R1B1’s Entry

The “True Pilot” of Metacybernetics

Submitted to the attention of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC), its Executive Board, and the “Cybernetics of Cybernetics Competition” in January, 2011:


by R1B1


Cyberneticians still uphold Cybernetics’ basis in governing, steering, and navigating. In contemporary popular parlance, “cyber” has become detached from its underpinnings in the philosophy of justice in the human soul. Instead, “cyber” has become associated with “technology”; in turn, associated with human-made and designed objects with “practical” purposes beyond mere aesthetics. The word “art”, once synonymous with “skills”, has become associated with aesthetic objects. This paper analyzes “an art of navigation” through Greek history and Plato’s “Ship of State” philosophy; applies these fundamentals to First and Second-Order Cybernetics, and the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC).

In the ASC’s “A Timeline for the Evolution of Cybernetics”, the 5th Century BCE included; “The term kybernetike employed for the first (recorded) time. In The Republic, Plato invokes the word to connote ‘an art of navigation’ in the course of comparing steering a ship with steering (i.e., governing) a community”(Timeline). A more complete translation of ‘an art of navigation’ might be kybernetike tekhne (Johnson). Another Greek word contemporary to Plato, techne, roughly meant a learnable skill or craft, and probably what Plato would have considered ‘an art’. Rowing, steering, navigating, and even fighting, were considered among the most highly prized skills in ancient Athens, which can all be informed by such subjective notions as individual experience. Art has since become a more abstract concept, as aesthetics, archetypal forms, experience, creator and observer psychologies have come to be appreciated more. Kybernetike eventually influenced the words “govern”, and the prefix “cyber-“; while techne became the basis of words like “technique” and “technology”.

In 1987, ASC President, Laurence Richards, Ph.D., “developed a list of definitions/descriptions that have been added to and distributed at ASC conferences”. Many of these relate Cybernetics to Ancient Greek seafaring and philosophy. Dr. Richards intended “to demonstrate that one of the distinguishing features of cybernetics might be that it could legitimately have multiple definitions without contradicting itself” (Richards). This document is divided into sections relating cybernetics back to Plato’s metaphors and model of a ship. Sections open with relevant definitions of cybernetics from Dr. Richards’ list, and the ASC’s Timeline quotation above, in “Setting the Stage for the Coalescence of Cybernetics”. I conclude with specific implementations of my analysis to the ASC itself, and their relevance to this paper.

“Cybernetica: – “the art of how to govern a nation” -B. Trentowski:

Combining speed with maneuverability, trireme boats dominated the Mediterranean from about 300 years before Plato. Plato’s reference model of a ship was most likely a trireme, so it is helpful to understand some of its historical posts and their roles. Military triremes were commissioned and owned by Athens, and literally ships of [the] state.

A trireme’s official captain was its triērarchos, or trierarch. By Athenian law, a responsibility of its wealthiest citizens was mandatory financial patronage; “the most socially and politically important, of all”, fell to the trierarchs of Athens’ fleet of triremes. While prestigious, a temporary trierarch was figuratively and literally charged with the duty and costs of staffing, outfitting, and maintaining a trireme (Avlonas). Speculating what a trierarch might have done with that prestige, however, is beyond the focus of this document.

This historical context could easily explain the way Plato introduced his allegory of a ship. In this dialogue, Plato speaks through the character of “Socrates”, in dialogue with the character of “Adeimantus”. “Socrates” asks “Adeimantus” to “Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew” (Plato). An official trireme captain would have been recognized as an important patron for his wealth. Therefore, even Plato’s inclusion of his physical stature supports the allegory.

Plato’s continued description of the captain continues: “but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better”. Today, The Foundation for the Promotion of the Art of Navigation is dedicated to the “preservation of the Art of Celestial Navigation and related skills… essential to the seaman, even in this age of electronics” (Navigation). Indeed, even trierachs rarely possessed such skills.

