In this article, I describe how I encountered cybernetics and how it became an important part of my life. I begin with an account of my time at Brunel University and also describe how I came to work with Gordon Pask, one of the few intellectuals and researchers in the UK who styled themselves as cyberneticians. To enrich my story, I include an overview of the story of cybernetics as I perceive it. Given the importance I attach to cybernetics as an intellectual tool, I end with a plea for it to be included in all educational curricula.
INTRODUCTION: ENCOUNTERING CYBERNETICS1
Between 1964 and 1968 I was an undergraduate at Brunel University, studying psychology. I was on a ‘sandwich course’, meaning that periods of study were interspersed with work placements with different kinds of organization. In my first two years of study, I accrued very mixed feelings about psychology as a scientific discipline. Only the behaviorists claimed to be fully scientific. The rest of the discipline appeared to be a ragbag of disparate topics, studied and theorized about in a wide variety of ways. The curriculum consisted of courses of lectures on largely unrelated topics: learning theory, perception, social psychology, individual differences, psychopathology, organizational psychology, and developmental psychology. The curriculum also included some lectures on sociology and social anthropology, taught as separate subjects. There was an early superficial mention of cybernetics in the lectures on learning theory but nothing substantial was covered. I was an indifferent and poorly motivated student in the midst of what I saw as a mess of a discipline, in which my teachers, espousing different paradigms, were incapable of constructive conversation with one another. It was cybernetics that eventually enabled me to make sense of this mess and inspired me to become an enthusiastic scholar.
In 1966, I had the good fortune to attend a course of lectures on cybernetics given by David Stewart, a newly appointed lecturer in the Department of Psychology. I had previously read W. Gray Walter’s (1963Walter, W. G. (1963). The Living Brain. New York, NY: Norton & Co.) The Living Brain and Wladyslaw Sluckin’s (1954Sluckin, W. (1954). Minds and machines. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.) Minds and Machines. Both helped me appreciate the larger philosophical tradition in which problems of mind and body, freewill and determinism have been debated. I recall that Sluckin reported on developments in cybernetics and related disciplines but was not committed to cybernetics as a unifying, “transdiscipline.” David Stewart’s stimulating presentations helped me be aware of that possibility. I was attracted to the thesis that cybernetics is a transdiscipline. It made sense that there should be unity in diversity. It made sense that there should be a discipline as important and as general as physics but one which was complementary to it. I grasped this as the aphorism “Physics is about matter and energy; cybernetics is about control and communication.” Later, I came across a similar distinction in the writings of Gregory Bateson (1972Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, NY: Paladin.), who used the terms ‘pleroma’ and ‘creatura’ from C. G. Jung’s Septem Sermones ad Mortuos (http://gnosis.org/library/7Sermons.htm, accessed 10/03/2019) which have origins in gnostic, hermetic traditions. Pleroma refers to the ‘stuff’ of the world as formless content. Creatura is the world of the distinctions made by observers.
I began to see how cybernetic concepts could provide explanations of psychological processes in far more sophisticated ways than those offered by the behaviorists. Thanks to David Stewart, I had the opportunity to work with the UK cybernetician, Gordon Pask. At that time, Pask was Research Director of an independent, nonprofit research organization in Richmond, Surrey: System Research Ltd. I had a 6 months’ work placement there as a research assistant. Pask was the most obviously intellectually brilliant person I have ever met. I was awed just to be in his presence. I obtained a preprint of Pask’s most recent paper and studied it in detail (Pask, 1966Pask, G. (1966). A cybernetic model for some types of learning and mentation. In Oestreicher, H. C. & Moore, D. R., (Eds.), Cybernetic problems in bionics (pp. 531–585). New York: Gordon and Breach.). To make sense of it, I spent many hours looking up his references and reading his earlier papers. From this reading, I gained what had eluded me thus far: an overarching, satisfying conceptual framework which allowed me to make sense of the biological, the psychological and the social in a coherent and enlightening way. I was becoming a cybernetician.
