Cybernetics [sahy-ber-net-iks] is the theory of communication and control based on regulatory feedback. This is the original definition of the term; in popular culture the term refers to the study of cyborgs and robotic implants and prosthetics. Cybernetics is only applicable when the system being analyzed is involved in a closed signal loop; that is, where action by the system causes some change in its environment and that change is fed to the system via information (feedback) that enables the system to change its behavior.

A very simple model of cybernetics is that of a central heating system with four elements: a Sensor (to test the system’s environment); a Goal (the specification of the desired state of the system); Error Detection (a method for finding the difference between the present state and the goal state); and an Effector (operations the system can make to get the environment closer to the goal). A more complicated example is the Honda android ASIMO, which uses sensors and sophisticated algorithms to avoid obstacles and navigate stairs.

At its core, cybernetics is the study of control and communication in animals and machines. American mathematician Norbert Wiener added: ‘Information is information, not matter or energy.’ English psychiatrist Ross Ashby defined cybernetics as: ‘the art of steermanship… co-ordination, regulation and control will be its themes, for these are of the greatest biological and practical interest… it treats, not things but ways of behaving. It does not ask ‘what is this thing?’ but ‘what does it do?” Ashby continued: ‘Cybernetics stands to the real machine—electronic, mechanical, neural, or economic—much as geometry stands to a real object in our terrestrial space.’

Cybernetics was from the first an inter-disciplinary field of study. It included people from at least a dozen academic disciplines. WWII sparked its rapid development as a theory; scientists from different backgrounds had, during the war, worked together on various military projects. They learned a good deal about how to cooperate with their various partners. Equally importantly, the computer was invented during the war. During the second half of the 20th century cybernetics evolved in ways that distinguish first-order cybernetics (about observed systems) from second-order cybernetics (about observing systems). More recently there is talk about a third-order cybernetics (embracing the first and second-order).

Cybernetics in biology is the study of cybernetic systems present in biological organisms, primarily focusing on how animals adapt to their environment, and how information in the form of genes is passed from generation to generation. There is also a secondary focus on combining artificial systems with biological systems. Cybernetics in engineering is used to analyze cascading failures accidents, in which the small errors and imperfections in a system can generate disasters. Mathematical Cybernetics focuses on the factors of information, interaction of parts in systems, and the structure of systems. Geocybernetics aims to study and control the complex co-evolution of ecosphere and anthroposphere (the human dominated world).

By examining group behavior through the lens of cybernetics, sociologists can seek the reasons for such spontaneous events as smart mobs and riots, as well as how communities develop rules such as etiquette by consensus without formal discussion. Affect Control Theory (which studies the emotional effect of societies on individuals) explains role behavior, emotions, and labeling theory (which holds that deviance is not inherent to an act, but instead focuses on the tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms) in terms of homeostatic maintenance of sentiments (stable affective meaning derived either from personal experience or from cultural inculcation) associated with cultural categories. The most comprehensive attempt ever made in the social sciences to increase cybernetics in a generalized theory of society was made by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons. In this way, cybernetics establishes the basic hierarchy in Parsons’ AGIL paradigm (a systematic depiction of certain societal functions, which every society must meet to be able to maintain stable social life).

Nicolas Schöffer’s ‘CYSP I’ (1956), a robotic, motorized sculpture, was perhaps the first artwork to explicitly employ cybernetic principles (CYSP is an acronym that joins the first two letters of the words ‘CYbernetic’ and ‘SPatiodynamic’). Its movement is completely autonomous. It has an electronic brain, developed by SA Philips. The 16 polychrome composing plates, driven by small motors,  rotate around an eccentric axis. The photocells and microphone are integrated in the sculpture, giving it a life and an organic sensibility. The artist Roy Ascott elaborated an extensive theory of cybernetic art in a 1966 journal article ‘Behaviourist Art and the Cybernetic Vision.’ Art historian Edward A. Shanken has written about the history of art and cybernetics in essays including ‘Cybernetics and Art: Cultural Convergence in the 1960s’ and ‘From Cybernetics to Telematics: The Art, Pedagogy, and Theory of Roy Ascott’ (2003), which traces the trajectory of Ascott’s work from cybernetic art to telematic art (art using computer networking as its medium, a precursor to

The term ‘cybernetics’ stems from the Greek ‘kybernētēs’ (‘steersman,’ ‘governor,’ ‘pilot,’ or ‘rudder’ — the same root as ‘government’). Cybernetics is a broad field of study, but the essential goal of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with desired goal, and again to action. Studies in cybernetics provide a means for examining the design and function of any system, including social systems such as business management and organizational learning, including for the purpose of making them more efficient and effective.