The fundamental issues that gave rise to this Athenian tradition of patronage, are the philosophical motivations behind Plato’s use of this allegory in the first place. Plato’s Socratic dialogue is presented through a series of questions, examples, and feedback between his characters. We are observers of this feedback, like observers in Second-Order Cybernetics. Rather than affecting history, Plato charges us with affecting the future; through upholding and perpetuating the philosophy and justice inherent to cybernetics’ implications.

“Narrowly defined it is but the art of the helmsman” -W. McCulloch

Plato’s larger questions regarding the source of the thrust of such patrons’ responsibilities might include; “what constitutes a ‘just’ law”; “who is qualified to answer such a question”; “how did such customs and laws arise”; “how were they practically interpreted and enforced”; and “what were the politics of doing so”. The focus of this paper is limited to the philosophical issues raised in Plato’s allegory, as they relate to cybernetics and the ASC only, but I recommend “Athenian Naval Finance in the Classical Period.” by Rosemary Peck for more historical details.

It remains in the best interest of anyone responsible for maintaining any vessel, and whose goods are in their care, to have a commander on-board who could shepherd its valuable assets and skilled personnel securely. “The deck and command crew (hypēresia) was headed by the helmsman, the kybernētēs, who was always an experienced seaman and often the actual commander of the vessel”(Parker) “and was in part financially responsible to the Athenian State for the condition of the vessel”(Colburn). He was chosen for his skills and experience on the seas; not in politics. Plato sharpens this point by extending his metaphors; nominating philosophers as leaders of ships-of-state, states, cities, and oneself. This strategy of nominating leaders with skills and experience over political aspirations is also relevant to any society of cybernetics. Dr. Timothy Leary said: “The Cyber Society is a society obviously made up of individuals who think for themselves, linked up with other individuals who think for themselves.”(Leary)


When accuracy was required, as in battle, triremes were propelled by up to 170 rowers; each controlling a single oar. A trireme’s sails were only hoisted when coarse maneuverability was acceptable, since winds were less predictable than a skilled rowing team. Its heavy main mast and sail was left ashore during battle. This improved speed by reducing weight and improved maneuverability by improving stability. The small sail could be hoisted for retreat, when the urgency of evasion was a priority. Skilled, paid citizens were preferred as rowers over slaves, who had less motivation to risk their lives for Athens.

In effect augmenting the kybernetes; the keleustes listened for orders and “directed the rate and timing of the oars. The cadence was maintained by the trieraules with flute“(Colburn). In this way, the keleustes could be field reprogrammed by his kybernetes to interface with his staff to synchronize the rowers.

Systems for maintaining that speed and synchronization made the keleustes and his team some of the first governors; enabling the kybernetes to briefly command, and then focus on navigation and the helm. Both political and mechanical governors are related in the fact that they each work, through feedback, to maintain a system state that has been designed or set by an observer. Second-Order Cybernetics looks beyond the system and the state it tries to maintain; identifying the observer of the system and acknowledging its affects and their effects.

‘an art of navigation’ – Plato, via ASC

Recall the job of a trierarch was likely thrust upon him by Athenian law. For such a law to be just, rather than simply practical, Plato would have pondered the kind of knowledge required by what Andre Marie Ampere may have meant by; “Cybernetique= the art of governing or the science of government”. “Martin Heidegger’s ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ proposes, through the etymology of techne and its connection to poesis or creative making, the definition of techne as both art and science, as two forms of knowledge.”(McCarren) Humberto Maturana proposed the phrase “‘The Art and Science of Human Understanding’ for cybernetics. Why? The person that guides the ship, the skipper, acts both on practical know-how and intuition. Thus, the skipper acts both as a scientist and as an artist.”(Richards) Here, the etymology of art-as-techne could accredit this “practical know-how” to the mind of the “artist”. This intuition could be accredited more into the mind of the philosopher/social-scientist, than the natural-philosopher, who we would call a scientist today.