Eventually, I read W. Ross Ashby’s (1956Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman and Hall.) Introduction to Cybernetics. I think all of us who love cybernetics have drawn inspiration from Ashby’s bold declaration that “The truths of cybernetics are not conditional on their being derived from some other branch of science. Cybernetics has its own foundations” (p.1). He goes on, “Cybernetics ……takes as its subject-matter the domain of ‘all possible machines’” (p. 2). This is followed by “Cybernetics, might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control – systems that are ‘information-tight’” (p. 4). Here Ashby is reflecting cybernetics’ primary concern with circular causality and anticipating later emphases on organizational closure.
Ashby highlights two primary uses of cybernetics: “It offers a single vocabulary and a single set of concepts for representing the most diverse types of systems” and “It offers a method for the scientific treatment of the system in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored” (pp. 4-5). There are perhaps those who would disagree with Ashby’s claim that cybernetics provides “a single vocabulary and a single set of concepts” pointing to the enormous proliferation of specialist vocabularies and conceptual schema within the cybernetics and “systems thinking” areas. However, I suggest that in this variety, there is enormous consensus and that there is an underlying structure of primary concepts and distinctions that makes cybernetics what it is, much of which is captured in Ashby’s formal approach. In 1995, I attended an international multidisciplinary conference, entitled Einstein meets Magritte, and witnessed much difficulty, even distress, as physicists, philosophers, artists and humanists attempted to communicate with each other about a range of issues, many of global concern. Within the larger conference there was a symposium, convened by Francis Heylighen, on The Evolution of Complexity, with fifty or so participants, including management scientists, biologists, systems scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, engineers, computer scientists and physicists. The remarkable thing about this symposium, in contrast to the main conference, was that there was much effective interdisciplinary communication. This was because all the participants did have some grounding in concepts to do with complex systems and cybernetics. Indeed, many of the participants drew directly on Ashby, himself. Thus was the master vindicated.
Further reading persuaded me not only of the value of cybernetics as a unifying transdiscipline but also that cyberneticians were not naive or trivial in their epistemologies, that there was a deep sense of metadisciplinary self-awareness in their shared enterprise. I learned that there was an informal collegiate that included, amongst others, Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, Heinz von Foerster, Gordon Pask, Stafford Beer and Humberto Maturana. There appeared to be a tacit understanding that, whatever their differences, they all had a reflexive sense of responsibility for their being in the world and were united in their commitment to a common good.
The concerns with the epistemology of the observer were made explicit in a coming together of ideas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have alluded to some of these events in more detail elsewhere (Scott, 1996Scott, B. (1996). Second-order cybernetics as cognitive methodology. Systems Research, 13(3), 393–406.). What I have in mind are Spencer-Brown’s (1969Spencer-Brown, G. (1969). The laws of form. London, UK: Allen and Unwin.) emphasis on the primacy of the act of distinction; Gordon Pask’s articulation of a cybernetic theory of conversations (Pask, 1975Pask, G. (1975). Conversation, Cognition and Learning. New York, NY: Elsevier.); Gunther’s (1971Gunther, G. (1971). Life as polycontexturality. In Collected works of the biological computer laboratory. Peoria, IL: Illinois Blueprint Corporation.) concept of life as polycontexturality: the intersection of observers’ perspectives, including perspectives of others’ perspectives; von Foerster’s distinction between a first order cybernetics, the study of observed systems, and a second order cybernetics, the study of observing systems (von Foerster et al., 1974Von Foerster, H., Abramovitz, R., Allen, R. B. et al. (eds.) (1974). Cybernetics of cybernetics, BCL Report 73.38, Biological computer laboratory, department of electrical engineering, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois., p. 1); Maturana’s (1970Maturana, H. R. (1970). Neurophysiology of cognition. In Garvin, P. (Ed). Cognition: A multiple view (pp. 3–23). New York, NY: Spartan Books.) arguments for the closure of the cognitive domain based on an account of the operational closure of the nervous system.
