Cybernetics ...
  "the science and art of understanding"... - Humberto Maturana
  "interfaces hard competence with the hard problems of the soft sciences" - Heinz von Foerster
The Subject of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants

History of
Noted Contributors
to Cybernetics



Stuart Umpleby
1982, revised 2000


There are many definitions of cybernetics and many individuals who have influenced the direction of cybernetics. Cybernetics takes as its domain the design or discovery and application of principles of regulation and communication. Cybernetics treats not things but ways of behaving. It does not ask "what is this thing?" but "what does it do?" and "what can it do?" Because numerous systems in the living, social and technological world may be understood in this way, cybernetics cuts across many traditional disciplinary boundaries. The concepts which cyberneticians develop thus form a metadisciplinary language through which we may better understand and modify our world.

Several traditions in cybernetics have existed side by side since its beginning. One is concerned with circular causality, manifest in technological developments--notably in the design of computers and automata--and finds its intellectual expression in theories of computation, regulation and control. Another tradition, which emerged from human and social concerns, emphasizes epistemology--how we come to know-- and explores theories of self-reference to understand such phenomena as autonomy, identity, and purpose. Some cyberneticians seek to create a more humane world, while others seek merely to understand how people and their environment have co-evolved. Some are interested in systems as we observe them, others in systems that do the observing. Some seek to develop methods for modeling the relationships among measurable variables. Others aim to understand the dialogue that occurs between models or theories and social systems. Early work sought to define and apply principles by which systems may be controlled. More recent work has attempted to understand how systems describe themselves, control themselves, and organize themselves. Despite its short history, cybernetics has developed a concern with a wide range of processes involving people as active organizers, as sharing communicators, and as autonomous, responsible individuals.


1987 ASC Compilation of Cybernetics Definitions
Larry Richards
October 1999

  In 1987, when I was ASC president, I developed a list of definitions/descriptions that have been added to and distributed at ASC conferences since then.

My intent in preparing this list was twofold:

  1. to demonstrate that one of the distinguishing features of cybernetics might be that it could legitimately have multiple definitions without contradicting itself, and

  2. to stimulate dialogue on what the motivations (intentions, desires, etc.) of those who have proposed different definitions might be.

I continue to want cybernetics to be talked about as a dynamic set of ideas, a dynamics that is realized in dialogue among humans. That is, I want the label "cybernetics" to attract people who have an interest in both the subject and practice of conversation, and of creating the "new" out of this form of dynamic interaction, irrespective of whether their interests are in electronics, life, society, or mind, and whether they come from science, art, or politics.

An Illustration

Joke Related by Stafford Beer
October 2001

  " concerns three men who are about to be executed. The prison governor calls them to his office, and explains that each will be granted a last request. The first one confesses that he has led a sinful life, and would like to see a priest. The governor says he thinks he can arrange that. And the second man? The second man explains that he is a professor of cybernetics. His last request is to deliver a final and definitive answer to the question: what is cybernetics? The governor accedes to this request also. And the third man? Well, he is a doctoral student of the professor -- his request is to be executed second."

What is Cybernetics?

ON THE AMBIGUITY OF THE TERM 'CYBERNETICS'   "Use the word `cybernetics', Norbert, because nobody knows what it means. This will always put you at an advantage in arguments."

Widely quoted; attributed to Claude Shannon in a letter to Norbert Wiener in the 1940's.


  Cybernetics seeks to develop general theories of communication within complex systems. ... The abstract and often formal mathematical nature of its aim ... makes cybernetics applicable to any empirical domain in which processes of communication and their numerous correlates occur. Applications of cybernetics are widespread, notably In the computer and information sciences, in the natural and social sciences, in politics, education and management."

