Cybernetics is a wide-ranging field concerned with circular causal processes such as feedback. Norbert Wiener named the field after an example of circular causal feedback—that of steering a ship[note 1] where the helmsman adjusts their steering in response to the effect it is observed as having, enabling a steady course to be maintained amongst disturbances such as cross-winds or the tide.
Cybernetics is concerned with circular causal processes however they are embodied, including in ecological, technological, biological, cognitive and social systems and also in the context of practical activities such as designing, learning, managing, etc. Its transdisciplinary character has meant that cybernetics intersects with a number of other fields, leading to it having both wide influence and diverse interpretations.
Cybernetics has been defined in a variety of ways, reflecting "the richness of its conceptual base." One of the most well known definitions is that of Wiener who characterised cybernetics as concerned with "control and communication in the animal and the machine." Another early definition is that of the Macy cybernetics conferences, where cybernetics was understood as the study of "circular causal and feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems." Margaret Mead emphasised the role of cybernetics as "a form of cross-disciplinary thought which made it possible for members of many disciplines to communicate with each other easily in a language which all could understand."
Other definitions include: "the art of governing or the science of government" (André-Marie Ampère); "the art of steersmanship" (Ross Ashby); "the study of systems of any nature which are capable of receiving, storing, and processing information so as to use it for control" (Andrey Kolmogorov); "a branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness, and information, focuses on forms and the patterns that connect" (Gregory Bateson); "the art of securing efficient operation" (Louis Couffignal); "the art of effective organization." (Stafford Beer); "the science or the art of manipulating defensible metaphors; showing how they may be constructed and what can be inferred as a result of their existence" (Gordon Pask); "the art of creating equilibrium in a world of constraints and possibilities" (Ernst von Glasersfeld); "the science and art of understanding" (Humberto Maturana); "the ability to cure all temporary truth of eternal triteness" (Herbert Brun); "a way of thinking about ways of thinking (of which it is one)" (Larry Richards);
The Ancient Greek term κυβερνητικης (kubernētikēs, '(good at) steering') appears in Plato's Republic and Alcibiades, where the metaphor of a steersman is used to signify the governance of people. The French word cybernétique was also used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge.
According to Norbert Wiener, the word cybernetics was coined by a research group involving himself and Arturo Rosenblueth in the summer of 1947. It has been attested in print since at least 1948 through Wiener's book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.[note 2] In the book, Wiener states:
After much consideration, we have come to the conclusion that all the existing terminology has too heavy a bias to one side or another to serve the future development of the field as well as it should; and as happens so often to scientists, we have been forced to coin at least one artificial neo-Greek expression to fill the gap. We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the name Cybernetics, which we form from the Greek κυβερνήτης or steersman.
Moreover, Wiener explains, the term was chosen to recognize James Clerk Maxwell's 1868 publication on feedback mechanisms involving governors, noting that the term governor is also derived from κυβερνήτης (kubernḗtēs) via a Latin corruption gubernator. Finally, Wiener motivates the choice by steering engines of a ship being "one of the earliest and best-developed forms of feedback mechanisms".
Main article: Feedback
Feedback is a process where the observed outcomes of actions are taken as inputs for further action in ways that support the pursuit and maintenance of particular conditions or their disruption, forming a circular causal relationship. In steering a ship, where the helmsperson maintains a steady course in a changing environment by adjusting their steering in continual response to the effect it is observed as having. Other examples of circular causal feedback include: technological devices such as thermostats (where the action of a heater responds to measured changes in temperature, regulating the temperature of the room within a set range); biological examples such as the coordination of volitional movement through the nervous system; and processes of social interaction such as conversation.
The initial focus of cybernetics was on parallels between regulatory feedback processes in biological and technological systems. Two foundational articles were published in 1943: "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology" by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow – based on the research on living organisms that Rosenblueth did in Mexico – and the paper "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity" by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. The foundations of cybernetics were then developed through a series of transdisciplinary conferences funded by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, between 1946 and 1953. The conferences were chaired by McCulloch and had participants included Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson, Heinz von Foerster, Margaret Mead, John von Neumann, and Norbert Wiener. In the UK, similar focuses were explored by the Ratio Club, an informal dining club of young psychiatrists, psychologists, physiologists, mathematicians and engineers that met between 1949 and 1958. Wiener introduced the neologism cybernetics to denote the study of "teleological mechanisms" and popularized it through the book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.
During the 1950s, cybernetics was developed as a primarily technical discipline. For instance, in 1954, Qian Xuesen's published work "Engineering Cybernetics" was the basis of science in segregating the engineering concepts of Cybernetics from the theoretical understanding of Cybernetics as described so far historically. In the Soviet Union, Cybernetics was initially considered with suspicion but became accepted from the mid to late 1950s.
