About cybernetics

Signal system for people

Signal system for people

Signal system for people

Many people use cybernetic concepts without realising it.  Others — very many — are trying to achieve outcomes in fields where cybernetics has been and could be fruitful.  Cybernetics is a science of design, of effective action, of behaviour, and of knowing. It deals with how humans and living nature — as species and ecosystems — live and behave in their self-organizing autonomous responses to and relationship with their world, their contexts, their situations. It concerns autonomy, self-control, and reflexiveness. It explains why science needs to include active causality, the purposeful behaviour of humans and directive navigation by life in general. This gives it an interesting scientific relationship with common sense and self-development as well as the arts of achievement, management, ‘problem solving’, ecology, urban and social planning, and change design. In this brief introduction to cybernetics, some features will be highlighted. Cybernetics’ influence has been immense but much goes unnoticed. It features in discussion of communication signals, context and the ubiquitous feedback. Examples vary from cell biology and morphogenesis (Turing and Wolpert) to social structuration (Giddens) and business (feedback and brand experience).

It has also been called “a way of thinking about ways of thinking (of which it is one).” Larry Richards explained, “I could also talk about a way of looking, a way of explaining, a way of observing, a way of understanding, etc., although these are not the same. I wish to conserve the idea of thinking, as it describes something I experience in a way that no other word does.” This is a typically reflexive approach, using one of the core concepts of cybernetics, recursion, which can be called the repeating within — or outside — of itself of a version of itself. This means it is also a way of learning, core to an expanded science, and could be key for our intentional and effective response to the ailments that trouble the world today.

“I could also talk about a way of looking, a way of explaining, a way of observing, a way of understanding, etc., although these are not the same. I wish to conserve the idea of thinking, as it describes something I experience in a way that no other word does.”

Steering our own ship: a revolution in science and new ways in society

Self-control is a more extraordinary and revolutionary statement than many today can imagine. It means that living behaviour is designed to achieve outcomes and is continuously controlled not by outside causal forces but by information perceived by the organism itself in its environment. It is active not passive causality. Similarly, humans have been able to design computing and other machines that simulate this.

So, while ‘cyber’ is widely associated with all kind of computer technologies (and social problems), the primary meaning for cybernetics derives from its Greek root, Kybernetes, which means the one who steers or manages the helm. If you have ever piloted a boat — or car — then this makes sense: someone who steers towards a destination using what they see and experience to adjust their behaviour to stay on course.

You write down words what you are tell a story you make what is the overall you are a you you you place a so can I ask you questions all does this mean you don’t really want to write not your purpose to write about stone circles may talk about stone circles but you intention is not to write a bit about the Hibernian that you understand the reason I’m asking the question just get one trying to do at the moment is make sure that I my question to you if if you want to talk about the stone circles you say you are right about the same circles show this Hibernian mysteries if you wanted to write about the Hibernian mysteries about the Hibernian mysteries and the things which are significant example stone circles different orientation work that you so I do.

Although that is also an accurate statement for all life, humans have the extra ability to observe reflexively and to choose between options. This provides for ethical design: ability and questions become important. This also means that they can apply it to challenges like governing, government, and governance, which all derive via Latin from the same root as cybernetics. 

Many people use cybernetic concepts without realising it. 

Basic principles of self-control have also been applied to a range of machines. Indeed, solving such problems during WWII was a major stimulus to the science. The software in an app that tells a user of a mistake and asks for it to be corrected derives from fundamental concepts of cybernetics. This is an example of the ‘closed signaling loop’ characteristic of cybernetic organization. An active agent (organism or system) generates some change in its or her environment and that change is observed and responded to, that is reflected in the next behaviour of the agent, which in turn triggers more change. The process can begin at either end, it is a loop. What mattes is the the action by the  agent is not imposed by a force but triggered by a signal or context mark or cue, that is something perceived and interpreted (consciously or unconsciously). Often the “environment” responds in the same way, leading to a ‘dance’ of active agents, as in a conversation. Gordon Pask’s conversation theory deals with this. The loop of signals is called feedback. Feedback triggers a system change.

In doing so cybernetics offered and stimulated a major rethink in the sciences and their practices and influenced very many fields from which its many founders were initially drawn. It is a science that depends on no other but can influence and collaborate with any. It offers informed practices as far afield as art and design, psychiatry, rewilding, social architecture, robotics and software design, communication, and enterprise management.

Through and since the inaugural Macy Conferences chaired by Warren McCulloch at the end of the 1940s and early 1950s, cybernetics has been a radical force influencing innumerable disciplines in its short postmodern life. Many members of this founding community were genuine polymaths and learned from — while arguing with — each other returning to their core disciplines or to new ones with powerful and applicable insights.

The software in an app that tells a user of a mistake and asks for it to be corrected derives from fundamental concepts of cybernetics.

These formed concepts and design protocols about and for researching or intervening into human and animal behaviour, ecology, evolution, and social organization. These insights have also been extensively applied to the design of intelligent machines and software and to intelligent design in general.