1987 Conference Announcement
  Cybernetics: when I reflect on the dynamics of observed systems and on the dynamics of the observer-whence 'creative cybernetics': when I project the dynamics of a system I would like to observe"

A.M. Ampere   "Cybernetique= the art of governing or the science of government"

W. Ross Ashby   "the art of steersmanship"

"The study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and  control-systems that are information tight"

"Cybernetics treats, not things, but ways of behaving. It does not ask, "What is this thing?" but "what does it do?"...It is thus essentially functional and behavioristic... The materiality is irrelevant, and so is the holding or not of the ordinary law of physics"

"deals with all forms of behavior in so far as they are regular, or determinate, or reproducible"

"stands to the real machine-electronic, mechanical, neural, or economic-much as geometry stands to a real object in our terrestrial space"

"offers a method for the scientific treatment of the system in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored"

"offers a single vocabulary and a single set of concepts for representing the most diverse types of systems"

Gregory Bateson   "a branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness, and information"

"the study of form and pattern"

"the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the last 2000 years."

"There is latent in Cybernetics the means of achieving a new and perhaps more human outlook, a means of changing our philosophy of control, and a means of seeing our own follies in wider perspective."

BehaveNet   "The term "cybernetic" [Greek kybernetes, pilot, steersman] was coined by the mathematician Norbert Wiener in 1948 to encompass "the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal" ... Cybernetics is concerned with scientific investigation of systemic processes of a highly varied nature, including such phenomena as regulation, information processing, information storage, adaptation, self-organization, self-reproduction, and strategic behavior. Within the general cybernetic approach, the following theoretical fields have developed: systems theory (system), communication theory, game theory, and decision theory."

Clinical Capsule: Cybernetics

Ludwig von Bertalanffy   "So a great variety of systems in technology and in living nature follow the feedback scheme, and it is well-known that a new discipline, called Cybernetics, was introduced by Norbert Wiener to deal with these phenomena. The theory tries to show that mechanisms of a feedback nature are the base of teleological or purposeful behavior in man-made machines as well as in living organisms, and in social systems." (General Systems Theory, Chapter 2)

Stafford Beer   "the science of effective organization"

"... cybernetics studies the flow of information round a system, and the way in which this information is used by the system as a means of controlling itself: it does this for animate and inanimate systems indifferently. For cybernetics is an interdisciplinary science, owing as much to biology as to physics, as much to the study of the brain as to the study of computers, and owing also a great deal to the formal languages of science for providing tools with which the behaviour of all these systems can be objectively described."

"Probably the first clear insight into the deep nature of control ... was that it is not about pulling levers to produce intended and inexorable results. This notion of control applies only to trivial machines. It never applies to a total system that includes any kind of probabilistic element -- from the weather, to people; from markets, to the political economy. No: the characteristic of a non-trivial system that is under control, is that despite dealing with variables too many to count, too uncertain to express, and too difficult even to understand, something can be done to generate a predictable goal. Wiener found just the word he wanted in the operation of the long ships of ancient Greece. At sea, the long ships battled with rain, wind and tides -- matters in no way predictable. However, if the man operating the rudder kept his eye on a distant lighthouse, he could manipulate the tiller, adjusting continuously in real-time towards the light. This is the function of steersmanship. As far back as Homer, the Greek word for steersman was kubernetes, which transliterates into English as cybernetes."

"The subject to which I have devoted my professional life is cybernetics. I am all too well aware that most people have no more than a hazy idea of what it is all about. I have often been assured that it is about freezing people -- but they were thinking of cryogenics. The more informed realize that it is concerned with systems and their regulation. But even then, there are so many ways in which that notion can be approached."

"The shocking thing is that there is truth in every one of these notions, and the reason is because cybernetics is an interdisciplinary subject. It must be complicated."

Herbert Brün   "the ability to cure all temporary truth of eternal triteness"

Bruce Buchanan   "is also sometimes used as an umbrella term for a great variety of related disciplines: general systems theory, information theory, system dynamics, dynamic systems theory, including catastrophe theory, chaos theory, etc."

L. Couffignal   "the art of securing efficient operation"

Peter Corning   "The single most important property of a cybernetic system is that it is controlled by the relationship between endogenous goals and the external environment."