The Republic also presents wider dialogue about the prerequisites for the legislation of just laws; living a just life, regardless of the enforcement of such laws; and what type of citizen and corresponding aspect of an individual’s soul is qualified to make such decisions. Plato intended his model of a ship to represent multiple scales of a state, a city, and human. English translations of Plato call such properly qualified a citizen a “philosopher” or “Guardian”; representing the “Rational” aspect of the tripartite soul. He considers the soldier, or “Auxiliary” class the enforcers of such laws, and the “Spirited” aspect of souls. Finally, the artisans, craftspeople, or skilled tradespersons, or what we might call “technicians” today, were the citizen “Workers” or “Merchants”; representing the “Appetitive” soul aspect in Plato’s fractal allegories.(Plato’s)

Since these citizen and soul aspects were archetypes inherent to all humans, including “Workers” and their techne, it should be no surprise that every position on a trireme ship seems to come aboard with skills of some kind. A Guardian should be guided by what Plato called “The Form of The Good”. In the scope of this document, it will suffice to explain that, despite its association with the nominal “Rational” aspect of the tripartite soul, his ‘art of navigation’ requires experience and even intuition or wisdom that exceeds mere teachable skill.

“the art of steersmanship” -W.R. Ashby

Above the deck and with a different art and purpose, Steersmen on Greek triremes also utilized oars. “Under way, the kybernetes took the captain’s traditional station on the poop. In emergencies he might handle the tiller himself, but normally he used quartermasters”(Casson); who were promoted rowers. A bow officer and watchman, was called a prorates. In “Cybernetics — Rowing In The Athenian Navy”, Rob Colburn says the prorates “also handled the steering oars under the kybernetes’ direction. Linguistically, the term prorates suggests that the bow oars — which were probably longer than the others — may have also had a role in maneuvering the ship.” He continues; “after learning the technical aspects of celestial navigation and ship handling, the prorates moved up to become a kybernetes”; drawing upon his skills and experience from rowing, steering, and observing as a watchman (Colburn).

Let us now return to Plato’s ship allegory. The captain sounds like a typical trierarchos, who moreover owes his power to his state-mandated responsibility for hiring and placing crewmembers, than from any “knowledge of navigation”. Due to his “infirmity in sight”, he probably would not have been promoted to bow watchman, from where he could then learn about “the technical aspects of celestial navigation and ship handling”. Although the professional soldiers carried by a trireme held equal rank to the trierarchos, he must either be, or hire, an experienced kybernetes to take command of sailing it. Otherwise, there will be mutiny; “The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering –every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation…They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them”. “Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own… they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman”.(Plato)

For reference, Boolean logic suggests this partisan to be a “False Pilot”, because Plato describes “the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art”. “Socrates” asks: “how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?”(Plato) Such an observer, whether bow watchman, navigator, or another, in “an Art of Navigation”, is essential for acknowledging and deciding feedback, in the relationship between steering and the environment.

Application to ASC
First, I offer my sincere condolences on the passing of Barbara Dawes Vogl, the former editor of the ASC newsletter, Patterns. Next, I would like to offer some positive feedback about this suspended publication’s News feature; especially in the Spring/Summer 2007 and Fall 2008 issues. I humbly suggest that this feature’s functions be revived online. It filled an important communications role in informing its readers of the inner-workings of ASC’s leadership, including information about Trustees and other nominations, and officer positions being considered, and modified. Such feedback to members could be handled, at your discretionary designation, by such existing roles as Secretary, Vice President for Electronic Publications, Membership Committee Chairperson, or perhaps another committee. Other valuable information that such online news would make easier to locate includes; the names, goals, and contacts of committees, and more explanation about the process of nominating society leaders. Participation and chairing committees seems like informative participation for future ASC leaders.

Plato reminds us that those most fit to lead justly, might be too modest or lack the information or resources to otherwise rise through the ranks and have their intuitions validated. It can be a challenge for those both above, as well as below the “deck” to identify the most promising among them, in order to encourage and understand the arts and skills required to steer and navigate the ASC. The ASC leadership could reach out to offer such news. The general membership would thus be encouraged that such arts and skills can be learned, and realize that those who are navigating are not simply stargazing.

(Works Cited available upon request)

Author is elegible for HvF Prize (aged under 35): YES

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.