Second‐order Cybernetics: An Historical Introduction
Abstract and figures
In 1974, Heinz von Foerster articulated the distinction between a first- and second-order cybernetics, as, respectively, the cybernetics of observed systems and the cybernetics of observing systems. Von Foerster’s distinction, together with his own work on the epistemology of the observer, has been enormously influential on the work of a later generation of cyberneticians. It has provided an architecture for the discipline of cybernetics, one that, in true cybernetic spirit, provides order where previously there was variety and disorder. It has provided a foundation for the research programme that is second-order cybernetics. However, as von Foerster himself makes clear, the distinction he articulated was imminent right from the outset in the thinking of the early cyberneticians, before, even, the name of their discipline had been coined. In this paper, the author gives a brief account of the developments in cybernetics that lead to von Foerster’s making his distinction. As is the way of such narratives, it is but one perspective on a complex series of events. Not only is this account a personal perspective, it also includes some recollections of events that were observed and participated in at first hand.