In 1972, Oliver Wells, editor of the cybernetics newsletter, Artorga2, convened the world’s first conference on self-referential systems, in London. The participants were Gotthard Gunther, Gordon Pask, Humberto Maturana, Dionysius Kallikourdis and myself. Heinz von Foerster was unable to attend. I was fortunate to meet him, later that year, when he visited Pask’s laboratory at System Research Ltd., where, following graduation, I had been invited back to work as a research assistant, and at Brunel University, where I was a postgraduate student in cybernetics.
I understood from Ashby (1956Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman and Hall.) that the abstract principles, concepts and laws of cybernetics can be applied to any category of system. From Pask, Stafford Beer, and Frank George and others, I understood the role of models and analogies in cybernetics. I saw the power to be found in formal concepts and therefore studied set theory, formal logic and the theory of computation. I acquired new distinctions and new terminology: hierarchy and heterarchy; object language and metalanguage; programing and meta-programing; process and product; serial, parallel and concurrent processes; circularity and recursion; self-organization and autopoiesis; variety and information; structure and organization … and more.
As a transdiscipline, cybernetics empowered me to cross disciplinary boundaries. This was exhilarating. I also understood other transdisciplines (systems theory, Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics, synergetics) to be quite cognate with cybernetics and, at a high enough level of abstraction, homomorphic if not isomorphic with it.
I see all ‘versions’ of cybernetics as having a core commonality. It is a truism that every scholar or practitioner will have her own narrative and ways of doing things and that these may be undergoing changes with experience and further study and reflection. What I detect with cybernetics is a commonality that evolved amongst a community of scholars, where differences in emphasis, terminology and areas of interest and practice mask underlying agreements and similarities of form.
I was inspired, eventually, to regard myself as being a cybernetician. Louis Couffignal (1960Couffignal, L. (1960). Essai d’une definition generale de la Cybernetique, Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Association for Cybernetics, Paris, France: Gauthier-Villars.) defines cybernetics as “the art of assuring the efficacy of action.” Heinz von Foerster states that “Life cannot be studied in vitro, one has to explore it in vivo.” (von Foerster 2003Von Foerster, H. (2003). Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition. Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag., p. 248) and “At any moment we are free to act towards the future you desire” (von Foerster 2003Von Foerster, H. (2003). Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition. Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag., p. 206). I took these ideas to heart. There was a coming together of my professional life as a research student and my personal life, which had previously been lived in separate compartments. I became reflexively aware that I was living my theories and my lived experiences were helping my theorizing.
My 20 s and 30 s, as for many in the 1960s and 1970s, were an intense period of intellectual and personal exploration in which I was sustained, sometimes tenuously, by the faith in God that I had acquired as a child and my deepening understanding and appreciation of cybernetics. I read widely, acquainting myself with Western philosophy, world history, including the history of science and mathematics, and, in a somewhat haphazard way with the teachings of various faiths (‘great’ and esoteric) and writings about the ‘occult’ and shamanism.
In those years, second-order cybernetics was a touchstone that provided rational grounding. With its help, together with the insights of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953Wittgenstein, L. L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.), in particular his meta-linguistic comments about language and philosophy, I escaped from becoming enmeshed in the conceptual and terminological morass of what is frequently referred to as ‘continental philosophy’. Cybernetics helped me see through the tricks and power plays of intellectual ‘gamesters’. Second-order cybernetics tells us that anything said is said by or to an observer. This gives a pragmatic immediacy to what is being said and what is the intention of the communicator. I became a cybernetic shaman, a child of the living God, someone who aspires to know the true and the good. I was particularly inspired by the writings of Lao Tsu and Confucius and their followers. At heart, I remained a Christian. In 1979, while training to be a schoolteacher, I summed up much of my thinking and practice in a brief essay, “Morality and the cybernetics of moral development” (Scott, 1983Scott, B. (2016). Cybernetic foundations for psychology. Constructivist Foundations, 11(3), 509–517.).
