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Principle diagram of a cybernetic system with a feedback loop

Cybernetics is a field of systems science that studies circular causal systems whose outputs are also inputs, such as feedback systems. It is concerned with the general principles of circular causal processes,[1] including in ecological, technological, biological, cognitive and social systems and also in the context of practical activities such as designing, learning, and managing.

The field is named after an example of circular causal feedback—that of steering a ship (the ancient Greek κυβερνήτης (kybernḗtēs) means "helmsperson"). In steering a ship, the helmsperson adjusts their steering in continual response to the effect it is observed as having, forming a feedback loop through which a steady course can be maintained in a changing environment, responding to disturbances from cross winds and tide.[2][3]

Cybernetics' transdisciplinary[4] character has meant that it 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."[5] One of the most well known definitions is that of Norbert Wiener who characterised cybernetics as concerned with "control and communication in the animal and the machine."[6] 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."[7] 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."[8]

Other definitions include:[9] "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); and "a branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness, and information, focuses on forms and the patterns that connect" (Gregory Bateson).


Simple feedback model. AB < 0 for negative feedback.

The Ancient Greek term κυβερνητικός (kubernētikos, '(good at) steering') appears in Plato's Republic[10] and Alcibiades, where the metaphor of a steersman is used to signify the governance of people.[11] 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.[6] 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 1] 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".[6]


First wave

See also: Macy conferences and Ratio Club

Norbert Wiener

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.[6]

During the 1950s, cybernetics was developed as a primarily technical discipline, such as in Qian Xuesen's 1954 "Engineering Cybernetics". In the Soviet Union, Cybernetics was initially considered with suspicion[13] 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.[14] Similarly, computer science became defined as a distinct academic discipline in the 1950s and early 1960s.[15]

Second wave

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.[16]

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.[17] 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,[18][19] and the unrealised Fun Palace project (London, unrealised, 1964 onwards), where Gordon Pask was consultant to architect Cedric Price and theatre director Joan Littlewood.[20]

Third wave

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".[21] 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[22][23] or a "new branch of engineering".[24]

Key concepts and theories

The central theme in cybernetics is feedback. Feedback is a process where the observed outcomes of actions are taken as inputs for further action in ways that support the pursuit, maintenance, or disruption of particular conditions, forming a circular causal relationship. In steering a ship, 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.[2] This theme has also been carried forward in modern cybernetic theories (e.g., Cybernetic Trait Complexes Theory).[25]

Other examples of circular causal feedback include: technological devices such as the thermostat, where the action of a heater responds to measured changes in temperature regulating the temperature of the room within a set range, and the centrifugal governor of a steam engine, which regulates the engine speed; biological examples such as the coordination of volitional movement through the nervous system and the homeostatic processes that regulate variables such as blood sugar; and processes of social interaction such as conversation.[26]

Negative feedback processes are those that maintain particular conditions by reducing (hence 'negative') the difference from a desired state, such as where a thermostat turns on a heater when it is too cold and turns a heater off when it is too hot. Positive feedback processes increase (hence 'positive') the difference from a desired state. An example of positive feedback is when a microphone picks up the sound that it is producing through a speaker, which is then played through the speaker, and so on.

In addition to feedback, cybernetics is concerned with other forms of circular processes including: feedforward, recursion, and reflexivity.

Other key concepts and theories in cybernetics include:

Related fields and applications

Cybernetics' central concept of circular causality is of wide 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.[30] In the social and behavioral sciences, cybernetics has included and influenced work in anthropology, sociology, economics, family therapy,[31] cognitive science, and psychology.[32][33]

As cybernetics has developed, it broadened in scope to include work in management, design,[34] pedagogy, and the creative arts,[35] while also developing exchanges with constructivist philosophies, counter-cultural movements,[36] and media studies.[37] The development of management cybernetics has 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,[38] design research,[39] and the development of systemic design and metadesign practices.

Cybernetics is often understood within the context of systems science, systems theory, and systems thinking.[40][41] Systems approaches influenced by cybernetics include critical systems thinking, which incorporates the viable system model; systemic design; and system dynamics, which is based on the concept of causal feedback loops.

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 social machine, are often described in cybernetic terms.[42]

Journals and societies

See also: List of systems sciences organizations and List of systems science journals

Academic journals with focuses in cybernetics include:

Academic societies primarily concerned with cybernetics or aspects of it include:

See also

Further reading


  1. ^ Note that while Wiener's book presents cybernetics in a scientific context, its subtitle does not use the term science[12] and Wiener refers to cybernetics as a "field" when defining it.[6] Ashby, however, misquoted Wiener as defining cybernetics as "the science of communication and control"[1] and many subsequent authors follow Ashby's misquotation.