"The science of cybernetics is not about thermostats or machines; that characterization is a caricature. Cybernetics is about purposiveness, goals, information flows, decision-making control processes and feedback (properly defined) at all levels of living systems."

Synergy, Cybernetics, and the Evolution of Politics (1996)

F. von Cube   "...[the] mathematical and constructive treatment of general structural relations, functions and systems."

Jeff Dooley   "Cybernetics is a science of purposeful behavior. It helps us explain behavior as the continuous action of someone (or thing) inthe process, as we see it, of maintaining certain conditions near a goal state, or purpose."

"At the very least (there is certainly more), cybernetics implies a new philosophy about (1) what we can know, (2) about what it means for something to exist, and (3) about how to get things done. Cybernetics implies that knowledge is to be built up through effective goal-seeking processes, and perhaps not necessarily in uncovering timless, absolute, attributes of things, irrespective of our purposes and needs."

Charles A. Fink   "Cybernetics is the science of unseen processes which energize dynamic entities: man-made, natural, and spiritual. In a narrower technical view, cybernetics are what makes systems function."

Heinz von Foerster   "That is the fascinating thing about cybernetics. You ask a couple of people to give you a definition and although you don't get to know much about cybernetics from them, you find out a lot about the person supplying the definition, including their area of expertise, their relation to the world, their desire to play with metaphors, their enthusiasm for management, and their interest in communications or message theory."

"Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity."   "[C]ybernetics studies organization, communication and control in complex systems by focusing on circular  (feedback) mechanisms Cybernetics, deriving from the Greek word for steersman (kybernetes), was first introduced by the mathematician Wiener, as the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine (to which we now might add: in society and in individual human beings). It grew out of Shannon's information theory, which was designed to optimize the transmission of information through communication channels, and the feedback concept used in engineering control systems. In its present incarnation of "second-order cybernetics", its emphasis is on how observers construct models of the systems with which they interact."

F. H. George   "Cybernetics could be thought of as a recently developed science, although to some extent it cuts across existing sciences. If we think of Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc. as traditional sciences, then Cybernetics is a classification which cuts across them all. ...Cybernetics is formally defined as the science of control and communication in animals, men and machines. It extracts, from whatever context, that which is concerned with information processing and control. ... One major characteristic of Cybernetics is its preoccupation with the construction of models and here it overlaps operational research. Cybernetic models are usually distinguished by being hierarchical, adaptive and making permanent use of feedback loops. ... Cybernetics in some ways is like the science of organisation, with special emphasis on the dynamic nature of the system being organised."

Quoted in 'What is Cybernetics?'

Ranulph Glanville   "Cybernetics is essentially about circularity."

Ernst von Glasersfeld
  "a way of thinking"

"Cybernetics, as we all know, can be described in many ways. My cybernetics is neither mathematical nor formalized. The way I would describe it today is this: Cybernetics is the art of creating equilibrium in a world of possibilities and constraints."

V. M. Glushkov
  "... the general theory of the transformation of information, and. the theory and principles of building various transformers of information"

G. Klaus
  "The theory of interconnectedness of possible dynamic self-regulated systems with their subsystems"

A.N. Kolmogorov
  "a science concerned with the study of systems of any nature which are capable of receiving, storing, and processing information so as to use it for control"

Chris Lucas
  "Cybernetics is the science of effective organization, of control and communication in animals and machines. It is the art of steersmanship, of regulation and stability. The concern here is with function, not construction, in providing regular and reproducible behaviour in the presence of disturbances. Here the emphasis is on families of solutions, ways of arranging matters that can apply to all forms of systems, whatever the material or design employed. ... This science concerns the effects of inputs on outputs, but in the sense that the output state is desired to be constant or predictable - we wish the system to maintain an equilibrium state. It is applicable mostly to complex systems and to coupled systems, and uses the concepts of feedback and transformations (mappings from input to output) to effect the desired invariance or stability in the result."