Not everyone who studies cybernetics becomes a cybernetician who studies ‘the cybernetics of cybernetics’. There are many scholars of cybernetics who look on only from their main area of practice and position themselves in the first instance as being historians, philosophers, architects, biologists, sociologists, psychologists and so on. In doing so, I believe they miss the point, the sense of what it is to be a cybernetician and a member of the cybernetics community. A recent example is Andrew Pickering, author of The Cybernetic Brain, whose self-imposed positioning as a philosopher and historian mars what in many ways is an admirable text. I have in mind his perfunctory, somewhat derogatory treatment of second order cybernetics in general and of Pask’s conversation theory in particular. I have similar reservations about the recent biography of Warren McCulloch by Tara Abraham, Rebel Genius, in which the author seems to see McCulloch’s enthusiasm for cybernetics as a transdiscipline to be self-aggrandizing and self-deceiving.3 I, myself, share McCulloch’s enthusiasm. The invention and creation of a new transdiscipline concerned with control and communication, cybernetics, is itself a great cybernetic achievement.
THE STORY OF CYBERNETICS
To make sense of my reminiscences, I feel I am obliged to provide some more details of my understandings of the history of cybernetics. I am not aware of any single text that gives a clear and inclusive account of the origins, early years and key later events concerning cybernetics. Here, I give a very brief summary.
The story has several possible beginnings. One common starting point is the publication, in 1943, of the paper “Behavior, purpose and teleology” by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Juliann Bigelow (Rosenblueth, Wiener, & Bigelow, 1943Rosenblueth, A., Wiener, N., & Bigelow, J. (1943). Behavior, purpose and teleology. Philosophy of Science, 10(1), 18–24. doi:10.1086/286788) and associated discussions that lead up to the Macy conferences on “feedback and circular causality in biological and social systems” convened by Warren McCulloch and held between 1946 and 19534. The paper proposed that the goal-seeking behavior that could be built into mechanical systems and the goal-seeking observed in biological and psychological systems have a similar form: they are structured so that signals about achieved outcomes are “fed back” to modify inputs so that, in due course, a prescribed goal is achieved (a cup is picked up) or a desired state of affairs (the temperature of a room or of a living body) is maintained. This process is referred to as “circular causality.” It was recognized at an early stage that many fields of study contain examples of these processes and that there was value in coming together in multidisciplinary fora to shed light on them, to learn from each other and to develop shared ways of talking about these phenomena. In 1948, Norbert Wiener, one of the participants, wrote a book (Wiener, 1948Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.) that set out these ideas in a formal way that collected together many of the emerging shared conceptions and did so in a coherent way that not only facilitated interdisciplinary exchanges but also stood as a discipline in its own right: an abstract transdiscipline – the study of “control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Wiener called this new discipline “cybernetics.” Following the book’s publication, the Macy conference participants referred to their conferences as conferences on cybernetics, keeping “feedback and circular causality in biological and social systems” as the subtitle.
As the subtitle emphasizes, there was an interest in biological and social systems. The participants were interested not only in particular mechanisms, they also looked for the general forms to be found in the dynamics and organization of complex systems (living systems, small groups and communities, cultures and societies): how they emerge and develop, how they maintain themselves as stable wholes, how they evolve and adapt in changing circumstances.
In the years following the Macy conferences, cybernetics flourished and its ideas were taken in many disciplines. Cyberneticians also found common ground with the followers of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who were developing a general theory of systems.
By the 1970s, cybernetics, as a distinct discipline, had become marginalized. A number of reasons have been suggested for this. I believe two are particularly pertinent. The first is that, at heart, most scientists are specialists. Having taken from cybernetics what they found valuable, they concentrated on their own interests. Second, in the USA, funding for research in cybernetics became channeled towards research with more obvious relevance for military applications, notably research in artificial intelligence. Attempts to develop coherent university-based research programs in cybernetics, with attendant graduate level courses, were short-lived. However, some developments in the field that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s are particularly pertinent for the theme of this article.
