WHAT COMES AFTER SECOND ORDER CYBERNETICS?
Stuart A. Umpleby
Research Program in Social and Organizational Learning
The George Washington University
2033 K Street NW, Suite 230
Washington, DC 20052
January 31, 2001
Prepared as an editorial for Cybernetics and Human Knowing at the request of
Pille Bunnell, president of the American Society for Cybernetics
WHAT COMES AFTER SECOND ORDER CYBERNETICS?
By Stuart A. Umpleby
In recent years the field of cybernetics has been described as consisting of two bodies of work created in two time periods: first order cybernetics from the late 1940s until about 1975, and second order cybernetics from the mid 1970s to the present. Each period lasted about 25 years. What comes next? I shall describe here what I think comes next and how the new point of view emerged, at least in my own thinking.
I have been a member of the group of people who worked to develop the ideas of second order cybernetics and to arouse interest in these ideas among academics in a variety of disciplines. In the language of Thomas S. Kuhn we were attempting to make a scientific revolution. A scientific revolution is marked by the emergence of “incommensurable definitions.” Consequently the differences between first and second order cybernetics were repeatedly stated. The way others and I defined the differences are summarized in Table 1.
DEFINITIONS OF FIRST AND SECOND ORDER CYBERNETICS
First Order Second Order
Author Cybernetics Cybernetics
Von Foerster the cybernetics of the cybernetics of
observed systems observing systems
Pask the purpose of the purpose of
a model a modeler
Varela controlled systems autonomous systems
Umpleby interaction among interaction between
the variables in a observer and
Umpleby theories of social theories of the
systems interaction between
ideas and society
After about twenty years of making the case for second order cybernetics, it seemed to me that we had largely succeeded. The idea of perspectival observation – what a person sees depends upon his or her background – had become widely accepted in scientific circles even if cyberneticians did not receive much credit for the change in thinking. Furthermore, I decided that not much more could be done to interest other scholars in the particular way that cyberneticians described constructivism.
There are additional reasons for creating a new, well-defined position. For many years I thought that second order cybernetics could easily encompass my interest in social systems. However, others who were developing second order cybernetics said that the distinctions I was making were not what they had in mind. I now believe that rather than try to stretch the conception of second order cybernetics to encompass both biological and social phenomena, it would be more fruitful to distinguish between these two points of view in order to create richer descriptions of each.
Another reason for my interest in creating a distinction between biological and social cybernetics is that biological cybernetics emphasizes a different distinction than the one I want to emphasize. Biological cybernetics distinguishes between the philosophies of realism and constructivism. I wish to emphasize the difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences. My motivation arises from my teaching experience. At The George Washington University I teach a course in the philosophy of science for entering doctoral students in management. The literature on the philosophy of science uses primarily examples from the natural sciences, especially physics. However, social systems are quite different from physical systems. When theories of physical phenomena change, we assume that the phenomena themselves do not change. For example, when physicists changed their thinking from classical Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics, the behavior of atoms did not change. But when theories of social systems change, social systems operate differently. For example, the theories of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman did change the way social systems operated. Hence, in the social sciences there is a circularity or a dialogue between theories and phenomena. This circularity does not occur in the natural sciences, or at least not in the same way. Our use of technology affects the environment, which leads to new technologies, but theories in the natural sciences remain mostly unchanged.
Due to my experience in attempting to promote second order cybernetics I have become interested in what I call “the design of intellectual movements.” A few examples of intellectual movements in addition to second order cybernetics are: process improvement methods in the field of management, the interdisciplinary field of socio-economics, and Vladimir Lefebvre’s idea of reflexive control, that has attracted considerable interest in Russia.
Essential to the design of intellectual movements is the circularity between theories and phenomena in the social sciences. However, this is not the focus of attention of biological cybernetics. Biological cyberneticians emphasize the fact that our conceptions of observed phenomena are our own constructions. This point of view has great implications for how human beings communicate with one another and strive to achieve agreement. But once we have an improved understanding of how to communicate, what will we communicate about and how can we be more effective in changing social systems? My answer is to design and encourage intellectual movements, or the widespread adoption of ideas that we believe will have a beneficial impact on the operation of social systems. This is the work that I think of as social cybernetics.
I feel that a new organizing idea is needed to advance the field, or at least my work in the field. I call the new point of view social cybernetics or the cybernetics of conceptual systems. For an overview of how this third point of view is different from both first order cybernetics and second order cybernetics, see Table 2. In the table “engineering cybernetics” refers to first order cybernetics and “biological cybernetics” refers to second order cybernetics. The column called “social cybernetics” describes the view that I am advocating.
THREE VERSIONS OF CYBERNETICS
Engineering Biological Social
Cybernetics Cybernetics Cybernetics
The view of a realist a biological a pragmatic view
epistemology view of view of of epistemology:
epistemology: epistemology: knowledge is
knowledge is how the brain constructed to
a "picture" functions achieve human
of reality purposes
A key reality vs. realism vs. the biology of
distinction scientific constructivism cognition vs. the
theories observer as a
The puzzle construct include the explain the
to be solved theories which observer relationship
explain within the between the
observed domain of natural and the
phenomena science social sciences
What must be how the world how an how people create,
explained works individual maintain, and change
constructs social systems
a "reality" through language
A key natural ideas about ideas are accepted
assumption processes can knowledge if they serve the
be explained should be observer's purposes
by scientific rooted in as a social
theories neuro- participant
An important scientific if people by transforming
consequence knowledge can accept con- conceptual systems
be used to structivism, (through persuasion,
modify natural they will be not coercion), we
processes to more tolerant can change society
Of course, I am not the only person interested in developing the idea of social cybernetics. Niklas Luhmann has written about self-reference and autopoiesis in biological, psychological and social systems, and Felix Geyer has organized a socio-cybernetics working group within the International Sociological Association. I look forward to working with others in further developing cybernetics ideas in the realm of social systems.
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