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Contextual Quote

"The fusion of traditionally detached topics is one of the big features of cybernetic thinking." 



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 Cybernetics is now rarely used in discourse, having been replaced by its many avatars such as complexity theory, artificial life, network dynamics, cognitive science, robotics, which are all part of a broader 'systems theory'.

1. Evgeny Morozov:

"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?"


2. Jan Krikke:

"AI looks less complicated when it is seen as a subset of cybernetics, the first comprehensive theory for binary computing developed in the 1940s. AI is built on the same (binary-Boolean) platform as Cybernetics. It is technically a form of cybernetics with a self-learning algorithm and could have been called Cybernetics 2.0.

The first generation of computers were analog machines. They performed calculations using variations in continuous electrical current rather than discrete binary values. Improvements in circuit technology in the 1940s made binary computing feasible, and most computer scientists agreed that binary systems were more stable and easier to program.

In the 1940s, the American scientist Norbert Wiener developed a theoretical framework for binary computing, which he called Cybernetics. Wiener showed that binary computers are ideal for the control or regulation of complex systems using binary choices (yes or no) and Boolean logic (IF/THEN/AND/OR, etc.).

A textbook example of a cybernetic system is the autopilot used in airliners. Using Boolean operators, the autopilot guides the aircraft from A to B within the parameters set by the navigator. If the aircraft encounters strong side winds, then the autopilot initiates a course correction. If it encounters strong headwinds, it may rev up the engines to stay on schedule.

Cybernetic theory played a crucial role in the development of automation and other production technologies after WWII. It enabled engineers to model complex systems, predict their behavior and develop control strategies for efficiency and reliability. Cybernetics also provided the theoretical framework for modern robotics.

In the 1950s, the humanities embraced cybernetics. Among others, it was used to study social systems, organizations, and management processes. Cybernetics provides tools for decision-making processes, organizational behavior, management science and systems thinking.

The cybernetic method is based on three steps: plan, quantify and steer. The plan defines the goal or destination; the quantification determines the required resources; and the steering, using a feedback mechanism, guides the system to its destination. The method can be applied to any system, whether an autopilot, a factory or an entire country.

Cybernetics is an interdisciplinary science. AI will help to end the age of specialization. Norbert Wiener called this new science cybernetics to express its basic function: steering. The word cybernetics derives from the Greek kybernētēs, meaning “I steer, drive, guide, act as a pilot.”

Plato used the word to refer to the captain of a ship. (The rudder of a ship was the first human use of a causal feedback mechanism.) The Latin corruption, gubernātor, is the root of the modern word government or to govern.

Cybernetics also spread to the social, political and economic domains. The Five and Ten Year Plans used in socialist countries after WWII were informed by cybernetic principles. They met with mixed success but China continued the practices of long-term planning even after its market liberalization of the 1970s."



Cybernetic Notions and Terms

Elin Whitney-Smith:

"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."


Cybernetics and Democracy


"Democratic society as defined in the West (that is, universal suffrage, secret ballots, two or three political parties, public debate, decision by majority, in two houses, moderating influence of President or constitutional Monarch) is an excellent example of a cybernetic evolution, perhaps more steersman-like than even Ampère would have imagined. In some ways Western democracy is remarkably sophisticated. The suffrage system (one man-one vote and election by bare majority) may be defined as a binary opinion amplifier with statistical stabilisation. However strong and widely held an opinion may be, only one candidate can be elected in any constituency. On the other hand the coupling to the legislative assembly and the reflexive action of the legislation on the voters is generally slightly positive, leading to a slow oscillation of party majorities. The classic phrase “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” is a precise embodiment of the cybernetic axiom that in a reflexive system causality disappears as purpose emerges. One of the most delicate adjustments in Western democracy is the timing of elections to match the natural period of oscillation. The American Constitution is a perfect example of phase control, since the President is elected every four years and one third of the Senate every two years. This constitutes introduction of a small component at the second harmonic frequency of the pulse repetition- rate, leading to an effect similar to rectification of an alternating pulse waveform. Politically, the effect of this is to diminish the probability of violent swing of policy from one extreme to the other; a period of relative tranquillity corresponding to two or four presidential terms will tend to be followed by a marked deflection in one direction but the opposing swing to the other side will again be diminished by the second harmonic rectification. This effect is acknowledged in practice by the traditional conflict between Executive and Legislative which is of course quite different from the system in other countries where the Prime Minister is necessarily a member of the majority party and the President or Monarch has a minimal influence in policy decisions. The ingenuity of the American Constitution reflects the cybernetic insight of its originators and its survival with only minor amendments since 1787 indicates its basic stability. If the full cybernetic implications of this unique specification for dynamic equilibrium had been realised at its inception, even the genius of Benjamin Franklin might have recoiled from the complexities of its checks and balances.

At the other extreme of political organisation, the autocratic tyranny or dictatorship also displays cybernetic qualities of universal interest. In place of an elected assembly the dictator must rely on a spy-network to provide information about popular feeling and economic trends. As long as the political police are unobtrusive and act merely as opinion samplers the system can be stable since the autocrat can regulate his edicts by reference to popular opinion which in turn is influenced by the edicts. Serious instability in an autocratic regime arises when the political police actively suppress expressions of opinion by arrest and mass execution. This destroys the sources of information and ensures an explosive evolution. The principle of innovation applies here as it does in the brain; in political evolution it is the unexpected that matters and since by definition the unexpected will appear first on a small scale, minority views must be constantly sampled since among them will be found the earliest harbingers of future change. In the brain, the responses evoked by novel stimuli involve no more than one per cent. of the available nerve cells, but this minority response is a clear indication of a likely trend in behaviour. Similarly in the political system the majority is always wrong in the sense that it preserves the impression of the past rather than a plan for the future. The Autocrat must therefore take great care that the ears of his henchmen are tuned to dreams and whispers. This suggestion that the majority is always wrong has important implications for electoral democratic systems also; minority views are represented in free election, but if these result in the sub-division of parties into many splinter-groups the operation of the legislative assembly becomes sluggish and inconsistent. The more effective arrangement is for the growth of a minority view to influence the bias of the opinion amplifier, that is to modify the policy of a major party."



(please note the role of Bogdanov is often forgotten in Western-centric accounts)

“The aim of cognitive science always was — and still is today — the mechanization of the mind, not the humanization of the machine.”

1. Jean-Pierre Dupuy:

“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.“

(source ?)


"Historically, the term cybernetics was first used in a general sense by Ampère in his classification of human knowledge as "la cybernétique: the science of government". In etymology the term is, of course, cognate with government, gubernator being the Latinised form of the Greek for "steersman". The re-introduction of the word into English by Norbert Wiener as the title of his book, published first in France and later in America, marked the beginning of the new epoch in which the problems of control and communication were explicitly defined as being common to animals, machines and societies, whether natural or artificial, living or inanimate.

The origin of Wiener's interest in this development was the invention of electronic aids to computation toward the end of the war, combined with his personal contact with neurophysiologists who were investigating the mechanisms of nervous conduction and the control of muscular action. Wiener was at once impressed by the similarities of the problems posed by military devices for automatic missile control and those encountered in the reflex activity of the body. As a mathematician and scientist of international repute and wide culture Wiener was as powerfully repelled by the military applications of his skill as he was attracted by its beneficent uses in human biology.

In his second book "The Human Use of Human Beings" he develops his humanist, liberal ideas in application to social as well as physiological problems, in the hope that it may not be too late for the human species to find in machines the willing slaves essential for prosperous and cultivated leisure. Writing at a time when the ignominious annihilation of a hundred million innocent bystanders is a calculated risk, as Wiener admits, this is a very faint hope indeed.

Associated with Wiener in the first years of the cybernetic epoch were a number of American mathematicians, physicists, engineers, biologists, psychologists and medical men, and this inter-disciplinary texture is, of course, the most striking feature of cybernetic groups. Within a short while of the publication of "Cybernetics" the Josiah Macy Jnr. Foundation organised the first of ten conferences on this subject, and the proceedings of the last five of these form an indispensable treatise on the widest range of subjects, including computer technology, semantics, brain physiology, psychiatry, artificial organisms and genetics. The factors common to all these topics may be found in the sub-title of the Macy publications: "Circular, Causal and Feed-back Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems". The phrase that has caught the ear of many listeners to such discourses is "feed-back mechanisms", partly because the notion of feed-back has been invoked to account for a wide variety of natural phenomena and embodied in many artificial devices to replace or amplify human capacity."



On the link between cybernetics and the commons

  1. Cybernetics of the Commons‎
  2. Cybernetics Valuable to the Commons and for Understanding AI. By Jan Krikke.

On the link between cybernetics and the possibility of a mutual coordination economy

  1. Cybernetics and Governance
  2. Red Cybernetics
  3. Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile‎


  1. Cybernetics as an Antihumanism‎
  2. Cybernetic Balance‎
  3. Economic and Social Cybernetics‎
  4. Fourth Order Cybernetics
  5. Stafford Beer on the History and Origins of Cybernetics
  6. Understanding AI through Cybernetics