First, it is useful to note that the early cyberneticians were sophisticated in their understanding of the role of the observer. In the terminology of Heinz von Foerster, their concerns were both first-order (with observed systems) and second-order (with observing systems). It is the observer who distinguishes a system, who selects the variables of interest and decides how to measure them. For complex, self-organizing systems this poses some particular challenges. Gordon Pask (1960Pask, G. (1960). The natural history of networks. In M. C. Yovits& S. Cameron (Eds.), Self-organizing systems (pp. 232–261). London, UK: Pergamon Press.) spells this out particularly clearly. Even though such a system is, by definition, state-determined, its behavior is unpredictable: it cannot be captured as trajectory in a phase space. The observer is required to update his reference frame continually and does so by becoming a participant observer. Pask cites the role of a natural historian as an exemplar of what it means to be a participant observer. A natural historian interacts with the system he observes, looking for regularities in those interactions. Pask goes as far as likening the observer’s interaction with the system to that of having a conversation with the system. This insight was the seed for Pask’s development of a cybernetic theory of conversations.
Second, the early cyberneticians had the reflexive awareness that in studying self-organizing systems, they were studying themselves, as individuals and as a community. Von Foerster (1960Von Foerster, H. (1960). On self-organising systems and their environments. In M. C. Yovits and S. Cameron (Eds.), Self-organising systems. London, UK: Pergamon Press.) makes this point almost as an aside. He notes: “[W]hen we […] consider ourselves to be self-organizing systems [we] may insist that introspection does not permit us to decide whether the world as we see it is ‘real,’ or just a phantasmagory, a dream, an illusion of our fancy” (von Foerster, 2003Von Foerster, H. (2003). Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition. Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag., p.3f). Von Foerster escapes from solipsism by asserting that an observer who distinguishes other selves must concede that, as selves, they are capable of distinguishing her. ‘Reality’ exists as the shared reference frame of two or more observers. In later papers5, with elegant, succinct formalisms, von Foerster shows how, through its circular causal interactions with its environmental niche and the regularities (invariances) that it encounters, an organism comes to construct its reality as a set of ‘objects’ and ‘events,’ with itself as its own ‘ultimate object.’ He goes on to show how two such organisms may construe each other as fellow ‘ultimate objects’ and engage in communication as members of a community of observers. Von Foerster referred to this second order domain as the ‘cybernetics of cybernetics.’
It should be mentioned that others had been thinking along somewhat similar lines to those of Pask and von Foerster. Maturana (1970Maturana, H. R. (1970). Neurophysiology of cognition. In Garvin, P. (Ed). Cognition: A multiple view (pp. 3–23). New York, NY: Spartan Books.) frames his thesis about the operational closure of the nervous system with an epistemological metacommentary about what this implies for the observer, who, as a biological system inhabiting a social milieu, has just such a nervous system. The closure of the nervous system makes clear that ‘reality’ for the observer is a construction consequent upon his interactions with her environmental niche (Maturana uses the term ‘structural coupling’ for these interactions). In other words, there is no direct access to an ‘external reality.’ Each observer lives in her own universe. It is by consensus and coordinated behavior that a shared world is brought forth.
In later writings (some written in collaboration with Francisco Varela), Maturana uses the term ‘autopoiesis’ (Greek for self-creation) to refer to what he sees as the defining feature of living systems: the moment by moment reproduction of themselves as systems that, whatever else they do (adapt, learn, evolve), must reproduce themselves as systems that reproduce themselves. In explicating his theory of autopoiesis, Maturana makes an important distinction: the distinction between the ‘structure’ of a system and the ‘organization’ of a system. A system’s structure is the configuration of its parts at a given moment in time, a snapshot picture of the system’s state. The organization of a system is the set of processes that are reproduced by circular causality such that the system continues to exist as an autopoietic unity. In general, a system with this ‘circular causal’ property is said to be ‘organizationally closed’ (Maturana & Varela, 1980Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and cognition. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.).
THE WORK OF MY MENTOR, GORDON PASK
Although much of what von Foerster and Maturana have to say is pertinent to humans, arguably it is Pask, the psychologist, who has given us the most comprehensive observer-based cybernetic theory of human cognition and communication. From the earliest stages of his thinking, he was aware that the human self develops and evolves in a social context and that ‘consciousness’ (Latin con-scio, with + know) is about both knowing with oneself and knowing with others. Throughout his writings, from the 1960s onwards there is an acknowledgement by Pask of his indebtedness to the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who argued that, as a child develops, what begins as external speech eventually becomes internalized as an inner dialog (Vygotsky, 1962Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.).