  1. ^ a b Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.
  2. ^ a b Gage, Stephen (2007-01-01). "The boat/helmsman". Technoetic Arts. Intellect. 5 (1): 15–24. doi:10.1386/tear.5.1.15_1. ISSN 1477-965X.
  3. ^ "What is cybernetics - NTNU". Retrieved 2023-04-27.
  4. ^ Müller, Albert (2000). "A Brief History of the BCL". Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften. 11 (1): 9–30. Archived from the original on 2012-07-22. Retrieved 2012-06-06.
  5. ^ von Foerster, Heinz (2003). "Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics". Understanding Understanding. New York, NY: Springer New York. pp. 287–304. doi:10.1007/0-387-21722-3_14. ISBN 978-0-387-95392-2. It seems that cybernetics is many different things to many different people. But this is because of the richness of its conceptual base; and I believe that this is very good, otherwise cybernetics would become a somewhat boring exercise. However, all of those perspectives arise from one central theme; that of circularity
  6. ^ a b c d e Wiener, Norbert (1948). Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  7. ^ von Foerster, H.; Mead, M.; Teuber, H. L., eds. (1951). Cybernetics: Circular causal and feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems. Transactions of the seventh conference. New York: Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation.
  8. ^ Mead, M. (1968). "The cybernetics of cybernetics". In H. von Foerster; J. D. White; L. J. Peterson; J. K. Russell (eds.). Purposive Systems (PDF). Spartan Books. pp. 1–11.
  9. ^ "Definitions". American Society for Cybernetics.
  10. ^ Book VI, The philosophy of government
  11. ^ Johnson, Barnabas. "The Cybernetics of Society". Retrieved 8 January 2012.
  12. ^ Glanville, R. (2007). Try again. Fail again. Fail Better. The cybernetics in design and the design in cybernetics". Kybernetes, 36(9/10), 1173-1206.
  13. ^ As a "pseudoscience" and "ideological weapon" of "imperialist reactionaries" (Soviet Philosophical Dictionary, 1954)
  14. ^ Cariani, Peter (15 March 2010). "On the importance of being emergent". Constructivist Foundations. 5 (2): 89. Retrieved 13 August 2012. 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.
  15. ^ Denning, Peter J. (2000). "Computer Science: The Discipline". Encyclopedia of Computer Science.
  16. ^ Muller, A., and Muller, K. (eds). An Unfinished Revolution?: Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory / BCL 1958–1976, Edition Echoraum, 2007.
  17. ^ Glanville, R. (2002). "Second order cybernetics." In F. Parra-Luna (ed.), Systems science and cybernetics. In Encyclopaedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS). Oxford: EoLSS
  18. ^ Reichardt, J. (Ed.). Cybernetic serendipity: The computer and the arts. Studio International [Special issue]
  19. ^ Fernandez, M. (2009). "Aesthetically-Potent Environments" or How Pask Detourned Instrumental Cybernetics. In P. Brown, C. Gere, N. Lambert, & C. Mason (Eds.), White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980 MIT Press.
  20. ^ Mathews, Stanley (2005-09-01). "The Fun Palace: Cedric Price's experiment in architecture and technology". Technoetic Arts. Intellect. 3 (2): 73–92. doi:10.1386/tear.3.2.73/1. ISSN 1477-965X.
  21. ^ Pickering, A. (2010). The cybernetic brain: Sketches of another future. University of Chicago Press.
  22. ^ Scholte, Tom; Sweeting, Ben (2022-08-05). "Possibilities for a critical cybernetics". Systems Research and Behavioral Science. Wiley. 39 (5): 986–989. doi:10.1002/sres.2891. ISSN 1092-7026. S2CID 251432252.
  23. ^ Krippendorff K. (2023) A critical cybernetics. Constructivist Foundations 19(1): 82–93.
  24. ^ Genevieve Bell (2020-01-07). "Anthropology, cybernetics, and establishing a new branch of engineering at ANU". EthnoPod with Jay Hasbrouck.
  25. ^ Stanek, Kevin C.; Ones, Deniz S. (2023). Our Constellations. A Primer for Of Anchors & Sails: Personality-ability trait constellations. California, United States: Pleiades Press. pp. 10–13. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/9D8XK.
