Edgar And’s Entry

The Framework of Cybernetics as a Framework for Cybernetics

Must a cybernetic organization be organized cybernetically? That is the question I come to when I reflect on Margaret Mead’s (1968) comments to the American Society of Cybernetics (ASC). Democratic institutions being often not democratically organized, why aspire to self-consistency? [1]

But while there is no obligation to choose a particular framework for an organization, there is still the obligation to choose some framework (or else circumstances and contingencies will make the choice for the organization). As an in principle undecidable question, then, an ethical choice of organizational framework would be one that increases the number of choices while decreasing differences of power (von Foerster, 2003), which a second-order cybernetic framework would provide not only for the ASC, but for all desirable organizations.

I look a system whenever I look at a collection of elements and supply a framework for the relations between the elements that permit me to say that a change in the state of one of the elements results in a change in the state of the elements as a whole
—Steve Sloan (1999, p. 49)

~The Framework

To look a system, one first looks at a distinction made.

Each look describes a system look per the supplied framework such that the relationship between the system look and the distinction looked as a system is a modeling. Such frameworks may be truthful (claiming to match an objective reality according to some correspondence theory of truth) or instrumental (offering relative fit descriptions of human experience, including the human experience of a reality). The framework determines the type of model.

All truthful modelings must fail to meet von Foerster’s description of ethics, since they not only rest on epistemologically untenable and incoherent notions of absolute truth but also reduce the number of choices of discourse to one while increasing differences of power through privileging those who have the truth over those who do not. This rules out any truthful scientific or religious modeling as an organizational framework for the ASC, though any such might still retain some limited degree of instrumental utility. [2]

Determining the limit of this instrumental utility matters because it signals not only the point beyond which some other framework is needed but also where there is a need to reassess or discard the predictably unreliable knowledge already generated by the modeling beyond that limit. This limit is the point when nontrivial entities are treated as trivial.

Treating nontrivial entities as trivial is only one of a logical quadrumvirate; that is, a system look may frame trivial and nontrivial entities either trivially or nontrivially. (The following examples arbitrarily take matter as trivial and an observer as nontrivial.)

(a) For matter treated trivially, similarities between different instances of similar matter make the outcomes of repeated actions predictably reliable (e.g., the technical efficacy of physics)

(b) For an observer treated nontrivially, differences of an observer’s near self-similarity over time make future behavior reliably unpredictable (e.g., the appearance of freewill)

(c) For matter treated nontrivially, differences between the same object in different cultures make the meaning of that object unreliably predictable (e.g., the uncertainty of making new cross-cultural comparisons)

(d) For an observer treated trivially, similarities of symptoms between different observers make the effects of treatment predictably unreliable (e.g., the side effects of medications)

When scientific truth trivializes the nontrivial, any significance beyond the material becomes immaterial. Art’s transformative social gesture becomes under economics a commodity for neoliberal propaganda, which capitalists and political scientists use as arguments for their own ends, while education under behaviorism becomes conditioning [3], which eugenicists and scientific racists use as ends for their own arguments.

And when religious truth trivializes the nontrivial, all material beyond the significant becomes immaterial. Art not devoted to revelation or dogma becomes dangerous or a distraction while education becomes the junk science of ID, IQ, or “refutations” of evolution. Human nature provides the argument for bigotry and battery, and we all come to the same end (bodies abandoned, spirits elsewhere).

Let a geometric analysis of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) disclose something about the painting, applying the same framework to its meaning without also poaching into (an equally trivializing) aesthetic philosophy will yield predictably unreliable results, as will turning the painting’s meaning into a religious revelation, even if analyzing its images in religious terms proves illustrative.

Trivializing the nontrivial then reveals not only the limit of truthful frameworks’ instrumental utility with respect to generating knowledge, but also the edge of human knowledge still awaiting generation beyond that limit—those domains of the world not just as fallen or physics or humankind as animals or angels, but also of beauty not just as mathematics or morality or ecstasy as psyche or mental sickness.