See —

Causation, agency and directive behaviour for the transformation in our understanding of causation.***

Observation on another flow of germinal insight: how the observer finds and forms their own contexts.***

Exploring further

Further introduction is given below. In addition, check out ***Aspects of Cybernetics, which connects the cybernetic science and discipline to 10 different areas or Sections including systems, life, matter, knowing, and machines. In addition, various posts and events give further information.  

Discipline influence and transdisciplinary learning

Since the inaugural Macy Conferences chaired by Warren McCulloch in the postwar years immediately before and after 1950, cybernetics has been a radical force influencing innumerable disciplines in its short postmodern life. It has also developed with a family of related or internal disciplines including biological and sociological autopoiesis, perceptual control theory, design thinking, management cybernetics, robotics, and AI. Its influences reach into and fostered many systems theories such as communications theory, general systems theory, operational research, soft systems, psychiatry, anthropology, software design, systems biology, sociology, psychiatry, philosophy, business governance, risk management, economics, and government.

Heinz Von Foerster developed what he called second order cybernetics, the observation of observation, cybernetics of cybernetics, to be taken as not merely words but structures of reflexive thought.

Life’s organization

Meanwhile others like the Chilean geniuses Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela were working on the organization of the living, how life organizes the processes of cognition and perception and itself in its ecological environment. Their development of autopoiesis as the life of an organism both autonomous and co-evolving and co-adapting with its environment is a seminal work, which we have recognised by making Prof Maturana an Honorary Fellow, our highest award.

Jungle ecosystem
Tropical jungle ecosystem — plants sensing each other and the light, photo by Angus Jenkinson FCybS

The widespread interest in perception and cognitions meant that there were many psychologists, psychiatrists, medical scientists, biologists, and others also interested including the former Hon Fellow Stafford Beer, Ross Ashby, Paul Watzlawick, and John Weakland. 

Other aspects

There are many other aspects to and concepts within cybernetics while all that have already been mentioned need amplification. The biology of evolution and of love. Resolution of conflict and design of robots. Conversation theory and transformations. Intervention design and governance. This website aims to provide an initial set of guidelines to these as well as guides to learn more.
It is a powerful tool for understanding and regeneration of ecologies, development, and effective design of change towards outcomes.

People

Many people have contributed to the ideas of cybernetics since at least Aristotle’s being-at-work-staying-itself, entelecheia. Many before and during the 20th century contributed to a new climate of thinking, anti-rationalist but fiercely analytic, anti-positivist but enthusiasts for right use of mathematics, sceptical about modernism’s causal simplicity but deliberate in finding a rigorous understanding of causation, clear about the limitations of models but delighted to make exemplars, fascinated by the forms of logic but aware that the structure of experiential reality is ‘creative’ or ‘poetic’. In addition to the Macy Conferences, there were the Ratio Club, the Invisible College, the Teleological Society, places like Northfield, Palo Alto, MIT, Oxford, and various formal and informal local groupings and movements, some lasting decades, some days or weeks. 

D. J. Stewart, a Distinguished Fellow of the Cybernetics Society, developed the important field of ternary theory. Taking the two theoretical discontinuities, between energy and information and between description and evaluation, he defined a set with a special sense of the concept of ‘domain’, along with the concept of a ‘tern’ and a ‘Principle of Ternality’. The theoretical structure enabled concepts relating to value, judgement, and justification to have a natural place in the proposed structure, relating cybernetics not only to the rest of science but also to other branches of knowledge.

Another distinguished Fellow, Stafford Beer, developed the Viable System Model (VSM).It is a way of analysing and designing systems tools and organisation flow structures enterprise flow structures enterprise information flow structures applying cybernetic principles.  It can be used at the level of a national economy — as it was in Chile — or for a company or government department.  It understands businesses, for example, as a recursive structure that embeds internal customer facing operations within the whole company each of which has a certain autonomous organization depending on its relationships and value cocreation with its customers while also belonging to, depending upon, and contributing to the overall company.  It understands the healthy — living or viable — company is having an identity, which needs managing and deploying, an ongoing process of navigating its future world through research and development, the control and interrelationship of resources, culture, processes and tools that facilitate collaboration, and the production or generation activities that deliver what customers want.

William Grey Walter was another distinguished British cyberneticians, who sadly died a year after the founding of the Society, having already suffered from a brain trauma.  He is credited as one of the founders of Robotics, particularly a smart version that was interested in enabling extremely simple robots to navigate their world in such a way that they might even be able to plug themselves in for recharging.

See: Founders and Key People

The founders at during WWII and in the Macy conference aftermath originated in many disciplines. As a result, cybernetics  has been a radical force influencing innumerable disciplines in its short postmodern life. How it works as a catalytic or symbiotic discipline with other fields of science, design, and practice is discussed in relation to Aspects of Cybernetics, or ‘Sections’. Members are invited to contribute ideas to this through posts.

— Angus Jenkinson, FCybS 7.2.2021