Cybernetics (20TH CENTURY)

Application of mechanical and scientific models for the understanding of political life.

The manner in which political systems and institutions co-ordinate and control their own actions can be explained principally in terms of their internal ‘mechanisms’, and their actions understood principally in terms of these internal processes, rather than by reference to outside pressures as in black box model or billiard ball model.

Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (London, 1982)


The essential goal of the broad field of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with the desired goal, and again to action. Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks.[5] Cybernetics includes the study of feedback, black boxes and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines and organizations including self-organization.

Concepts studied by cyberneticists include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaptation, social control, emergence, convergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy, and connectivity. In cybernetics these concepts (otherwise already objects of study in other disciplines such as biology and engineering) are abstracted from the context of the specific organism or device.

Studies in cybernetics provide a means for examining the design and function of any system, including social systems such as business management and organizational learning, including for the purpose of making them more efficient and effective. Fields of study which have influenced or been influenced by cybernetics include game theory, system theory (a mathematical counterpart to cybernetics), perceptual control theory, sociology, psychology (especially neuropsychology, behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology), philosophy, architecture, and organizational theory.[6] System dynamics, originated with applications of electrical engineering control theory to other kinds of simulation models (especially business systems) by Jay Forrester at MIT in the 1950s, is a related field.


Cybernetics has been defined in a variety of ways, by a variety of people, from a variety of disciplines.

One of the most well known definitions is that of Norbert Wiener who characterised cybernetics as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”.[7] Although this definition remains relevant, it is to be used with care: cyberneticians have criticised some senses of communication[8] and differentiated cybernetic processes such as conversation from communication in the sense of message transmission;[9] control in cybernetics usually refers to “the sort of control that allows us to stay upright when skiing, stable in the face of perturbations”[10] rather than control in a restrictive or coercive sense.

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”.[11]

Cybernetician Stuart Umpleby reports some notable definitions:[12]

  • “Science concerned with the study of systems of any nature which are capable of receiving, storing and processing information so as to use it for control.”—A. N. Kolmogorov
  • “‘The art of steersmanship’: deals with all forms of behavior in so far as they are regular, or determinate, or reproducible: stands to the real machine — electronic, mechanical, neural, or economic — much as geometry stands to real object in our terrestrial space; offers a method for the scientific treatment of the system in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored.”—W. Ross Ashby
  • “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 [lit.: the art of effective action].”—Louis Couffignal[13][14]
  • “The art of effective organization.”—Stafford Beer
  • “The art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors” (with relevance to constructivist epistemology. The author later extended the definition to include information flows “in all media”, from stars to brains.)—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

Other notable definitions include:

  • “The science and art of the understanding of understanding.”—Rodney E. Donaldson, the first president of the American Society for Cybernetics
  • “A way of thinking about ways of thinking of which it is one.”—Larry Richards
  • “The art of interaction in dynamic networks.”—Roy Ascott
  • “The study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves.”—Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics[15]
  • “The science of design, purposeful activity, and accomplishment.”—Angus Jenkinson, Secretary of the Cybernetics Society[16]
  • “Cybernetics is a universal science of accomplishment, purposeful activity, design, and reflexive control. It explains manifold phenomena and aids the design and use of technologies and practice related to them.”–Cybernetics Society[17]


Simple feedback model. AB < 0 for negative feedback.

The word cybernetics comes from Greek κυβερνητική (kybernētikḗ), meaning “governance”, i.e., all that are pertinent to κυβερνάω (kybernáō), the latter meaning “to steer, navigate or govern”, hence κυβέρνησις (kybérnēsis), meaning “government”, is the government while κυβερνήτης (kybernḗtēs) is the governor, pilot, or “helmsperson” of the “ship”. As with the ancient Greek pilot, independence of thought is important in cybernetics.[18]

French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère first coined the word “cybernetique” in his 1834 essay Essai sur la philosophie des sciences to describe the science of civil government.[19] The term was used by Norbert Wiener, in his book Cybernetics, to define the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. In the book, he states: “Although the term cybernetics does not date further back than the summer of 1947, we shall find it convenient to use in referring to earlier epochs of the development of the field.”[7]


Cybernetics evolved in ways that distinguish first-order cybernetics (about observed systems) from second-order cybernetics (about observing systems).[20] More recently there is talk about a third-order cybernetics (doing in ways that embraces first and second-order).[21]


Roots of cybernetic theory

The word cybernetics was first used in the context of “the study of self-governance” by Plato in Republic [22] and in Alcibiades to signify the governance of people.[23] The word ‘cybernétique’ was also used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge.

James Watt

The first artificial automatic regulatory system was a water clock, invented by the mechanician Ktesibios; based on a tank which poured water into a reservoir before using it to run the mechanism, it used a cone-shaped float to monitor the level of the water in its reservoir and adjust the rate of flow of the water accordingly to maintain a constant level of water in the reservoir. This was the first artificial truly automatic self-regulatory device that required no outside intervention between the feedback and the controls of the mechanism. Although they considered this part of engineering (the use of the term cybernetics is much posterior), Ktesibios and others such as Heron and Su Song are considered to be some of the first to study cybernetic principles.

