Second-order cybernetics, also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics, is the recursive application of cybernetics to itself and the practice of cybernetics according to such a critique. It was developed between approximately 1968 and 1975 by Margaret Mead, Heinz von Foerster and others. Von Foerster referred to it as the cybernetics of "observing systems" whereas first order cybernetics is that of "observed systems". It is sometimes referred to as the "new cybernetics", the term preferred by Gordon Pask, and is closely allied to radical constructivism, which was developed around the same time by Ernst von Glasersfeld. While it is sometimes considered a radical break from the earlier concerns of cybernetics, there is much continuity with previous work and it can be thought of as the completion of the discipline, responding to issues evident during the Macy conferences in which cybernetics was initially developed. Its concerns include epistemology, ethics, autonomy, self-consistency, self-referentiality, and self-organizing capabilities of complex systems. It has been characterised as cybernetics where "circularity is taken seriously".
Second-order Cybernetics can be abbreviated as C2 or SOC, and is sometimes referred to as the cybernetics of cybernetics, the new cybernetics or second cybernetics. The terms are often used interchangeably, but can also stress different aspects:
Second-order cybernetics took shape during the late 1960s and mid 1970s. The 1967 keynote address to the inaugural meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) by Margaret Mead, who had been a participant at the Macy Conferences, is a defining moment in its development. She characterised "cybernetics as a way of looking at things and as a language for expressing what one sees". This paper was social and ecological in focus, with Mead calling on cyberneticians to assume responsibility for the social consequences of the language of cybernetics and the development of cybernetic systems.
Mead's paper concluded with a proposal directed at the ASC itself, that it organise itself in the light of the ideas with which it was concerned. That is, the practice of Cybernetics by the ASC should be subject to Cybernetic critique, an idea returned to specially by Ranulph Glanville in his time as president of the society.
Mead's paper was published in 1968 in a collection edited by Heinz von Foerster. With Mead uncontactable due to field work at the time, von Foerster titled the paper "Cybernetics of Cybernetics", a title that perhaps emphasised his concerns more than Mead's. Von Foerster promoted Second-order Cybernetics energetically, developing it as a means of renewal for Cybernetics generally and as what has been called an "unfinished revolution" in science. Von Foerster developed Second-order Cybernetics as a critique of realism and objectivity and as a radically reflexive form of science, where observers enter their domains of observation, describing their own observing not the supposed causes.
The initial development of second-order cybernetics was consolidated by the mid 1970s in a series of significant developments and publications:
Heinz von Foerster attributes the origin of second-order cybernetics to the attempts by cyberneticians to construct a model of the mind:
... a brain is required to write a theory of a brain. From this follows that a theory of the brain, that has any aspirations for completeness, has to account for the writing of this theory. And even more fascinating, the writer of this theory has to account for her or himself. Translated into the domain of cybernetics; the cybernetician, by entering his own domain, has to account for his or her own activity. Cybernetics then becomes cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics.
Many cyberneticians draw a sharp distinction between first and second order cybernetics, others stress the continuity between the two, and the implicit second order qualities of earlier cybernetics.
The anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead contrasted first and second-order cybernetics with this diagram in an interview in 1973. Referring to the Macy conferences, it emphasises the requirement for a participant observer in the second order case:
In 1992, Pask summarized the differences between the old and the new cybernetics as a shift in emphasis:.
Some biologists influenced by cybernetic concepts (Maturana and Varela, 1980; Varela, 1979; Atlan, 1979) realized that the cybernetic metaphors of the program upon which molecular biology had been based rendered a conception of the autonomy of the living being impossible. Consequently, these thinkers were led to invent a new cybernetics, one more suited to the organization mankind discovers in nature – organizations he has not himself invented. The possibility that this new cybernetics could also account for social forms of organization, remained an object of debate among theoreticians on self-organization in the 1980s.
In political science in the 1980s unlike its predecessor, the new cybernetics concerns itself with the interaction of autonomous political actors and subgroups and the practical reflexive consciousness of the subject who produces and reproduces the structure of political community. A dominant consideration is that of recursiveness, or self-reference of political action both with regard to the expression of political consciousness and with the ways in which systems build upon themselves.
In 1978, Geyer and van der Zouwen discuss a number of characteristics of the emerging "new cybernetics". One characteristic of new cybernetics is that it views information as constructed by an individual interacting with the environment. This provides a new epistemological foundation of science, by viewing it as observer-dependent. Another characteristic of the new cybernetics is its contribution towards bridging the "micro-macro gap". That is, it links the individual with the society. Geyer and van der Zouten also noted that a transition from classical cybernetics to new cybernetics involves a transition from classical problems to new problems. These shifts in thinking involve, among other things, a change in emphasis on the system being steered to the system doing the steering, and the factors which guide the steering decisions. And a new emphasis on communication between several systems which are trying to steer each other.
Geyer & J. van der Zouwen (1992) recognize four themes in both sociocybernetics and new cybernetics:
Other topics where new cybernetics is developed are:
Organizational cybernetics is distinguished from management cybernetics. Both use many of the same terms but interpret them according to another philosophy of systems thinking. Organizational cybernetics by contrast offers a significant break with the assumption of the hard approach. The full flowering of organizational cybernetics is represented by Beer's viable system model.
Organizational cybernetics studies organizational design, and the regulation and self-regulation of organizations from a systems theory perspective that also takes the social dimension into consideration. Researchers in economics, public administration and political science focus on the changes in institutions, organisation and mechanisms of social steering at various levels (sub-national, national, European, international) and in different sectors (including the private, semi-private and public sectors; the latter sector is emphasised).
The reformulation of sociocybernetics as an "actor-oriented, observer-dependent, self-steering, time-variant" paradigm of human systems, was most clearly articulated by Geyer and van der Zouwen in 1978 and 1986. They stated that sociocybernetics is more than just social cybernetics, which could be defined as the application of the general systems approach to social science. Social cybernetics is indeed more than such a one-way knowledge transfer. It implies a feed-back loop from the area of application – the social sciences – to the theory being applied, namely cybernetics; consequently, sociocybernetics can indeed be viewed as part of the new cybernetics: as a result of its application to social science problems, cybernetics, itself, has been changed and has moved from its originally rather mechanistic point of departure to become more actor-oriented and observer-dependent. In summary, the new sociocybernetics is much more subjective and uses a sociological approach more than classical cybernetics approach with its emphasis on control. The new approach has a distinct emphasis on steering decisions; furthermore, it can be seen as constituting a reconceptualization of many concepts which are often routinely accepted without challenge.
Andrew Pickering has criticised second order cybernetics as a form of linguistic turn, moving away from the performative practices he finds valuable in earlier cybernetics. Pickering's comments seem to apply specifically to where second order cybernetics has emphasised epistemology and language, for instance in the work of von Foerster, as he approvingly references the work of figures such as Bateson and Pask and the idea of participant observers which fall within the scope of second order cybernetics more broadly considered.