Central in Pask’s research activity was the design of ‘teaching machines’ and ‘learning environments’ that interact with a learner, in a conversational manner, and adapt to the learner’s progress so as to facilitate her learning. Pask makes a distinction between a cognitive system and the ‘fabric’ or ‘medium’ that embodies it. This distinction is analogous to the distinction between programs and the computer in which they run. However, unlike the cognitivist science community, where the analogy is the basis of the thesis that both brains and computers are ‘physical symbol systems’, Pask is aware that this interpretation of what is a symbol is conceptually naive. He stresses how important it is to take account of the differences between brain/body systems and computing machinery. Brain/body systems are autopoietic systems, whose structure is constantly changing, whereas the structures of computers are designed to be stable. In Pask’s terms, there is an interaction between a cognitive system and its embodiment. A change in the structure of the brain/body system affects cognition. Changes in thinking affect the structure of the brain/body system. It is important to note that Pask’s distinction is an analytic distinction, not an ontological one. It affords a way of talking about organizationally closed ‘psychosocial’ systems distinct from brain/body systems and provides psychology and other social sciences with a coherent conceptual framework.6
DARKNESS AND LIGHTS
Pask, Maturana, Gunther, von Foerster, and other cyberneticians met regularly, often at von Foerster’s Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois, at Pask’s System Research Ltd. And at academic conferences. I witnessed the ways and incidents by which, over time, cybernetics was marginalized. I saw the courage and nobility with which the cyberneticians maintained their views and convictions in the face of the criticisms that they were old fashioned, misguided and defunct in the brave new world of artificial intelligence research and the emergent field of ‘cognitive science.’ In the sister transdiscipline, general systems theory (now referred to as ‘systems science’), cybernetics was often seen as a mere specialist subdiscipline concerned with control theory. From the 1980s onwards, the ‘new’ sciences of complexity, systems dynamics, and artificial life arose, with a new generation of scholars largely ignorant of the intellectual roots of those sciences in cybernetics. In cognitive science (psychology, philosophy of mind, robotics), there was an increasing interest in the biology of cognition and ‘enactivism,’ again, with little awareness of the sources of those ideas.
The lights in this darkness have been several. Notably there has been an ongoing interest in second order cybernetics, as seen in the journals Cybernetics and Human Knowing and Kybernetes. I do not have space to do more than mention some of the key players whom I see as the second generation of cyberneticians (I became good friends with many): Stuart Umpleby, Ranulph Glanville, Paul Pangaro, Soeren Brier, Albert Mueller, Karl Mueller, Phillip Guddemi, Randall Whitaker. I should also like to draw attention to the achievements of the learned societies that have worked to keep cybernetics alive and well: the UK Cybernetics Society, the American Society for Cybernetics and Research Committee 51 (on Sociocybernetics) of the International Sociological Association.
As an undergraduate, encountering cybernetics transformed my approach to studying and understanding psychology. It gave psychology a conceptual coherence that, previously, I had found lacking. In later years, as my understanding of cybernetics deepened, I continued to use second order cybernetics as a foundation and framework for my work as an experimental psychologist (summarised in Scott, 1993Scott, B. (1993). Working with Gordon: Developing and applying conversation theory (1968–1978). Systems Research, 10(3), 167–182.) and my later work as a practitioner in educational psychology (Scott, 1987Scott, B. (1983). Morality and the cybernetics of moral development. International Cybernetics Newsletter, 26, 520–530.) and in educational technology (Scott 2001Scott, B. (2001). Conversation theory: A dialogic, constructivist approach to educational technology. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 8(4), 25–46.). The transdisciplinary and metadisciplinary nature of second order cybernetics empowered me to read widely in other disciplines.7 I learned from von Foerster that “Social cybernetics must be a second-order cybernetics – a cybernetics of cybernetics – in order that the observer who enters the system shall be allowed to stipulate his own purpose […] [I]f we fail to do so, we shall provide the excuses for those who want to transfer the responsibility for their own actions to somebody else” (von Foerster, 2003Von Foerster, H. (2003). Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition. Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag., p. 286).