The study of teleological mechanisms (from the Greek τέλος or télos for endgoal, or purpose) in machines with corrective feedback dates from as far back as the late 18th century when James Watt’s steam engine was equipped with a governor (1775–1800), a centrifugal feedback valve for controlling the speed of the engine. Alfred Russel Wallace identified this as the principle of evolution in his famous 1858 paper.[24] In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell published a theoretical article on governors, one of the first to discuss and refine the principles of self-regulating devices. Jakob von Uexküll applied the feedback mechanism via his model of functional cycle (Funktionskreis) in order to explain animal behaviour and the origins of meaning in general.

Early 20th century

Contemporary cybernetics began as an interdisciplinary study connecting the fields of control systems, electrical network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology and neuroscience in the 1940s; the ideas are also related to the biological work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy in General Systems Theory. Electronic control systems originated with the 1927 work of Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer Harold S. Black on using negative feedback to control amplifiers.

Early applications of negative feedback in electronic circuits included the feedback amplifier and the control of gun mounts and radar antenna during World War II. The founder of System Dynamics, Jay Forrester, worked with Gordon S. Brown during WWII as a graduate student at the Servomechanisms Laboratory at MIT to develop electronic control systems for the U.S. Navy. Forrester later applied these ideas to social organizations, such as corporations and cities, and he became an original organizer of the MIT School of Industrial Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

W. Edwards Deming, the Total Quality Management guru for whom Japan named its top post-WWII industrial prize, was an intern at Bell Telephone Labs in 1927 and may have been influenced by network theory; Deming made “Understanding Systems” one of the four pillars of what he described as “Profound Knowledge” in his book The New Economics.

Numerous papers spearheaded the coalescing of the field. In 1935 Russian physiologist P. K. Anokhin published a book in which the concept of feedback (“back afferentation”) was studied. The study and mathematical modelling of regulatory processes became a continuing research effort and two key articles were published in 1943: “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology” by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow; and the paper “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity” by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts.

In 1936, Ștefan Odobleja published “Phonoscopy and the clinical semiotics”. In 1937, he participated in the IX International Congress of Military Medicine with “Demonstration de phonoscopie”; in the paper he disseminated a prospectus announcing his future work, “Psychologie consonantiste”, the most important of his writings, where he lays the theoretical foundations of generalized cybernetics. The book, published in Paris by Librairie Maloine (vol. I in 1938 and vol. II in 1939), contains almost 900 pages and includes 300 figures in the text. The author wrote at the time that “this book is … a table of contents, an index or a dictionary of psychology, [for] a … great Treatise of Psychology that should contain 20–30 volumes”. Due to the beginning of World War II, the publication went unnoticed (the first Romanian edition of this work did not appear until 1982).

Norbert Wiener

Cybernetics as a discipline was firmly established by Norbert Wiener, McCulloch, Arturo Rosenblueth and others, such as W. Ross Ashby, mathematician Alan Turing, and W. Grey Walter (one of the first to build autonomous robots as an aid to the study of animal behaviour). In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy (France was an important geographical locus of early cybernetics together with the US and UK); the event was organized by the Bourbaki, a French scientific society, and mathematician Szolem Mandelbrojt (1899–1983), uncle of the world-famous mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot. During this stay in France, Wiener received the offer to write a manuscript on the unifying character of this part of applied mathematics, which is found in the study of Brownian motion and in telecommunication engineering. The following summer, back in the United States, Wiener decided to introduce the neologism cybernetics, coined to denote the study of “teleological mechanisms”, into his scientific theory: it was popularized through his book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (MIT Press/John Wiley and Sons, NY, 1948).[7] In the UK this became the focus for the Ratio Club.

John von Neumann

In the early 1940s John von Neumann contributed a unique and unusual addition to the world of cybernetics: von Neumann cellular automata, and their logical follow up, the von Neumann Universal Constructor. The result of these deceptively simple thought-experiments was the concept of self replication, which cybernetics adopted as a core concept. The concept that the same properties of genetic reproduction applied to social memes, living cells, and even computer viruses is further proof of the somewhat surprising universality of cybernetic study.

In 1950, Wiener popularized the social implications of cybernetics, drawing analogies between automatic systems (such as a regulated steam engine) and human institutions in his best-selling The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Houghton-Mifflin).

Cybernetics in the Soviet Union was initially considered a “pseudoscience” and “ideological weapon” of “imperialist reactionaries” (Soviet Philosophical Dictionary, 1954) and later criticised as a narrow form of cybernetics.[25] In the mid to late 1950s Viktor Glushkov and others salvaged the reputation of the field. Soviet cybernetics incorporated much of what became known as computer science in the West.[26]

While not the only instance of a research organization focused on cybernetics, the Biological Computer Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, under the direction of Heinz von Foerster, was a major center of cybernetic research for almost 20 years, beginning in 1958.

One thought on “Cybernetics (20TH CENTURY)

  1. zortilonrel says:

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