English pyschologist Gordon Pask called cybernetics ‘the art of defensible metaphors’ (emphasizing its constructivist epistemology, constructivists maintain that scientific knowledge is constructed by scientists and not discovered from the world; they are mental constructs proposed in order to explain sensory experience) though he later extended it to include information flows ‘in all media’ from stars to brains. It includes the study of feedback, black boxes (systems which can be viewed solely in terms of input and output without any knowledge of their internal workings) and derived concepts such as communication and control in organisms, machines, and organizations (including self-organization). Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical, or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks. A more philosophical definition, suggested in 1956 by Louis Couffignal, one of the pioneers of cybernetics, characterizes cybernetics as ‘the art of ensuring the efficacy of action.’ The most recent definition has been proposed by Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics, ‘Cybernetics is the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves.’

The word cybernetics was first used in the context of ‘the study of self-governance’ by Plato in ‘The Alcibiades’ to signify the governance of people. The word ‘cybernétique’ was also used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge. The first artificial automatic regulatory system, a water clock, was invented by Greek inventor Ktesibios. In his clocks, water flowed from a source such as a holding tank into a reservoir, then from the reservoir to the mechanisms of the clock. Ktesibios’s device used a cone-shaped float to monitor the level of the water in its reservoir and adjust the rate of flow of the water accordingly to maintain a constant level of water in the reservoir, so that it neither overflowed nor was allowed to run dry. This was the first artificial truly automatic self-regulatory device that required no outside intervention between the feedback and the controls of the mechanism. Although they did not refer to this concept by the name of Cybernetics (they considered it a field of engineering), Ktesibios and others such as Heron and Su Song are considered to be some of the first to study cybernetic principles.

The study of teleological mechanisms (from the Greek ‘telos’ for ‘end, goal, or purpose’) in machines with corrective feedback dates from as far back as the late 18th century when James Watt’s steam engine was equipped with a governor, a centrifugal feedback valve for controlling the speed of the engine. British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace identified this as the principle of evolution in his famous 1858 paper. In 1868, Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell published a theoretical article on governors, one of the first to discuss and refine the principles of self-regulating devices. German biologist Jakob von Uexküll applied the feedback mechanism via his model of ‘functional cycle’ (Funktionskreis) in order to explain animal behavior and the origins of meaning in general.

Contemporary cybernetics began as an interdisciplinary study connecting the fields of control systems, electrical network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience in the 1940s. Electronic control systems originated with the 1927 work of Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer Harold S. Black on using negative feedback to control amplifiers. The ideas are also related to the biological work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy in General Systems Theory. In biology and physiology negative feedback is known as homeostasis. Negative feedback in essence occurs when the output of a system acts to oppose changes to the input of a system. This has the result that the changes are made less, and the system kept within limits. The classic example is a central heating system which cuts off when a (suitably placed) temperature sensor hits a pre-set mark. The negative feedback part is the thermostat.

Early applications of negative feedback in electronic circuits included the control of gun mounts and radar antenna during World War II. Jay Forrester, a graduate student at the Servomechanisms Laboratory at MIT during WWII working with electrical engineer Gordon S. Brown to develop electronic control systems for the U.S. Navy, later applied these ideas to social organizations such as corporations and cities as an original organizer of the MIT School of Industrial Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Forrester is known as the founder of System Dynamics (an approach to understanding the behavior of complex systems over time).

American statistician W. Edwards Deming, the Total Quality Management guru for whom Japan named its top post-WWII industrial prize, was an intern at Bell Telephone Labs in 1927 and may have been influenced by network theory. Deming made ‘Understanding Systems’ one of the four pillars of what he described as ‘Profound Knowledge’ in his book ‘The New Economics.’ Numerous papers spearheaded the coalescing of the field. In 1935 Russian physiologist P.K. Anokhin published a book in which the concept of feedback (‘back afferentation’) was studied. The study and mathematical modelling of regulatory processes became a continuing research effort and two key articles were published in 1943. These papers were ‘Behavior, Purpose and Teleology’ by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow; and ‘A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity’ by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. Cybernetics as a discipline was firmly established by Wiener, McCulloch, and others, such as W. Ross Ashby, mathematician Alan Turing, and neurophysicist W. Grey Walter. Walter was one of the first to build autonomous robots as an aid to the study of animal behavior.