Cybernetics and Stochastic Systems
Tech Glossary
  "Originally the study of biological and artificial control systems, cybernetics has evolved into many disparate areas of study, with research in many disciplines, including computer science, social philosophy and epistemology. In general, cybernetics is concerned with discovering what mechanisms control systems, and in particular, how systems regulate themselves."

Humberto Maturana   "I 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.

Understanding a system requires both intuition as a gestaltic grasping of the systemic coherences of the system under consideration, and the seeing of the structural (causal) coherences of the locality where the observer stands. Understanding further involves relating these two different operational perspectives in a manner that, although not deductive, shows the dynamic connectedness of any part of the system to the dynamic totality that the system is. So, to the extent that cybernetics has to do with the handling of systems, as well as with explaining them scientifically as they arise in our understanding as observers, I call cybernetics the art and science of understanding."

Warren McCulloch   "...[M]ost people have heard of cybernetics from Norbert Wiener or his followers. Narrowly defined it is but the art of the helmsman, to hold a course by swinging the rudder so as to offset any deviation from that course. For this the helmsman must be so informed of the consequences of his previous acts that he corrects them - communication engineers call this 'negative feedback' - for the output of the helmsman decreases the input to the helmsman. The intrinsic governance of nervous activity, our reflexes, and our appetites exemplify this process. In all of them, as in the steering of the ship, what must return is not energy but information. Hence, in an extended sense, cybernetics may be said to include the timeliest applications of the quantitative theory of information."

Embodiments of Mind, p. 158

Margaret Mead   "...[T]he set of cross-disciplinary ideas which we first called "feed-back" and then called "teleological mechanisms" and then called ... "cybernetics" - a form of cross-disciplinary thought which made it possible for members of many disciplines to communicate with each other easily in a language which all could understand."

New Encyclopaedia Brittanica
  "control theory as it is applied to complex systems"

Michael O'Callaghan
  "The word Cybernetics comes from the Greek for helmsman - one who steers a ship. Cybernetics is defined as the science of communication and control. It maps the pathways of information by which systems may either be regulated from outside, or regulate themselves from within. The science thus has two main branches: the first one deals with the control of machines, and led to the development of things like computers, automatic navigation systems for spacecraft, guided nuclear missiles, and so-called "smart" weapons. ... The second branch deals with the more complex control processes through which self-organising biological and social systems regulate themselves and adapt to the environment on which their survival depends. ... The biological and social branch of Cybernetics today is still seen as a minor discipline, rarely taught in universities, and wrongly presumed even by the educated public to be some esoteric pursuit of relevance only to academic epistemologists and complexity theorists."

Global Vision Planning Manual: Cognitive Process in Self-Organizing Systems

Paul Pangaro
  "Cybernetics is simultaneously the most important science of the age and the least recognized and understood. It is neither robotics nor freezing dead people. It is not limited to computer applications and it has as much to say about human interactions as it does about machine intelligence. Today's cybernetics is at the root of major revolutions in biology, artificial intelligence, neural modeling, psychology, education, and mathematics. At last there is a unifying framework that suspends long-held differences between science and art, and between external reality and internal belief."

Proposal document 'New Order from Old'

Gordon Pask
  "the art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors"

"...[I]t has been variously defined. At one extreme, there is the original definition, 'the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine,' advanced by Norbert Wiener when he adopted the word in 1948 in the book Cybernetics which is the first complete statement of the discipline ... At the other extreme is Louis Couffignal's proposal, put forward as an expansion in 1956, 'La Cybernetique est l'art d'assurer l'efficacite de l'action.' The gap between science and art is filled by a continuum of interpretations. Thus Stafford Beer looks upon cybernetics as the science of proper control within any assembly that is treated as an organic whole. ... Ross Ashby, on the other hand, gives emphasis to abstracting a controllable system from the flux of a real world ..., and he is concerned with the entirely general synthetic operations which can be performed upon the abstract image. He points out that cybernetics is no more restricted to the control of observable assemblies and the abstract systems that correspond to them, than geometry is restricted to describing figures in the Euclidean space which models our environment. ... For my own part, I subscribe to both Ashby's and Beer's view, finding them compatible. Their definitions are both included with Wiener's global dictum."