  26. ^ Dubberly, Hugh; Pangaro, Paul (2019). "Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action". Design Cybernetics. Design Research Foundations. Cham: Springer International Publishing. pp. 85–99. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-18557-2_4. ISBN 978-3-030-18556-5. ISSN 2366-4622. S2CID 33895017.
  27. ^ a b Mary Catherine Bateson. (2005). The double bind: Pathology and creativity. Cybernetics and Human Knowing. 12(1-2)
  28. ^ Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Haley, J. & Weakland, J., 1956, Toward a theory of schizophrenia.Behavioral Science, Vol. 1, 251–264.
  29. ^ McCulloch, W.S., 1965b (1964), A Historical Introduction to the Postulational Foundations of Experimental Epistemology, in Embodiments of Mind, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 359-373.
  30. ^ McCulloch, Warren (1945). "A Heterarchy of Values Determined by the Topology of Nervous Nets". In: Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics, 7, 1945, 89–93.
  31. ^ Smith, Miranda; Karam, Eli (2018). "Second-Order Cybernetics in Family Systems Theory". Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy. Cham: Springer International Publishing. pp. 1–2. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-15877-8_308-1. ISBN 978-3-319-15877-8.
  32. ^ Scott, Bernard (2016-07-15). "Cybernetic Foundations for Psychology". Constructivist Foundations. Alexander Riegler. 11 (3): 509–517. ISSN 1782-348X. Retrieved 2023-11-14.
  33. ^ Tilak, Shantanu; Glassman, Michael; Kuznetcova, Irina; Pelfrey, G. Logan (2021-10-28). "Applications of cybernetics to psychological theory: Historical and conceptual explorations". Theory & Psychology. SAGE Publications. 32 (2): 298–325. doi:10.1177/09593543211053804. ISSN 0959-3543. S2CID 240187814.
  34. ^ "Design Cybernetics". Design Research Foundations (PDF). Cham: Springer International Publishing. 2019. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-18557-2. ISBN 978-3-030-18556-5. ISSN 2366-4622. S2CID 239279379.
  35. ^ Scholte, Tom (2020-05-02). "A proposal for the role of the arts in a new phase of second-order cybernetics". Kybernetes. Emerald. 49 (8): 2153–2170. doi:10.1108/k-03-2019-0172. ISSN 0368-492X. S2CID 219051224.
  36. ^ Dubberly, H., & Pangaro, P. (2015). How cybernetics connects computing, counterculture, and design. In Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia. Walker Art Center.
  37. ^ Logan, Robert K. (2015) Feedforward, I. A. Richards, cybernetics and Marshall McLuhan. Systema: Connecting Catter, Life, Culture and Technology, 3 (1). pp. 177-185.
  38. ^ Andres, Josh; Zafiroglu, Alexandra; Daniell, Katherine; Wong, Paul; Henein, Mina; Zhu, Xuanying; Sweeting, Ben; Arnold, Michael; Macnamara, Delia Pembrey; Helfgott, Ariella (2022-11-29). "Cybernetic Lenses for Designing and Living in a Complex World". Proceedings of the 34th Australian Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. New York, NY, USA: ACM. pp. 348–351. doi:10.1145/3572921.3576209. ISBN 9798400700248.
  39. ^ Sweeting, Ben (2017-09-14). "Design Research as a Variety of Second-Order Cybernetic Practice" (PDF). New Horizons for Second-Order Cybernetics. Series on Knots and Everything. Vol. 60. WORLD SCIENTIFIC. pp. 227–238. doi:10.1142/9789813226265_0035. ISBN 978-981-322-625-8. ISSN 0219-9769.
  40. ^ e.g. by Ray Ison: Ison, R. (2012). A cybersystemic framework for practical action. In: Murray, Joy; Cawthorne, Glenn; Dey, Christopher and Andrew, Chris eds. Enough for All Forever. A Handbook for Learning about Sustainability. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Publishing, pp. 269–284.
  41. ^ Checkland, P. (1981). Systems thinking, systems practice. Wiley, Chichester.
  42. ^ Cristianini, Nello (2023). The shortcut : why intelligent machines do not think like us (First ed.). Boca Raton. ISBN 978-1-003-33581-8. OCLC 1352480147.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  43. ^ Enacting Cybernetics
  44. ^ "RC51 Sociocybernetics".
  45. ^ "Home".
Societies and Journals