“I’m Really More of a Cybernetics Hobbyist”
You’re probably much more familiar with post-modernism than modernism. Honestly, I have no idea what the movement of modernism is about. I could look up the wiki right now, and I’ve done it a million times, but I always seem to forget what I find there. The distinction between post-modernism and modernism has been explained to me – usually ‘mansplained’ at me and against my will – but I never retain anything meaningful. Even when I do remember what modernism is, I don’t understand how it’s different from post-modernism. Similarly, I was introduced to the concept of New Cybernetics before I understood what (old?) cybernetics was. Most of the time people don’t make a distinction. They'll just say ‘cybernetics’ referring to so-called robotnik systems as well as psychological or biological systems, which is actually more in the realm of second order cybernetics. So please note that in this article, when I say Cybernetics, I’m more concerned with the latter: the new Cybernetics. But, before we talk about what Cybernetics is, lets talk via negativa about a few things it’s not.
It’s not a cult. Cybernetics is commonly confused with Dianetics, the mind-body science developed by the infamous scientology leader L Ron Hubbard. I think they’re associated because they share the suffix -netics? I’m not sure why they’re confused so often but, I assure you, cybernetics has no inherent connection with scientology.
It’s also not an esoteric robot language. If you’re a fan of sci-fi, you’ve likely heard the word before, with the soft connotation of ‘involving robots’. In a Star Trek wiki, Cybernetics is defined as “the study of hugely complex artificial intelligence systems, usually running on a positronic matrix and often housed inside robotic machine technology.” This is the feeling people typically recall regarding cybernetics – something vague and inaccessible about robots, too huge to define to us common organic proletariats. Cybernetics, as a pop cultural archetype, probably looks something like:
I’ve come across this book countless times at thrift stores or curbside – and every copy I see is, like the one pictured above, drenched in urine/coffee. I’ve never read this book, but it looks like it might have been written by a plastic surgeon. Promising youth, health, and success. And by the looks of that price tag, can’t really lose on that deal.
Some people think cybernetics is a way to use computer terminology to describe and mediate human experience. Which makes sense. A lot of people have helped strengthen this branch of interpretation – namely, John C. Lilly with his influential work Programming the Human Bio-computer and Timothy Leary’s 8-circuit brain model. These in turn influenced the lexicon of Robert Anton Wilson and Antero Ali, and all the cybernauts therein. But there are many people in the field of cybernetics who are just as interested in making distinctions between human (open systems) and computers (closed systems).
The metaphor of human = computer is useful in some cases and may express a realm of human experience. Some cyberneticians can speak this language, but most do not live there.
As for what cybernetics is ... well in short, Cybernetics is the study of feedback. So what is feedback? That loud undesirable noise at a show (or desirable noise, depending on the crowd) is the basis for any self-regulating mechanism. Basically, it’s when the output of a unity is fed into the input. When someone sends you something for review, and after offering an analysis of the work you hear “thank you for your feedback” because the information went from A to B, then back to affect A again. Cybernetics attempts to study this realm of cause and effect in a range of contexts. So when you hear cybernetics, it’s fair to think “the system or interaction of”. The concepts therein are applicable to almost every aspect of life and so very useful and worthwhile to familiarize yourself with – that is, if you’re into hyper-contextualizing systems and the nesting of concepts in other concepts ad nauseam. Sometimes I’m really not in the mood. But when I am, I enjoy the way it focuses on the nature of observing and describing systems.
Etymologically, Cybernetics (derived from greek kybernētēs) describes the position of being “in the pilot seat” or exhibiting independence in action and thought. The beginning of cybernetics is commonly attributed to Norbert Wiener and his late 1940’s work Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, though the word ‘cybernetics’ has been used to describe governing systems as far back as Plato. There are as many definitions of cybernetics as there are of consciousness – and the variance of interpretation is what probably protects this science from ever reaching cult status. It seems as if this field never really took off. Why? I guess because, even though its participants are interested in forming and centralizing concepts, it seems they’re just as interested in decentralizing concepts. Check out the variance in this list Larry Richards, a fellow cybernetician, has compiled of the following interpretations:
“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 (19th century)
“The science of control and communication in the animal and machine”
— Norbert Wiener
“The art and science of securing defensible metaphors.”
— Gordon Pask
“Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity”
— Heinz von Foerester
“A way of thinking.”
— Ernst von Glasersfeld
“the science and art of understanding.”
— Humberto Maturana
“the ability to cure all temporary truth of eternal triteness.”
— Herbert Brun
“A way of thinking about ways of thinking, of which it is one”
— Larry Richards
Hopefully, this is giving you more context about the subject. Let’s go a little deeper into Second Order Cybernetics, also known as the Cybernetics of Cybernetics. This meta-field of cybernetics emphasizes the observer as an integral part of any observed system and so, concerns itself with phenomenology, patterns of recursion, and self-referentiality. Think of it as the more epistemological branch of cybernetics. The jump from Cybernetics to Second Order Cybernetics is similar to the shifts in awareness that happened in the scientific community in the 1920s emphasizing the observer effect of super-position/Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; in psychology with transpersonal inquiries; the development of ethnography versus anthropology; in almost all themes in the art/philosophy after WWII; and many spiritual traditions. The concepts therein are applicable to any system where you’d like to explore the observer’s interdependence with an observed system.
I attended my first conference hosted by the American Society for Cybernetics in Urbana Illinois in 2007.
Since cybernetics is a trans-disciplinary field, the conferences bring an eclectic crowd: managerial teams, counselors, military personnel, modern dancers, permaculturists, educators, poets, activists, mothers, computer scientists, system theorists, performance artists, composers ... all kinds of people are interested in how to influence systems for their specific (often divergent) ends by means of cybernetics.