An Approach to Cybernetics, 1961, p. 15

Andrew Pickering
  "...[T]here is something philosophically or theoretically pregnant about cybernetics. There is a kind of seductive mystery or glamour that attaches to it. And the origin of this, I think, is that cybernetics is an instantiation of a different paradigm from the one in which most of us grew up, the reductive, linear, Newtonian, paradigm that still characterises most academic work in the natural and social sciences (and engineering and the humanities, too)-the classical sciences, as Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers (1984) call them. ... It appears to me, though, that historians have yet to get seriously to grips with this aspect of cybernetics."

Cybernetics and the Mangle: Ashby, Beer and Pask

  "The word was first used by Plato to mean 'the art of steering' or 'the art of governing'. It was adopted in the 1940s at MIT to refer to a way of thinking about how complex systems coordinate themselves in action: "the science of control and communication, in the animal and the machine", as Wiener put it. Cybernetics was originally formulated as a way of producing mathematical descriptions of systems and machines. It solved the paradox of how fictional goals can have real-world effects by showing that information alone (detectable diffferences) can bring order to systems when that information is in a feedback relation with that system. This essentially bootstraps perception (detection of differences) into purpose.

In broad terms, cybernetics incorporates the following three key ideas: systemic dynamicity; homeostasis around a value; and recursive feedback."

Larry Richards   "a way of thinking about ways of thinking"; "offers a vocabulary for talking, and hence thinking, about the dynamics of relations and behavior"; hence the 'cybernetician': "a craftsperson in time"

Alan Scrivener   "Cybernetics is the study of systems which can be mapped using loops (or more complicated looping structures) in the network defining the flow of information. Systems of automatic control will of necessity use at least one loop of information flow providing feedback."

A Curriculum for Cybernetics and Systems Theory

Times of London
May 11, 1959
(Quoted in OED)

  "Cybernetics is the study of man in relation to his particular job or machine with special reference to mental processes and control mechanisms."

Bronislaw Trentowski   Cybernetica: - "the art of how to govern a nation" (circa 1849)

University of Bradford
Department of Cybernetics Internet and Virtual Systems
  "Cybernetics is a coverall word to describe the study of systems - of robots, computers, machines, and the people who use them."

University of Reading   "The name was coined by Norbert Wiener in 1948 as a result of collaborations between Wiener, a mathematician, and colleagues from other disciplines: they noticed that they had similar interests, but where was no name to group together their interests. They chose cybernetics, subtitle control and communication in the animal and the machine, thus reflecting that both technological and biological systems have many common characteristics."

Introduction to Cybernetics

Francisco Varela   "First order cybernetics: The cybernetics of observed systems.

Second order cybernetics: The cybernetics of observing systems."

Web Dictionary of Cybernetics and Systems
Principia Cybernetica Web
  " interdisciplinary approach to organization, irrespective of a system's material realization. Whereas general systems theory is committed to holism on the one side and to an effort to generalize structural, behavioral and developmental features of living organisms on the other side, cybernetics is committed to an epistemological perspective that views material wholes as analysable without loss, in terms of a set of components plus their organization."   "Based on the Greek 'kybernetes', meaning steersman or governor, cybernetics is the science or study of control or regulation mechanisms in human and machine systems, including computers."

Randall Whitaker   "Cybernetics represents a quest to provide coherent and non-vitalistic explanations for those persistently orderly phenomena (e.g., regularized behavior; cognition) whose wonders have historically defeated our analytical mindsets and forced our retreat into vitalistic fictions. The quest is still ongoing, in large part because some constructs popularly associated with cybernetics - most notably 'control', 'information', and 'communication' - remain such vitalistic fictions in colloquial usage."

Norbert Wiener   "the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine"

James Wilk   "the study of justified intervention"

History of
Noted Contributors
to Cybernetics

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The Subject of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants