Cybernetics

 
 Editor
Aguado, Juan Miguel jmaguado@um.es
Incorporated contributions
J.M. Díaz Nafría, Juan Miguel Aguado
Usage domain
Interdisciplinary
Type
theory
French
cybernétique
German Kybernetik

"Cybernetics" stems from the Greek Word Κυβερνήτης, meaning the art of steering a ship, used by Plato in the sense of guiding or governing men. Nowadays, it refers to the study of the control and communication of complex systems, whether they are living organisms, machines or organisations, paying special attention to the →feedback as the main way of regulation. It is usually considered that cybernetics has been properly formulated in Norbert Wiener's work of 1948 ("Cybernetics, or control and communication in the animal and machine"). According to Wiener, cybernetics is a science devoted to the study of control systems, especially, self-control systems, whether in living organisms or machines, in which this “control is the sending of messages that truly change the behaviour of the receiving system”. Both in its genesis in the 1940s (with contributions coming from evolutionary biology -von Uexküll-, psychology -Anokhin-, systems control -Wiener-, neurophysiology -McCulloh and Rosenblueth-, psychiatry -Ashby…– as in its last development, cybernetics has constitute an eminently interdisciplinary discipline.

For the epistemologist, anthropologist, and cybernetician Gregory Bateson, "cybernetics is a branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness and information", who also considered "the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the last 2000 years" (Bateson 1972). For Stafford Beer, considered father of management cybernetics, it is “the science of effective organisation”.

First order or classical ~ and second order ~ (Sp. de primer y segundo orden, Fr. de premier et deuxième ordre, Ge. erster und zweiter Ordnung). In 1958, Heinz von Foerster conducted a critical review of Wiener's cybernetic theory, observing that though this theory was introducing significant changes with respect to previous conceptions of regulation and control, it did not involve an epistemological break with the traditional conception of science, because the model, in which the observer watch the object or the system from outside without causing an influence on the observee and attaining an objective study of it, continued to be applied.  In the wors of Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson (1981:33): "Feedback systems are not only different in a quantitatively higher dregree of complexity, but also qualitatively different from everything included within the field of classic mechanics. Their study demands new conceptual frameworks: their logics and epistemology are discontinuous with regard to certain traditional principles in scientific analysis, such as 'isolating single variables' or Laplace's criteria of given a complete knowledge of all facts in an specific moment all future states can be predicted. Feedback systems require their own philosophy, in which the concepts like configuration and information become so important as matter and energy were at the beginning of this century".

Von Foerster believed that cybernetics should overcome this epistemological anachronism, so that the observer would be part of the system, asserting his own goals and his own role within the system. Since then, there is a clear distinction between traditional cybernetics (or cybernetics of the first order) and cybernetics of the second order, also named complexity theory. Whereas cybernetics of the fist order can be formulated through the question: "What and how are the mechanisms of feedback of the studied system?", cybernetics of the second order entails the question: "How are we able to control, maintain and generate this system through feedback?"

Hence, second order cybernetics is posed as an implicit theory of observation with the range of an epistemology. The step from first order to second order cibernetics is in a sense the step from observing systems to observing observing systems (or systems with observers). In the words of Pakman (Cit. in Von Foerster, 1991:3): "From the very moment in which we quit considering the concepts we use are properties of the systems, then we observe and start conceiving them as an emerging product of the interaction between us and the observed systems (...) we move from ontology to epistemology, from observed systems to our knowledge about them".
 
References
  • BATESON, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • FOERSTER, H. von (1981). Observing systems, Seaside. California: Intersystems Publications.
  • FOERSTER, H. von (1991). Las semillas de la cibernética. Barcelona: Gedisa.
  • WATZLAWICK, P., BEAVIN BAVELAS, J., y JACKSON, D. (1989). Teoría de la comunicación humana. Interacciones, patologías y paradojas. Barcelona: Herder.
  • WIENER, N. (1954). The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and Society. Nueva York: Avon.
  • WIENER, N. (1975). Cybernetics: or the control and communication in the animal and the machine. Cambridge: MIT Press.
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Incorporated entries
J.M. Díaz Nafría (20/07/2009)
 
It comes from the Greek Word Κυβερνήτης, meaning the art of steering a ship, used by Plato in the sense of guiding or governing men. Nowadays, it refers to the study of the control and communication of complex systems, whether they are living organisms, machines or organisations, paying special attention to the →feedback as the main way of regulation. It is usually considered that it has been properly formulated in a work of Norbert Wiener of 1948 (Cybernetics, or control and communication in the animal and machine, 1948), for whom cybernetics is a science that studies control systems, especially, self-control systems, whether in living organisms or machines, where this “control is the sending of messages that truly change the behaviour of the receiving system”. Both in its genesis in the 1940s –with contributions coming from evolutionary biology, von Uexküll, psychology, Anokhin, systems control, Wiener, neurophysiology, McCulloh and Rosenblueth, psychiatry, Ashby…– as in its last development, it has been an eminently interdisciplinary discipline.
For cyberneticist Gregory Bateson, cybernetics is the “branch of mathematics which deals with issues of control, resources and information”, while from a more general point of view for Stafford Beer (who is considered to be the father of management cybernetics) it is “the science of effective organisation”
   First order or classical ~ and second order ~ (E. . de primer y segundo orden, F. . de premier et deuxième ordre, G. . erster und zweiter Ordnung). In 1958, Heinz von Foerster conducted a critical review of the cybernetic theory of Wiener, observing that although this theory was introducing significant changes regarding the previous conceptions of regulation and control, it did not involve an epistemological break with the traditional conception of science, because a model continued to be applied in which the observer contemplates the object or the system from outside without influencing it and achieving to study it objectively. Von Foerster believed that cybernetics should overcome this epistemological anachronism, so that the observer would be part of the system, asserting his own goals and his own role within the system. Since then, there is a distinction between traditional cybernetics or cybernetics of the first order and cybernetics of the second order, also named complexity theory. While cybernetics of the fist order is formulated in a fundamental way: What and how are the mechanisms of feedback of the studied system? Cybernetics of the second order would raise a question: How are we able to control, maintain and generate this system through feedback?
 


José Miguel Aguado (10/2009)
 
[Directly incorporated in the left column by the author and editor within the previous entry]
 
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