Heylighen, F. and C. Joslyn (2001). Cybernetics and Second-Order Cybernetics. Encyclopedia of Physical Science & Technology, 3rd ed. R. A. Meyers. New York, Academic Press. (File)external image Pdf.jpg


  • "Cybernetics as a specific field grew out of a series of interdisciplinary meetings held from 1944 to 1953 that brought together a number of noted post-war intellectuals, including Wiener, John von Neumann, Warren McCulloch, Claude Shannon, Heinz von Foerster, W. Ross Ashby, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. Hosted by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, these became known as the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. From its original focus on machines and animals, cybernetics quickly broadened to encompass minds (e.g. in the work of Bateson and Ashby) and social systems (e.g. Stafford Beer's management cybernetics), thus recovering Plato's original focus on the control relations in society.
  • Through the 1950s, cybernetic thinkers came to cohere with the school of General Systems Theory (GST), founded at about the same time by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, as an attempt to build a unified science by uncovering the common principles that govern open, evolving systems. GST studies systems at all levels of generality, whereas Cybernetics focuses more specifically on goal-directed, functional systems which have some form of control relation," (Heylighen & Joslyn 2001, pg 2).
  • An analysis of where the field of cybenetics is today:
    "Many of the core ideas of cybernetics have been assimilated by other disciplines, where they continue to influence scientific developments. Other important cybernetic principles seem to have been forgotten, though, only to be periodically rediscovered or reinvented in different domains. Some examples are the rebirth of neural networks, first invented by cyberneticists in the 1940's, in the late 1960's and again in the late 1980's; the rediscovery of the importance of autonomous interaction by robotics and AI in the 1990's; and the significance of positive feedback effects in complex systems, rediscovered by economists in the 1990's. Perhaps the most significant recent development is the growth of the complex adaptive systems movement, which, in the work of authors such as John Holland, Stuart Kauffman and Brian Arthur and the subfield of artificial life, has used the power of modern computers to simulate and thus experiment with and develop many of the ideas of cybernetics. It thus seems to have taken over the cybernetics banner in its mathematical modelling of complex systems across disciplinary boundaries, however, while largely ignoring the issues of goal-directedness and control," (Heylighen & Joslyn 2001, pg 5).

"Cybernetics as a theoretical framework remains a subject of study for a few committed groups, such as the//Principia Cybernetica Project//, which tries to integrate cybernetics with evolutionary theory, and the American Society for Cybernetics, which further develops the second order approach. The sociocybernetics movement actively pursues a cybernetic understanding of social systems. The cybernetics-related programs on autopoiesis, systems dynamics and control theory also continue, with applications in management science and even psychological therapy. Scattered research centers, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, are still devoted to specific technical applications, such as biological cybernetics, medical cybernetics, and engineering cybernetics, although they tend to keep closer contact with their field of application than with the broad theoretical development of cybernetics. General Information Theory has grown as the search for formal representations which are not based strictly on classical probability theory," (Heylighen & Joslyn 2001, pg 5).
  • "Cybernetics is the science that studies the abstract principles of organization in complex systems. It is concerned not so much with what systems consist of, but how they function. Cybernetics focuses on how systems use information, models, and control actions to steer towards and maintain their goals, while counteracting various disturbances. Being inherently transdisciplinary, cybernetic reasoning can be applied to understand, model and design systems of any kind: physical, technological, biological, ecological, psychological, social, or any combination of those. Second-order cybernetics in particular studies the role of the (human) observer in the construction of models of systems and other observers," (Heylighen & Joslyn 2001 pg 2).
  • "Negative feedback control loops which try to achieve and maintain goal states were seen as basic models for the autonomy characteristic of organisms: their behavior, while purposeful, is not strictly determined by either environmental influences or internal dynamical processes. They are in some sense "independent actors" with a "free will". Thus cybernetics foresaw much current work in robotics and autonomous agents. Indeed, in the popular mind, "cyborgs" and "cybernetics" are just fancy terms for "robots" and "robotics"," (Heylighen & Joslyn 2001, pg 3).

  • "It must further be noted that the sometimes ideological fervor driving the second-order movement may have led a bridge too far. The emphasis on the irreducible complexity of the various system-observer interactions and on the subjectivity of modelling has led many to abandon formal approaches and mathematical modelling altogether, limiting themselves to philosophical or literary discourses. It is ironic that one of the most elegant computer simulations of the second-order idea that models affect the very system they are supposed to model was not created by a cyberneticist, but by the economist Brian Arthur. Moreover, some people feel that the second-order fascination with self-reference and observers observing observers observing themselves has fostered a potentially dangerous detachment from concrete phenomena," (Heylighen & Joslyn 2001, pg 4).
  • Second-order cybernetics -- "...emphasizing autonomy, self-organization, cognition, and the role of the observer in modelling a system," (Heylighen & Joslyn 2001, pg 3).