Instrumental modelings allow those domains to be inhabited by observers. Whether observers trivialize what they observe or not, they will recognize the constraints on their activity and so also the interpretive roads not taken. They will not think to offer a definitive statement, but only one definitively worked out thread of a voice speaking on the subject. If the usual academic or scholarly understanding of a subject consists of many voices contending on it, some canceling others out, and others contributing to a collectively developing understanding of the subject matter’s truth, then instrumental modeling proceeds by rejecting such a notion of truth as a will-o’-the-wisp.

A plurality of approaches, some incompatible with others, would prevail without a hierarchy of authorities or suddenly unfashionable outcasts so that the number of choices of discourse would increase while reducing differences of power between those discourses’ commentators. And while some subject matters’ descriptions will prove more adequate than others, their “power” could neither ever be absolute and exclusive nor merely subjective because the sayable would be constrained by the subject matters’ affordances and objections to certain interpretations (Krippendorff, 2007).

On this view, an instrumental (cybernetic) framework provides the most ethical choice for reorganizing the ASC, if not all organizations.

~The Elements

The diversity of cybernetics may be explained by its emphasis on difference.

From the first, Ashby’s (1956) Introduction to Cybernetics concerned transformation (i.e., observing differences). Where religion claims a singular truth, and science claims to be the ultimate methodology for weighing of evidence-based explanations, cybernetics stresses differences against a backdrop of epistemological limits. Cybernetic explanation’s emphasis on constraints and the road not taken expresses this (Bateson, 1972), while negative feedback registers differences in need of correction.

This recognition of difference and constraint, however, does not suggest, in the face of the embarrassment of riches provided by the variety of descriptions of cybernetics, that efforts should be made to reconcile the differences. Instead, it seems desirable to embrace that there are many roads to cybernetics, each reflecting an at best partially adequate, instrumentally useful description, with the caveat that any attempt to trivialize cybernetics into a unitary truth must be illusory. Incorporating floating hierarchies into the structure of the ASC would support this variety while decreasing differences in power.

Feedback, especially positive feedback in conjunction with chaos, can trigger transformations that would free cybernetics from any basins it has entered while retarding the decay of its ideas. Saur and Rasmussen (2003), for example, applied the butterfly effect as a metaphor to describe counselor interventions into changing decision-making processes. They observed how chaos in a person’s life (brought about by any sudden life-change) created conditions where the positive feedback of chaos sufficiently amplified the counselor’s well-timed but slight suggestion. This amplification imparted enough emotional force to the counselor’s suggestion to actually cause a change in the direction of the person’s life. Adopting this as an organizational principle of the ASC suggests a protocol for noting and instigating generative chaos at times when directional change is needed. At the same time, negative feedback would act homeostatically to conserve the organization of cybernetics, despite whatever structural changes it might undergo, while acting homeorhetically to conserve the cultural distinction of cybernetics, regardless of the mutations the ASC’s mission statement might undergo. This suggests frequent, perhaps weekly, meetings to check and correct the course of cybernetics internally and externally against desirable states and goals. Because this proposes interventions into dynamics more than relations, conversations rather than communications are in order (c.f., Richards, 2001).

Besides these fundamental elements of variety and feedback, observers (and the need to recognize human beings as observers by detrivializing the act of observing) must be the most essential element of any cybernetically organized ASC. Images of utopias over time show an elaborate organizational variety of social changes but few if any changes to human nature itself; to look human beings as observers changes human nature without literalizing that change genetically or robotically.

~The Design

Heinz von Foerster’s gesture of thanking his hosts for the opportunity to reject the premises of their invitation may apply here. As human-centered design requires a culturally sensitive, second-order understanding of the design stakeholders’ different epistemologies (Krippendorff, 2007), then no one writer’s understanding can meet this requirement in an essay when something more like a collaborative understanding is necessary. For this essay, then, I propose an only minimum description of a design for designing designs, but one necessarily rooted in my desire to coordinate with others’ desires.

Getting people to participate must be the most important aspect of any sincere attempt to organize the ASC cybernetically—getting people to take seriously the phenomenology of being in the presence of another observer, another world-constructor. Socially, this doesn’t mean simply tolerance, mutual respect, or cultural relativism. Politically, this doesn’t mean being allowed to vote or building consensus. Institutionally, it doesn’t mean deal-making, quid pro quos, or compromise. Instead, it involves accommodating the whole of all participants’ desires without reducing them to some common ground; a corollary of von Foerster’s ethic then would be: accommodate desire, don’t eliminate it. Any general unwillingness to attempt this in the past may be taken as either a sign of no space ever being held seriously for such an experiment or an implicit refutation of the ideas themselves as irrelevant, impractical, or undesirable.

I propose a living lab retreat (the longer the better) where observers encounter not only design proposals for developing a human-centered, cybernetic design for the ASC (including this essay contest’s proposals and Mead’s original criteria) but also the interfaces of other observers all participating continuously and deliberately in the mode of taking seriously the presence of other observers. The result of this effort will be not only a new design for the ASC but an experience of experiencing cybernetic organization.

Besides any pre-planning for hosting the living lab logistically, this suggests that a first order of business at the lab itself would be elaborating criteria for modes of participating as an observer. To this end, all participants would arrive at the living lab with their own understanding of what participating as an observer means written out in advance. At this initial stage, no one speaks. Each of the mode descriptions would be collected into a heap, just as there already is a heap of understandings for cybernetics currently, with a collective intention as a constraint to accommodate the total variety of modes people will have brought.

Initially, these modes would be randomly distributed for participants to practice. Observers might then switch modes on a self-chosen or other-chosen schedule either regularly or sporadically. (Self-chosen schedules are desirable, and so is the constraint of creatively living a mode not of one’s choosing. Advocating for one’s own desire while leaving someone else to enact it and self-enacting someone else’s desire offers another alternative.)

Thus, the living lab’s first organizational issue involves deciding when and how to switch modes. People may speak at this point (or not), and may propose that other details (making sleeping arrangements for people, food arrangements, and so forth) need addressing first (or not); some may want no decision. The only obligatory constraint here is maximal accommodation of desires to increase alternatives while reducing differences of power.

The remainder of the living lab would proceed along similar lines, self-organizing itself as necessary by simultaneously maximizing alternatives and minimizing differences of power to encounter proposals, assign and write assignments, and do whatever else the living lab calls for heuristically toward elaborating a cybernetic design for the ASC while simultaneously living an attempted a version of it.

~End Notes

[1]. This also assumes a specific “flavor” of cybernetic framework could be chosen from the variety of possible cybernetics. Krippendorff’s (2007) systems under continuous reconstruction by their constituents” (3, emphasis in original) remains close to the heart of this paper.

[2]. The conventional opposition of science and religion proves to be a special case. Like Galileo’s celebrated, but apocryphal, “Eppur si muove” (“Still, it moves”), the current forensic frenzy concerning origins (of humankind and world) is atypical; religion and science have typically been customary bedfellows, especially from Industrial Revolution onward (Borda, 2006).

[3]. It will be “up to future historians to assess just how much damage this mindless fashion has wrought” (von Glasersfeld, 1983, p. 10).


Ashby, W. R. (1956). Introduction to cybernetics. (Science Editions). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays on anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Borda, M. (2006). Knowledge, science, religion: Philosophy as a critical alternative to metaphysics. Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen & Neumann.

Krippendorff, K. (2007). The cybernetics of design and the design of cybernetics. Retrieved 25 December 2010 from http://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/48

Mead, M (1968). Cybernetics of cybernetics. Retrieved 25 December 2010 from http://www.asc-cybernetics.org/CofC/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/mead.html

Richards, L. (2001). The praxis of thinking: Deliberate vs. improvised. Retrieved 3 January 2011 from http://www.asc-cybernetics.org/2001/Richards.htm

Saur, R., and Rasmussen, S. (2003). “Butterfly power in the art of mentoring deaf and hard of hearing college students.” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 1192):195-209.

Sloan, S. (1999) (Ed.). Doing the School for Designing a Society and doing cybernetics. Collection of papers presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics, Falls Church, VA, March 29- April 1, 1999.

von Foerster, H. (2003). Ethics and second-order cybernetics. In H. von Foerster (ed.) Understanding understanding: Essays on cybernetics and cognition (pp. 287-304). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

von Glasersfeld, E. (1983). Learning as constructive activity. Retrieved 3 January 2011 from http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/EvG/papers/083.pdf
Author is elegible for HvF Prize (aged under 35): NO

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.