Along with the UK and US, France was an important geographical locus of early cybernetics. In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy, France. The event was organized by the Bourbaki, a French scientific society, and mathematician Szolem Mandelbrojt, uncle of the world-famous mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot. During this stay in France, Wiener received the offer to write a manuscript on the unifying character of this part of applied mathematics, which is found in the study of Brownian motion and in telecommunication engineering. The following summer, back in the United States, Wiener decided to introduce the neologism cybernetics into his scientific theory. The name cybernetics was coined to denote the study of ‘teleological mechanisms’ and was popularized through his book ‘Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine’ (1948). In the UK this became the focus for the Ratio Club, an informal dining club of young psychologists, physiologists, mathematicians, and engineers who met to discuss issues in cybernetics.

In the early 1940s John von Neumann, although better known for his work in mathematics and computer science, did contribute a unique and unusual addition to the world of cybernetics: Von Neumann cellular automata, and their logical follow up the Von Neumann Universal Constructor. The result of these deceptively simple thought-experiments was the concept of self replication which cybernetics adopted as a core concept. The concept that the same properties of genetic reproduction applied to social memes, living cells, and even computer viruses is further proof of the somewhat surprising universality of cybernetic study. Wiener popularized the social implications of cybernetics, drawing analogies between automatic systems (such as a regulated steam engine) and human institutions in his best-selling ‘The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society’ (1950).

In the 1970s, new cyberneticians emerged in multiple fields, but especially in biology. Biologists ‘realized that the cybernetic metaphors of the program upon which molecular biology had been based rendered a conception of the autonomy of the living being impossible. Consequently, these thinkers were led to invent a new cybernetics, one more suited to the organizations which mankind discovers in nature – organizations he has not himself invented.’ However, during the 1980s the question of whether the features of this new cybernetics could be applied to social forms of organization remained open to debate.

In political science, Project Cybersyn attempted to introduce a cybernetically controlled economy during the early 1970s. It was an effort by the Chilean government in 1971 to construct a decision support system to aid in the management of the state-run sector of the national economy. It was to consist of a network of telex machines (called ‘Cybernet’) in state-run enterprises and government offices that would trasmit information to a government-run mainframe computer in Santiago. Information from the field would be fed into statistical modeling software (‘Cyberstride’) that would monitor production parameters (such as raw material supplies or high rates of worker absenteeism) in real time, and alert government managers if those parameters fell outside acceptable ranges. The information would also be input into economic simulation software (‘CHECO,’ for CHIlean EConomic simulator) that the government could use to forecast the possible outcome of economic decisions. Finally, a sophisticated operations room (‘Opsroom’) would provide a space where managers could see relevant economic data, formulate responses to emergencies, and transmit advice and directives to enterprises and factories using the telex network. The principal architect of the system was British operations research scientist Stafford Beer, and the system embodied his notions of cybernetics in industrial management.

In the 1980s, unlike its predecessor, the new cybernetics concerned itself with the interaction of autonomous political actors and subgroups, and the practical and reflexive consciousness of the subjects who produce and reproduce the structure of a political community. A dominant consideration is that of recursiveness, or self-reference of political action both with regards to the expression of political consciousness and with the ways in which systems build upon themselves. One characteristic of the emerging ‘new cybernetics’ was ‘that it views information as constructed and reconstructed by an individual interacting with the environment. This provides an epistemological foundation of science, by viewing it as observer-dependent. Another characteristic of the new cybernetics is its contribution towards bridging the ‘micro-macro gap.’ That is, it links the individual with the society. Another characteristic noted was the ‘transition from classical cybernetics to the new cybernetics [that] involves a transition from classical problems to new problems. These shifts in thinking involve, among others, (a) a change from emphasis on the system being steered to the system doing the steering, and the factor which guides the steering decisions.; and (b) new emphasis on communication between several systems which are trying to steer each other.’

Recent endeavors into the true focus of cybernetics, systems of control and emergent behavior, by such related fields as game theory (the analysis of group interaction), systems of feedback in evolution, and metamaterials (the study of materials with properties beyond the Newtonian properties of their constituent atoms), have led to a revived interest in this increasingly relevant field.

A related field is Complexity science, which studies the common properties of systems considered complex in nature, society and science. A complex system is one where smaller elements make complex things happen. These smaller elements can be simple elements or they can be complex systems within themselves. Any such complex elements can be interrelated in simple or complex ways and may be hard to identify as distinct. The key problems of such systems are difficulties with their formal modeling and simulation.

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