Cybernetics #1, #2 & #3

This is just a recap on different “types” of Cybernetics, at a time when there is huge overlap with Systems Thinking, Complexity Sciences and Operations Research. As you may already know, I’m sceptical of definitions being definitive in general – natural language – discourse, beyond logical – formal symbolic – arguments. That matters because most human affairs are complex and their management or governance are the former not the latter.

I tend to use Systems Thinking as my catch-all term under which various more or less theoretical & practical, sciences & methodologies may or may not apply according to our context. Like “Cynefin” I tend to classify contexts as being predictable / ordered (simple and/or complicated) and unpredictable / unordered (complex and/or chaotic). Whatever we call it, Systems Thinking or Cybernetics is a response to understanding the nature and level of complexity we find in the real world and how we should act for the best.

The modernity of science was leading humanity in the 19thC to believe progress was a matter of understanding and applying more objective science to satisfy human needs in the world, with resistance coming only from the romantics. Dehumanising failures of scientific management and planning of organisations and economies not to mention the disasters of two world wars, nor science  itself running into the new physics in the early parts of the 20thC, stoked the tension between doing more modern science better and finding post-modern alternatives to scientific modernism. That “we must be able to do better” was the common driver of the post-WW1 Vienna Circle (Ernst Mach Society) and the post-WW2 /Auschwitz / Hiroshima 1946-53 Macy Conferences. Each sentence in this paragraph has entire libraries of analysis and deserves at least an essay-length paragraph in its own right. Suffice to say, the latter saw a community of thought coalesce around the ideas of complex systems which until then had been the domain of a few pioneering thinkers like Hutchins and Bogdanov (say). These resulted in seminal works by Wiener (Cybernetics) and Bertalanffy (General Systems Theory), with contributions by many others, Beer, Ross-Ashby, Bateson and more. (Not to mention many more since and even more pre-dating modern science.)

Right from the outset – the publication of “Cybernetics” in 1948 – there was a problem (at the Library of Congress) in classifying what Wiener had meant by his title & subject matter. They could see already that he – like the founding community – had put the intentional human animal before the mechanistic machine. Psychology first before mathematical computation, second?

Nevertheless it was 1962 before Maruyama had to coin the idea of First and Second Cybernetics, to point out that most of the early applications of Cybernetics had been of the second kind. Despite being out of order temporally, Maruyama was also able to point out a first and second order distinction. Almost all formally objective or electro-mechanically implemented cybernetics had been limited to mutually-causal “First Order” systems (and parts) where control involved feed-back to stable equilibria (homeostatic) with any set-points coming from independent external sources. “Second Order” systems include feed-forward elements away from set points (allostatic) and “Third-Order” includes the intentional agents or human observers as mutually-causal system elements in their own right, rather than objective parts.

As I say, I’m not hung up on formal definitions, but the (Dynamical) Systems Thinking agenda here on Psybertron is clearly “Cybernetics of the 3rd kind“.


[Post Note / Aside: Interesting to note Robert Maynard Hutchins in the pre-Macy Conferences pioneering timeline (according to Wikipedia anyway) – given Hutchins and Adler were Chicago University “Great Book Movement” influencers of McKeon – the Chairman of Humanities at the time Pirsig experienced Philosophy at Chicago. Doubly fascinating not just because of my own thought trajectory, but because many 21st C thinkers in this space were influenced by Pirsig, not least Dave Snowden, founder of Cynefin, above. A tangled web we weave?]

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