on its relationship with others and with the whole.  The whole also depends on its elements and the relationships between them.  The total composition produces its elements and the elements produce the total composition in the sense that the creative process involves the extrapolation of the various ideas into form.  And these actually take final form in the performance, each of which will be unique.

The key concepts of cybernetics can be related to these different themes and they can also be “played” by different practitioners, as with the orchestra members and conductor and their various instruments.

This is a picture of the interrelationship and interdependence of concepts for the whole of cybernetics as a science and as a set of disciplines.  At the same time, it’s not necessary to deploy all always, rather as one can enjoy a particular musical passage or movement without necessarily having to listen to the whole.  But appreciation will be best — as the application of cybernetic principles will be best — when there is a reasonably good knowledge of the whole. The different “Aspects”, another fundamental cybernetic term of art and tool suggest approaches to different problems and therefore different tools may come to the fore.

A State of Development

Cybernetics is also in a state of development which means that it would be a brave person who could give a definitive list of what these core concepts are.  Moreover, people working in different fields may find some to be more important than others.  If your field is software design or ecological intervention you not only need to have specialist knowledge in and of those fields that you may also find different aspects of cybernetics to be more relevant on a regular basis.

Notwithstanding, it’s probably fair to say that the Cybernetic Academy could usefully do more work on curating, documenting, and explicating the set of cybernetic principles and concepts and methods that is most essential for the practitioner and then gradually extending this.  This is a project that the Society is already engaged in, and invites further participation.

An Essential Triad?

 A triad of essential principles may be a useful starting point.  At any rate, it is hard to imagine cybernetics without these three at the core.  They are purpose, context, and feedback.  They work something like a musical trio.  

It is generally considered that purpose in its proper sense belongs only to the human, but directiveness or goal-orientation is a characteristic of all of life and of those machines that have a cybernetic technology.  The goal-driven element is related to the active causation of the living world, as opposed to the passive more deterministic model operating in the inorganic world given by nature, in which physico-chemical forces from outside determine the appearances of behaviour, such as movement. The distinction appears in the following two sentences. The cat chases the mouse that runs away.  The cat plays with the ball that is pushed away.

A second element is context.  A series of other key concepts arises from those, such as context markers or cues or signals and situation. Essentially, purposeful action takes place in a context, and the ongoing path of that action is responsive in a cybernetic frame to changes in context.  The cat responds to the dodging of the mouse and the mouse responds to the pouncing of the cat. But contexts are not fixed; they are formed by observers through the aspects to which they pay attention (including subliminally, see Aspects). In this way they form (at least in part) the situations in which they find themselves — a predator that has just fed may not chase a prey animal. A very hungry one may take a risk it would not normally take.

The third possible element is feedback. It arises in this process of interaction.  Feedback is not the same as the circular causation of physical forces and physical states: it requires an active reading of the world.  Feedback is the perception of error or its absence, i.e. what is liked or right for the observer, something to be changed or continued.  It leads to the interpretation that an action might need to be taken to cancel what is unwanted, i.e. what seems to be perturbation or interference in the pursuit of the goal. This perturbation and the feedback arise as aspects of context. 

Of course, this leads to other key concepts, like aspects, and situation, and markers or signs, information and variety and indeed requisite variety. These and others form a conceptually dynamic system.

Feedback is the perception of the presence or absence of error.

Incomplete? What about the observer?

But this triad cannot be complete for it presumes a deeper content already mentioned, a further essential principle of cybernetics without which none of this would be happening.  We can call this “the observer.”  (Some in the cybernetic community reserve the term observation only for the human, with good grounds.  But I’m using it here as a much more general term to include everything from bacteria to humans as well as machines that are responsive to signals.)

(In this next paragraph I add an asterisk to every term of art.) 

To form a goal* implies the production of something that becomes an internal reference* against the external appearances, i.e. context*. Feedback* requires the observer* to perceive and determine* that feedback, i.e. its negative* or positive* aspect*. It is the observer who makes the distinction* as to what it is “saying” and that it even exists as a relevant contextual marker* or sign* in that situation*.  If this observational process does not exist it is not cybernetic*.  None of this happens without some form of observation, of course in a manner relevant to the organism or machine doing it. Each such observer has their regulatory model*, with the requisite variety* for skilful coping*. This means that if a model* describes a system* without being from or taking into account the observer’s point of view*, then it is not cybernetic*. Examples include many systems dynamics* models, and such analyses as the standard model* of permafrost* melt through circular causation*, which belongs to physics and chemistry not cybernetics until it is expanded to take into account ecosystem* responses.

A call to enquiry

Articles (posts) and information about events are invited from members.  What do you see as the fundamental concepts and methods of cybernetics in general?  That which any cyberneticians would want to understand well and should be part of the schooling in many disciplines. Those that transcend and work across all or many varieties or human working in the world?  And how then do they function in different scientific paradigms?.

— Angus Jenkinson, FCybS, June 2021