After some fifty years of involvement with cybernetics, I am more than ever persuaded of its value for making sense of the world and as an aid for self-steering. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety (“Only variety can destroy variety”) makes clear in the simplest terms that if a system is to survive in a changing environment it must manage the variety that it faces. It must learn to identify and minimize unnecessary constraints on its actions and at the same time it must act so as to maximize (increase the variety of) its choices. For humans this applies not only to the first order variety to be found in our environmental niches but also to the second order bewildering ‘wicked’8 complexity of variety to be found in our belief systems and in our perceptions and meta-perceptions of each other. I have written about these issues elsewhere (Scott, 2012Scott, B. (2011b). Education for cybernetic enlightenment. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 21(1–2), 199–205.). Here I just wish to emphasize the need for what I refer to as ‘education for cybernetic enlightenment.’ I have outlined the curriculum for such an education in Scott (2011bScott, B. (2011a). Explorations in Second-Order cybernetics: Reflections on cybernetics, psychology and education. Vienna, Austria: Edition echoraum.).
Discussions about how best to place cybernetics within educational curricula have been going on since shortly after its inception. The (now defunct) Department of Cybernetics at Brunel University where I studied for my PhD had postgraduate students only, arguing that one needed to have a strong disciplinary base before embarking on transdisciplinary studies. I myself am a supporter of Jerome Bruner’s concept of the ‘spiral curriculum’: “A curriculum as it develops should revisit the basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them” (Bruner, 1960Bruner, J. S. (1960). The process of education. Harvard: Harvard University Press., p.13); “We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” (ibid, p.33). It makes sense to me – and I hope to the reader – that cybernetic understandings of educational processes should be used to help educate for cybernetic enlightenment. I also believe that cybernetic understandings of the human condition reveal how vital it is that those same understandings are promulgated, not just in formal educational settings but universally, as part of the ‘global conversation’.
2 There is an archive of 32 issues of Artorga here: https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b20219490#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0&z=-0.1422%2C-0.0403%2C1.2843%2C0.8068 (accessed 21/07/2017). Many issues contain preprints of articles by renowned early cyberneticians. Pask was a subscriber, so I had the opportunity to read them.
3 Oddly, Abraham’s account of McCulloch’s life includes little of his activities as a cybernetician amongst fellow cyberneticians. There is no mention of his significant encounters with Heinz von Foerster, Stafford Beer and Gordon Pask and his achievements in obtaining funding for cybernetics related research. See McCulloch (1965McCulloch, W. S. (1965). Embodiments of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.).
4 The proceedings of the later Macy Coferences were published. The editors’ introduction gives an interesting account of the origins and precursors of cybernetics. See Von Foerster, Mead and Teuber (1953Von Foerster, H., Mead, M., & Teuber, H. L. (1953). Editors’ Introduction to cybernetics: Circular causal and feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems. New York, NY: Josiah Macy, Jr Foundation.).
5 Many of these papers are to be found in von Foerster (2003Von Foerster, H. (2003). Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition. Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.).
6 For more on this theme, see Scott (2016Scott, B. (2012). Using the logic of life to reduce the complexity of life. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 19(3), 93–104.).
7 A propos of this, the developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget (1977Piaget, J. (1977). Psychology and Epistemology. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin., p. 136) writes, “Thus cybernetics is now the most polyvalent meeting place for physicomathematical sciences, biological sciences, and human sciences.”
8 I refer here to ‘wicked problems’, defined as those that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term ‘wicked’ here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem(accessed 19/07/2017).
- Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman and Hall.
- Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, NY: Paladin.
- Bruner, J. S. (1960). The process of education. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
- Couffignal, L. (1960). Essai d’une definition generale de la Cybernetique, Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Association for Cybernetics, Paris, France: Gauthier-Villars.
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