An Introduction to Cybernetics

Cybernetics, due to the complexity and scope of the concept, is often misunderstood, especially by non-specialists. Even during the course of researching this article, finding a relatively concise explanation of cybernetics that a general audience that were not already familiar with the term could grasp was difficult. Thus, the inspiration for this post arose.

Cybernetics, as a field, has been around roughly since the end of the second world war in the manner that it is referred to in a contemporary context. The term comes from the Greek term kybernetike, or governance. It is defined by Norbert Weiner, author of the book ‘Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine’ as “The scientific study of communication and control”. Its foundation as a formal field can be traced back to the Cybernetics Conferences held between 1946 and 1953. These conferences were aimed at pulling together the disparate scholars to create a formalised “general science of the workings of the human mind”. While they did not succeed at this stated aim at the time, these conferences had a significant influence on the development of cybernetics as well as fields such as cognitive science and systems theory.

Part of the complexity of understanding cybernetics as a beginner is that it is a concept that can be applied to almost any field one can think of. While it is primarily associated with computer science and related fields, it can be applied in many other ways. Its interdisciplinary nature, while making it a complex subject to approach, is also what makes the subject so interesting and worthy of study, due to its applicability in a broad swathe of areas. As a way to figure out some of the core thinkers, concepts and ideas behind cybernetics, I recently spoke to Maggie Appleton, a digital anthropologist and designer in order to learn more about the topic. During the course of our discussion, we came up with a board of ideas of these concepts, which can be seen below.

Cybernetics is closely related to complexity theory and complexity studies, and the overlap between the two often creates confusion for those new to cybernetics. Some scholars argue that rather than being two separate fields, they are merely different approaches to the same overall problem. One distinction that is generally made between the two is that systems theory focuses on the structure of systems, while cybernetics focuses more on their functionality and how they control themselves.

To help make more sense of what cybernetics is, I’ll explain one of the core concepts of cybernetic theory, which is the cybernetic loop. A cybernetic loop is the process of how a self-regulatory system works. An example of this can be in the context of a workplace. An initial input would be a task assigned by a manager, an order to fill from a customer or something similar. The response would be to then perform the required work, and the output would be the completed order or objective. During the process, there would likely be some form of feedback, such as further instructions from a manager or customer. Upon receiving this feedback of new information, the work performed would change and the output with it would change. This system is an example of a first-order cybernetic loop or control system.

This post of course barely scratches the surface of cybernetics. Further reading, especially of core texts such as Norbert Weiner’s Cybernetics are highly recommended for those who wish to take a deep dive into the subject. It’s a seminal text of the field and holds up to this day, even if it is somewhat inaccessible in parts.

This is also the first of a series of posts that I will be writing as a means of creating artifacts of learning after exploring topics as part of the Camp Curiosity series of events over at the Interintellect. Held monthly, these events are online-based gatherings of curious minds who want to go down rabbit holes of learning together in order to enhance their understanding of various topics of begin to explore something for the first time with the guidance of others. They will be on the first weekend of every month for the remainder of the year. A link to the next event can be found here, if you’re interested:

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