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Definitions of Cybernetics

 

There are many definitions of cybernetics and many individuals who have influenced the definition and direction of cybernetics. Norbert Wiener, a mathematician, engineer and social philosopher, coined the word "cybernetics" from the Greek word meaning "steersman." He defined it as the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Ampere, before him, wanted cybernetics to be the science of government. For philosopher Warren McCulloch, cybernetics was an experimental epistemology concerned with the communication within an observer and between the observer and his environment. Stafford Beer, a management consultant, defined cybernetics as the science of effective organization. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson noted that whereas previous sciences dealt with matter and energy, the new science of cybernetics focuses on form and pattern. For educational theorist Gordon Pask, cybernetics is the art of manipulating defensible metaphors, showing how they may be constructed and what can be inferred as a result of their existence.

Cybernetics takes as its domain the design or discovery and application of principles of regulation and communication. Cybernetics treats not things but ways of behaving. It does not ask "what is this thing?" but "what does it do?" and "what can it do?" Because numerous systems in the living, social and technological world may be understood in this way, cybernetics cuts across many traditional disciplinary boundaries. The concepts which cyberneticians develop thus form a metadisciplinary language by which we may better understand and modify our world.

Several traditions in cybernetics have existed side by side since its beginning. One is concerned with circular causality, manifest in technological developments--notably in the design of computers and automata--and finds its intellectual expression in theories of computation, regulation and control. Another tradition, which emerged from human and social concerns, emphasizes epistemology--how we come to know-- and explores theories of self-reference to understand such phenomena as autonomy, identity, and purpose. Some cyberneticians seek to create a more humane world, while others seek merely to understand how people and their environment have co-evolved. Some are interested in systems as we observe them, others in systems that do the observing. Some seek to develop methods for modeling the relationships among measurable variables. Others aim to understand the dialogue that occurs between models or theories and social systems. Early work sought to define and apply principles by which systems may be controlled. More recent work has attempted to understand how systems describe themselves, control themselves, and organize themselves. Despite its short history, cybernetics has developed a concern with a wide range of processes involving people as active organizers, as sharing communicators, and as autonomous, responsible individuals.


CYBERNETICS: DEFINITIONS AND DESCRIPTIONS


"a 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

"Cybernetique= the art of growing"--A.M. Ampere

"the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine"-Norbert Wiener

"the art of securing efficient operation"-L. Couffignal

"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 a 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"-Gregory Bateson

"the science of effective organization"-Stafford Beer

"the art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors"-Gordon Pask

"Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity."-Heinz von Foerster

"a way of thinking"-Ernst von Glasersfeld

"the science and art of understanding"-Humberto Maturana

"Cybernetics: when I reflect on the dynamics of observed systems and on the dynamics of the observer-whence 'creative cybernetics': when I project the dynamics of a system I would like to observe"-from announcement of 1987 ASC conference in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

"the ability to cure all temporary truth of eternal triteness"-Herbert Brun

Commentary: I developed this list of definitions/descriptions in 1987-88 and have been distributing it at ASC (American Society for Cybernetics)conferences since 1988. I added a few items to the list over the next two years, and it has remained essentially unchanged since then. My intent was twofold: (1) to demonstrate that one of the distinguishing features of cybernetics might be that it could legitimately have multiple definitions without contradicting itself, and (2) to stimulate dialogue on what the motivations (intentions, desires, etc.) of those who have proposed different definitions might be. While the list as a tool for this purpose has probably outlived its usefulness, I continue to want cybernetics to be talked about as a dynamic set of ideas, a dynamics that is realized in dialogue among humans. That is, I want the label "cybernetics" to attract people who have an interest in both the subject and practice of conversation, and in creating the "new" out of this form of dynamic interaction. I want this irrespective of whether their interests are in electronics, life, society, or mind, and whether they come from science, art, or politics. My own contribution at this point is:

"a way of thinking about ways of thinking"; "offers a vocabulary for talking, and hence thinking, about the dynamics of relations and behavior"; hence the 'cybernetician': "a craftsperson in time"-Larry Richards

Please browse the Cambridge Cafe for more information on definitions of cybernetics.

 

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