= overview page
- 1 Description
- 2 Details
- 3 Discussion
- 4 History
- 5 Directory
Cybernetics is the science of control and communication. All systems can be analyze with formalized descriptions of how they process and store messages and especially feedback loops, the output of which is re-used as inputs. Cybernetics is now rarely used in discourse, having been replaced by its many avatars such as complexity theory, artificial life, network dynamics, cognitive science, robotics, which are all part of a broader 'systems theory'.
"Cybernetics was born in the mid-nineteen-forties, as scholars in various disciplines began noticing that social, natural, and mechanical systems exhibit similar patterns of self-regulation. Norbert Wiener’s classic “Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” (1948) discussed human behavior by drawing on his close observation of technologies like the radar and the thermostat. The latter is remarkable for how little it needs to know in order to do its job. It doesn’t care whether what’s making the room so hot is your brand-new plasma TV or the weather outside. It just needs to compare its actual output (the temperature right now) with its predefined output (the desired temperature) and readjust its input (whatever mechanism is producing heat or cold).
Wiener held that a patient suffering from purpose tremor—spilling a glass of water before raising it to his lips—was akin to a malfunctioning thermostat. Both rely on “negative feedback”—“negative” because it tends to oppose what the system is doing. In a way, our bodies are feedback machines: we maintain our body temperature without a specially programmed response for “condition: bathhouse” or “condition: tundra.” The tendency to self-adjust is known as homeostasis, and it’s ubiquitous in both the natural and the mechanical worlds. For Beer, in fact, corporations are homeostats. They have a clear goal—survival—and are full of feedback loops: between the company and its suppliers or between workers and management. And if we can make homeostatic corporations why not homeostatic governments?"
Cybernetic Notions and Terms
"The notion of deviation amplification or positive feedback refers to a condition where an increase in one variable causes an increase in another variable which causes an increase in the first variable. This is exactly what happens when a microphone is placed too near a speaker. The microphone picks up ambient room noise, this is amplified by the speaker, this amplified sound is picked up by the microphone and again is amplified, this eventually results in the high pitched squeal with which we are familiar. If this condition were to go unchecked the speaker would eventually break. This is another characteristic of a positive feedback loop - they are inherently unstable and eventually result in some change of state - a broken speaker.
Negative feedback acts to correct deviation in the system. The classical example of this is the heating system and thermostat which switches on the heating unit when the house gets colder than the desired temperature and switches it off when the house gets warmer than the desired temperature.
The notion of variety refers to the number of states which a system can assume. The law of requisite variety (Ashby, 1971c) refers to the balance of variety of a controller or regulator of a system and the variety of the system. In the thermostat example above the system has two states - too hot and too cold - for a variety of two, and the regulator - thermostat - has two responses - heater on and heater off. The regulator has the requisite variety to control the system. If we also want the humidity controlled then the thermostat does not have sufficient variety to control the system since the system is now defined to have four states - too hot, too cold, too humid and too dry. In this example we can quantify the states of the system exactly.
In social systems we can generalize the notion to give us some notions of the orders of magnitude necessary to control a system even though we cannot quantify the variety exactly. For example, if a tax collector has to keep all the tax records of his jurisdiction in his head, his variety is limited to the number he can remember, if he can use the quipu (the system of knots used by the Inca for record keeping) then h'is variety is increased such that he can keep track of a far greater number of tax records. The quipu is an example of an information technology (Ascher & Ascher,1982)."
Cybernetics in the context of Common Cybernetics
"Cybernetics can be understood as a trans-disciplinary discourse which articulates common threads between all complex systems (whether they are neurological, biological, mechanical, psychological, organisational, ecological, computational, social, etc). It's founders' goal was to develop a way of talking about all such complex systems in a shared language, which would allow the physicist to understand the anthropologist, the engineer to understand the sociologist, and so on.
Ripples of cybernetics have emerged across the world and throughout time. Prior to its development in the western capitalist world Alexander Bogdanov developed his own “tectology” which aimed to develop an understanding of the organisational principles underlying all systems. Tectology can be understood as another name for cybernetics.
Within the context of c/cyb, cybernetics can be defined more or less loosely, depending on its implementation. As a consequence of this malleability, c/cyb's conception of cybernetics is left intentionally under-specified. Those with a detailed understanding of cybernetics can apply it themselves, and those without can pursue those cybernetic technics which require less preliminary knowledge. Whatever is appropriate to their purpose.
Cybernetic materials are often conceptual, textual or conversational, but can be just as easily embodied in machines, devices, buildings, organisational structures, software designs, databases or whatever other material form. Any cybernetic resource which may aid the provision of the common is a legitimate object of c/cyb.
Any sufficiently complex system can ultimately be understood as being cybernetic, in that it obeys the same universal laws of organisation which cybernetics delineates. Rowers on a boat, a swarm of ants, or the man-horse assemblag2 serve as examples of various materials coming together to constitute cybernetic systems. C/cyb aims to direct these systems towards common ends."
“The aim of cognitive science always was — and still is today — the mechanization of the mind, not the humanization of the machine.”
“My book seeks to disabuse readers of a number of ideas that I consider mistaken. Cybernetics calls to mind a series of familiar images that turn out on closer inspection to be highly doubtful. As the etymology of the word suggests, cybernetics is meant to signify control, mastery, governance — in short, the philosophical project associated with Descartes, who assigned mankind the mission of exercising dominion over the world, and over mankind itself. Within the cybernetics movement, this view was championed by Norbert Wiener — unsurprisingly, perhaps, since it was Wiener who gave it its name. But this gives only a very partial, if not superficial idea of what cybernetics was about, notwithstanding that even a philosopher of such penetrating insight as Heidegger was taken in by it.
In my work, I have relied on the notion, due to Karl Popper, of a metaphysical research program, which is to say a set of presuppositions about the structure of the world that are neither testable nor empirically falsifiable, but without which no science would be possible. For there is no science that does not rest on a metaphysics, though typically it remains concealed. It is the responsibility of the philosopher to uncover this metaphysics, and then to subject it to criticism. What I have tried to show is that cybernetics, far from being the apotheosis of Cartesian humanism, as Heidegger supposed, actually represented a crucial moment in its demystification, and indeed in its deconstruction. To borrow a term that has been applied to the structuralist movement in the human sciences, cybernetics constituted a decisive step in the rise of antihumanism. Consider, for example, the way in which cybernetics conceived the relationship between man and machine. The philosophers of consciousness were not alone in being caught up in the trap set by a question such as “Will it be possible one day to design a machine that thinks?” The cybernetician’s answer, rather in the spirit of Molière, was: “Madame, you pride yourself so on thinking. And yet, you are only a machine!” The aim of cognitive science always was — and still is today — the mechanization of the mind, not the humanization of the machine.“
- Cybernetics of the Commons
- Cybernetics Valuable to the Commons and for Understanding AI. By Jan Krikke.