Pedestrians using a crossing: an everyday cybernetic event.
Article by Angus Jenkinson FCybS, June 2021
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. Unsurprisingly, cybernetics’ influence has been immense, often unnoticed because it became embedded in the knowhow of other discipline. Learning and self-development, the arts, biology, healing, management, ‘problem solving’, ecology, urban and social planning, change design — all these and many other ways of achieving intended outcomes require behaviours that cybernetics is uniquely able to analyse. This brief introduction highlights some aspects.
It is known for observing observing. 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, repeating within itself— or reproducing ‘a version of itself outside’ itself. Think of the plant’s leaves and their cells and then seeds and new plants. 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 continuously controlled not by outside causal forces but by information perceived by the organism itself in its environment. It is self-controlled. In this sense, Wiener’s original definition as “control in the animal and machine” falls short. Cybernetics notes autonomy and purposeful behaviour, active not passive causality. Engineers 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. It’s scientific analysis explains competent behaviour and enables the design of competent systems and interventions. (Indeed, extraordinarily complicated situations can be quickly and simply resolved.)
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.
Applications & concepts
Many people use cybernetic concepts without realising it.
Cybernetic concepts, protocols, and analytical and design methods have produced insights, methods, and technologies that feature widely in discussion of such as communication signals, feedback, context, and socially construed observation. They inform many fields, including DNA operation reimagined (Noble), cell biology and morphogenesis (Turing and Wolpert), social structuration (Giddens), business (Beer), total quality (Deming), military tactics (Operation Mincemeat), architecture and art (Park, Alexander), quantum cosmology (Rovelli), advertising, child development, town planning, and on. Examples are discussed in the various aspects of cybernetics on the website.
Basic principles of self-control have been applied to a range of machines, from so-called AI (arguably better known as artificial competence) to domestic tools, like thermostats. 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, which 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 matters is the the action by the agent is not imposed by a force but triggered by an observer responding to their observations. They behave to bring how they see things in line with how they wish things to be. Ever moved a cup so that the water pouring from the tap is properly centred? This is the same kind of action as a mammal maintaining its body temperature, hormone balance, and oxygen levels. The common element is an active agency observing and interpreting the portion of the world that matters (then) and acting to conserve intended values or outcomes.
Cybernetics shows how situation are observed and navigated: aspects of observable appearances are construed (interpreted) as meaningful signs or signals either as or in context (or environment). The meaning of a sign or text depends on its context (as in the italics word in this sentence), while itself becoming a context (as a context marker). These may appear as cues for action. How the action appears to be progressing compared with the expected and wished for is feedback as the result of action ‘loops’ back as changed appearances. Such concepts describe scientific facts of the everyday continuity of reality. They have been the stuff of literature, photography, and art (see Foucoult’s analysis of Las Meninas by Diego Valasquez in The Order of Things).
Often the “environment” responds in the same way: a footballer sees the ball being passed to her and an unmarked player on her team available to pass to. That player begins moving but so opposing team members. In this way, the dynamics of active interaction lead to a kind of ‘dance’ of active agents, as in a conversation. Gordon Pask’s conversation theory deals with this.
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. They returned to their core disciplines or to new ones with powerful and applicable insights that were embedded in them as the various Aspects discuss briefly.
One successful space, biomimicry in smart machines, such as robots, has become a popular but limited face of cybernetics. It partners with control systems theory, engineering, digital technologies, mathematics and so on, as for example in:
The software in an app tells a user of a mistake and asks for it to be corrected: this derives from fundamental concepts of cybernetics.
satnavs use a digital map, satellite data signals, and routes that are calculated using statical algorithms to track the car’s progress and advise drivers of what to do
smart systems monitor critical machinery or market trading (“AI” technology does not always make best use of cybernetics).
assistive technology for cars or surgery.
For more examples, see below.
The development of cybernetics therefore 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.
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.***
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (edited March 2023).