Cybernetics

Principle diagram of a cybernetic system with a feedback loop

Cybernetics is a wide-ranging field concerned with regulatory and purposive systems. The core concept of cybernetics is circular causality or feedback—where the observed outcomes of actions are taken as inputs for further action in ways that support the pursuit and maintenance of particular conditions, or their disruption. Cybernetics is named after an example of circular causality, that of steering a ship,[a] where the helmsperson maintains a steady course in a changing environment by adjusting their steering in continual response to the effect it is observed as having.[1] Other examples of circular causal feedback include: technological devices such as thermostats (where the action of a heater responds to measured changes in temperature, regulating the temperature of the room within a set range); biological examples such as the coordination of volitional movement through the nervous system; and processes of social interaction such as conversation.[2] Cybernetics is concerned with feedback processes such as steering however they are embodied,[3] including in ecological, technological, biological, cognitive, and social systems, and in the context of practical activities such as designing, learning, managing, conversation, and the practice of cybernetics itself. Cybernetics' transdisciplinary[4] and "antidisciplinary"[5] character has meant that it intersects with a number of other fields, leading to it having both wide influence and diverse interpretations.

Cybernetics has its origins in exchanges between numerous fields during the 1940s, including anthropology, mathematics, neuroscience, psychology, and engineering. Initial developments were consolidated through meetings such as the Macy Conferences and the Ratio Club. At its most prominent during the 1950s and 1960s, cybernetics is a precursor to fields such as computing, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, complexity science, and robotics amongst others. It is closely related to systems science, which was developed in parallel. Early focuses included purposeful behaviour,[6] neural networks, heterarchy,[7] information theory, and self-organising systems. As cybernetics developed, it became broader in scope to include work in domains such as design,[8] family therapy, management and organisation, pedagogy, sociology, and the creative arts.[9] At the same time, questions arising from circular causality have been explored in relation to the philosophy of science, ethics, and constructivist approaches, while cybernetics has also been associated with counter-cultural movements.[10] Contemporary cybernetics thus varies widely in scope and focus, with cyberneticians variously adopting and combining technical, scientific, philosophical, creative, and critical approaches.


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  1. ^ Gage, S. (2007). The boat/helmsman. Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research, 5(1), 15-24. https://doi.org/10.1386/tear.5.1.15_1
  2. ^ Dubberly, H., & Pangaro, P. (2019). Cybernetics and design: Conversations for action. In T. Fischer & C. M. Herr (Eds.), Design cybernetics: Navigating the new (pp. 85-99). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-18557-2_4
  3. ^ Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.
  4. ^ Müller, Albert (2000). "A Brief History of the BCL". Österreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaften. 11 (1): 9–30. Archived from the original on 2012-07-22. Retrieved 2012-06-06.
  5. ^ "Cybernetics spilled out all over the disciplinary map. It was a strongly interdisciplinary field, or, better, an antidisciplinary one: it did not aggregate disciplinary perspectives; it rode roughshod over disciplinary boundaries..." Pickering, A. (2010). The cybernetic brain: Sketches of another future. University of Chicago Press. Page 9
  6. ^ Rosenblueth, A., Wiener, N., & Bigelow, J. (1943). Behavior, Purpose and Teleology. Philosophy of Science, 10(1), 18-24. Retrieved August 1, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/184878
  7. ^ "A Heterarchy of Values Determined by the Topology of Nervous Nets". In: Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics, 7, 1945, 89–93.
  8. ^ Fischer, T., & Herr, C. M. (Eds.). (2019). Design Cybernetics: Navigating the new. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-18557-2
  9. ^ Scholte, T. (2020), "A proposal for the role of the arts in a new phase of second-order cybernetics", Kybernetes, Vol. 49 No. 8, pp. 2153-2170. https://doi.org/10.1108/K-03-2019-0172
  10. ^ Dubberly, H., & Pangaro, P. (2015). How cybernetics connects computing, counterculture, and design. In Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia. Walker Art Center. http://www.dubberly.com/articles/cybernetics-and-counterculture.html

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