And this is kind of tangential, but one thing that surprised me about the conferences was the lack of reference to any tradition of mindfulness. For as much as cybernetics focuses on the nature of consciousness, you’d think I’d have seen at least one mandala necklace, Alan Watts quote, presentation on meditation or something. Nothing like that happened. Since attending the conferences though, I’ve become familiar with the work of Francisco Valera, a biologist and system theorists, who co-founded the Institute of Mind and Science, and was in close communication with the Dalai Lama. There’s a lot of cross-talk between mindfulness practice and second order cybernetics in his work. But other than that, I didn’t even see anyone exhibiting an alchemical interest (I mean, they used an Ouroboros on their conference poster!) But maybe it’s similar to the way alchemist would disguise their metaphysical inquiries as a purely physical endeavor to transmute base metals to gold. Probably not the case with most people there, but maybe for some.
Myself? I guess I tend to have a more hermetic spin of concepts in cybernetics. I don’t think many would agree with my interpretations, but sorry-not-sorry: doing my observer interpreting/observing interpreter thing. Here are a few concepts and people that stuck with me from the conferences:
Autopeiosis Developed by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and his student Francisco Varela. Autopeiosis describes a system that is capable of producing (peiosis) and maintaining itself (auto). It describes the action of autonomy. Contrasted to allopoietic systems, which create things other than themselves.
Interlocking Behavior Another Valera/Maturana term of biological by birth, but I’ve used this in the context of interpersonal relationships. For instance, when you’re in a toxic relationship, and you can’t figure out why it’s bringing out the worst in both of you. Instead of either party being involved in blame or guilt, it’s been more useful to think about it in terms of patterns or interlocking behaviors. There’s a similar concept in Jungian psychology – mutual processing – where an archetype or dynamic arises among people and enacts itself through them, and it’s the responsibility of all involved to integrate the archetype. Otherwise, what usually happens is a series of power plays in language where the “victor” is free of blame and the “loser” is left to, black-sheepishly, integrate the entirety of an archetype. It’s a lose-lose situation, when you think about it. The former leaves untransformed, and the latter leaves over-transformed and psychologically burned. In terms of biology, its related to symbiotic relationships, interdependence, and co-evolution.
Floating Hierarchies A concept developed by Herbert Brün to describe a floating, changing, centralization of power. A fixed hierarchy is usually maintained through violent means. A floating hierarchy still utilizes hierarchical structure, but power lies in the eye of the beholder. He developed graphic scores and a process of composing and playing that expressed this concept. Kinda similar to Delueze & Guitarri’s Rhizome, but more arborescent?
Susan Parenti is an author, composer, playwright, and educator at The School for Designing a Society. She works closely with Patch Adams and seems to make all kinds of cool shit: oscillators, plays, sounds, healthcare initiatives, cool jokes, new language, etc. The first thing she ever said to me was that I was “foolish” for not attending the school where she teaches. I accepted this as a great compliment, and have, in this light, continued to not attend the school.
I remember at the 2007 cybernetics conference, during a lecture by some scientist guy, Susan Parenti rose to ask something like “Yeah but why should I care?...” (I saw her do this many times throughout the conference – bringing it back to care, to our humanity) “... this is something mothers and poets have always said, what about this [theory] is new?” referencing the way experts can get so entrenched in theory and forgetting their predecessors, reinventing the wheel, so to speak.
Judy Lombardi is an educator, activist, and videographer from Baltimore, Maryland. I met her at the 2007 ASC conference. My impression of her: ferociously curious and determined to have serious fun. Her workshop on Herbert Brun and the nature of violence was unconventionally informative. Lots of very short, self reflexive videos about language, cybernetics, violence, and Gertrude Stein. I met with her in Baltimore later that year. She took me to lunch at a hardware store [ lolwut? – Ed. ] and at some point in our conversation she started yelling at me, something like “WHERE ARE YOU? WHAT IS YOUR ENVIRONMENT?” I was really confused at the time because I was just talking trivialities about my life, but then realized she wasn’t referring to anything I’d said. She was referring to the way I talked about my life and environment as if it was this thing outside of me that acted on me, its victim. “It’s that damn cartesian [reality] … it has fucked up everything.” Then I read Gertrude Stein aloud while she stapled carpet in her mud room. Very influential on the twenty-year-old me and I still cherish our short meeting.
“Models are not true or false, they are more or less useful.”
— Stafford Beer
If we are going to live in a culture and reality heavily mediated by science and “experts” then I’d prefer to see a more self-reflexive position in the work of anyone creating structures or rules governing our collective perception of reality. Or, at the very least, an awareness that science references its own structure to dis/prove the desires of the system from which they originate. This desire isn’t a new intuition, it’s long standing and still relevant. It’s the intuition of mothers and poets: it’ll never die.
My impression of cybernetics at present is that it was the cutting edge consciousness studies in the 70s. A lot of cool thinkers and ideas came out of it. You’d think I’d get tired of hearing about how active observation can be, but the same principles are still applicable today. I wish they’d become outdated, but we’re still bombarded with metaphors of our brains being these passive computers that download information and enact cog-like menial social vanities when in fact I think we’re really more open, auto-poietic systems that are capable of creating our own language and systems of mediating experience.
If you’re interested in reading more about Second Order Cybernetics I suggest looking into the work of Herbert Brun, Susan Parenti, Mark Enslin, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Valera, Judy Lombardi, Arun Chandra, Heinz Von Foerester, Stafford Beer, Larry Richards, and Gregory Bateson. The next Cybernetics conference will mark the fiftieth anniversary of ASC and is being held in Washington D.C., August third through ninth. This year the theme is Living in Cybernetics.