“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.