By the 1960s and 1970s, however, cybernetics' transdisciplinarity fragmented, with technical focuses separating into separate fields. Artificial intelligence (AI) was founded as a distinct discipline at the Dartmouth workshop in 1956, differentiating itself from the broader cybernetics field. After some uneasy coexistence, AI gained funding and prominence. Consequently, cybernetic sciences such as the study of artificial neural networks were downplayed. Similarly, computer science became defined as a distinct academic discipline in the 1950s and early 1960s.
See also: Second-order cybernetics
The second wave of cybernetics came to prominence from the 1960s onwards, with its focus inflecting away from technology toward social, ecological, and philosophical concerns. It was still grounded in biology, notably Maturana and Varela's autopoiesis, and built on earlier work on self-organising systems and the presence of anthropologists Mead and Bateson in the Macy meetings. The Biological Computer Laboratory, founded in 1958 and active until the mid-1970s under the direction of Heinz von Foerster at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, was a major incubator of this trend in cybernetics research.
Focuses of the second wave of cybernetics included management cybernetics, such as Stafford Beer's biologically inspired viable system model; work in family therapy, drawing on Bateson; social systems, such as in the work of Niklas Luhmann; epistemology and pedagogy, such as in the development of radical constructivism. Cybernetics' core theme of circular causality was developed beyond goal-oriented processes to concerns with reflexivity and recursion. This was especially so in the development of second-order cybernetics (or the cybernetics of cybernetics), developed and promoted by Heinz von Foerster, which focused on questions of observation, cognition, epistemology, and ethics.
The 1960s onwards also saw cybernetics begin to develop exchanges with the creative arts, design, and architecture, notably with the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition (ICA, London, 1968), curated by Jasia Reichardt, and the unrealised Fun Palace project (London, unrealised, 1964 onwards), where Gordon Pask was consultant to architect Cedric Price and theatre director Joan Littlewood.
From the 1990s onwards, there has been a renewed interest in cybernetics from a number of directions. Early cybernetic work on artificial neural networks has been returned to as a paradigm in machine learning and artificial intelligence. The entanglements of society with emerging technologies has led to exchanges with feminist technoscience and posthumanism. Re-examinations of cybernetics' history have seen science studies scholars emphasising cybernetics' unusual qualities as a science, such as its "performative ontology". Practical design disciplines have drawn on cybernetics for theoretical underpinning and transdisciplinary connections.
Emerging topics include how cybernetics' engagements with social, human, and ecological contexts might come together with its earlier technological focus, whether as a critical discourse or a "new branch of engineering".
Cybernetics' central concept of circular causality is of widespread applicability, leading to diverse applications and relations with other fields.
Many of the initial applications of cybernetics focused on engineering, biology, and exchanges between the two, such as medical cybernetics and robotics and topics such as neural networks, heterarchy.
In the social and behavioral sciences, cybernetics has included and influenced work in anthropology, sociology, economics, family therapy, cognitive science, and psychology.
As cybernetics has developed it broadened in scope to include work in management, design, pedagogy, and the creative arts, while also developing exchanges with constructivist philosophies, counter-cultural movements and media studies. The development of management cybernetics led to a variety of applications, notably to the national economy of Chile under the Allende government in Project Cybersyn. In design, cybernetics has been influential on interactive architecture, human-computer interaction, design research, and the development of systemic design and metadesign practices.
Cybernetics' broad scope and tendency to transgress disciplinary norms means its own boundaries have shifted over time and can be difficult to define.
Cybernetics is often understood within the context of systems science, systems theory, and systems thinking. Systems approaches influenced by cybernetics include:
Many fields trace their origins in whole or part to work carried out in cybernetics, or were partially absorbed into cybernetics when it was developed. These include artificial intelligence, bionics, cognitive science, control theory, complexity science, computer science, information theory and robotics. Some aspects of modern artificial intelligence, particularly the notion on social machine, are often described in cybernetic terms.
Academic journals with focuses in cybernetics include:
Academic societies primarily concerned with cybernetics or aspects of it include:
artificial intelligence was born at a conference at Dartmouth in 1956 that was organized by McCarthy, Minsky, rochester, and shannon, three years after the Macy conferences on cybernetics had ended (Boden 2006; McCorduck 1972). The two movements coexisted for roughly a de- cade, but by the mid-1960s, the proponents of symbolic ai gained control of national funding conduits and ruthlessly defunded cybernetics research. This effectively liquidated the subfields of self-organizing systems, neural networks and adaptive machines, evolutionary programming, biological computation, and bionics for several decades, leaving the workers in management, therapy and the social sciences to carry the torch. i think some of the polemical pushing-and-shoving between first-order control theorists and second-order crowds that i witnessed in subsequent decades was the cumulative result of a shift of funding, membership, and research from the "hard" natural sciences to "soft" socio-psychological interventions.
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