The actions and interactions of ASC and its members constitute the 'wavefront' of cybernetics as we move into the 21st Century.

ASC contributions to the promotion and evolution of cybernetics...
Rebutting the Mythology and Reflecting on the Outcomes

Randall Whitaker
March 2003

ABOUT THIS ESSAY   In early 2003 I was assembling a History of Cybernetics during a major upgrade to the Foundations section of our ASC website. One of the most intensive portions of this exercise was researching and summarizing the legendary Macy Conferences - long cited as the birthplace of the field of cybernetics. Although I had previously done extensive readings on the Macy Conferences (and the origins of cybernetics in general), I learned quite a bit during the course of this editorial exercise.

When it came time to write a final summarization for that section of the History pertaining to cybernetics' appearance in the 1940's (Chapter 2), I generated no fewer than three distinct draft documents. Though I believed each of these contained interesting points, I was apprehensive about incorporating too much of my own (critical) commentary into the general History narrative. The reason for characterizing the commentary as 'critical' was because I realized much of what I thought I'd known about the Macy Conferences was a sort of 'mythology' rather than a reliable historical account.

The use of the term 'mythology' is not meant to be pejorative. In this case, I only mean to imply that colloquial accounts of the Macy events have come down to us in what turns out to be a simplistic and unjustifiably rosy form. As is typical for human undertakings, the actual events and activities make for a far more complex and messy narrative than cursory synopses would suggest. The complexities and the messiness are extensive enough to call into question not only when 'cybernetics' came into being, but the extent to which what came into being was the coherent and discrete field to which both subsequent advocates and critics would refer.

The reason for spinning off this document as an ASC Wavefront Contribution was to acknowledge there are a number of ways to interpret and assess the Macy Conferences, and that this particular summarization represents only one person's opinion.

NOTE:  Because this essay began as a component of the History of Cybernetics material elsewhere on this website, it alludes to particular events and people described in that other material. As such, you may find it useful to refer to the History's Chapter 2: Coalescence of Cybernetics in the 1940's.

THE 'MACY CONFERENCES': A Reflection on Outcomes

Introduction   This much, and this much only, is certain: the coalescence of cybernetics in the 1940's was a historical process involving many gatherings among diverse thoughtful and inquisitive people.

The participants in this process, all eminent in their many respective fields, would go on to disseminate their individual impressions of and elaborations upon 'cybernetics' for decades thereafter. This made for a new field with many facets and at least as many noteworthy advocates. The advocacy of so many scholars made it easy to treat cybernetics as a significant intellectual innovation. However, the diverse expressions of this 'cybernetics' in so many distinct contexts make it difficult to delineate the field as a coherent whole. This situation persists to the present day, with adherents and critics alike seeming to manage no more than a tentative or approximate circumscription of this 'cybernetics' they either love or hate.

One would think resolution could be achieved by simply returning to the records for the period of coalescence (i.e., the postwar period from 1945 onward). In particular, this would seem to involve examining the universally-cited birthplace of cybernetics - a series of ten conferences held from 1946 through 1953, sponsored by the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, and popularly called the 'Macy Conferences'. Unfortunately, this approach immediately runs into problems. The historical records for the Macy Conferences have never been readily accessible, owing to an almost total lack of documentation for the first 5 conferences and the obscure status of the last 5 events' proceedings. This has resulted in a reliance on personal recollections and anecdotal evidence in explaining how the process occurred.

In summary, the process' product (cybernetics itself) is many things to many people, and the process' narrative is either a mystery or a matter of hearsay.

It is therefore no surprise to find that both adherents and critics have 'mythologized' the coalescence of cybernetics. By this I mean that such facts as can be substantiated are often obscured with a thick coating of allusions, ascriptions, and insinuations that streamlines the complicated tale and / or conveniently tailors it to the author's personal orientations or rhetorical objectives. I exempt from this characterization two notable cases - those of Steve Joshua Heims and Jean-Pierre Dupuy - in which the pile of available data is filtered with respect to these authors' respective scholarly goals and priorities. In these cases, the narrative is not 'uncolored', but the writers at least admit their approach is tinted. Heims makes it reasonably clear his interests lie in portraying the cybernetics group as progenitors of postwar American social science. Dupuy makes it even more clear he treats cybernetics as the precursor to the unfaithfully-derived fields of artificial intelligence and cognitive science. Both offer a whole story without claiming it represents the whole story.

Among cybernetics' adherents, description of the field's birth is most often shrunk into a capsule form portraying some or all a set of features. In the following paragraphs I shall present some of these features and consider them stripped bare of the mythology.

Cybernetics (as a cohesive and coherent field) arose in the course of the 10 Macy Conferences held from 1946 through 1953.

This is misleading in a number of ways. First, both the circumstances at the time and subsequent developments fail to demonstrate cybernetics ever really achieved the sort of clear-cut identity and consensus recognition such a statement insinuates. Second, it would appear more accurate to say that what would come to be known as cybernetics was amplified, and not created, during the ten Macy Conferences. Although cybernetics became widely known on account of publicity surrounding the Macy Conferences, it might well be said that cybernetics' basic agenda had been recognizable as of the 1942 Cerebral Inhibition Meeting. That one meeting was sufficient to (a) sketch out the notions of circular causality, teleology explainable in the 'here and now' and feedback as well as (b) inform and energize social scientists on these ideas. The subsequent conferences arguably added little to these basic outcomes. With the exceptions of the label 'cybernetics' and allusions to 'information theory', cybernetics' thematic core cannot be claimed to have expanded much during the Macy Conferences. The excitement instilled in prominent and well-connected social scientists Frank, Mead, and Bateson at the 1942 meeting might well have motivated dissemination of these principles to social science (albeit more slowly) even if the subsequent conferences had never occurred.

The Macy Conferences clearly provided a forum in which scholars of diverse interests came together to discuss their work and ideas under the rubric of 'circular causality' and 'teleological mechanisms'. However, there is little evidence to support the notion that these people (even those in the persistent core group) were consciously working toward mutual specification of a new field. Had this been the case, one could reasonably guess Wiener's 1948 publication of Cybernetics would have represented a culminating event (which it didn't). The subsequent re-titling of the conference series with respect to 'cybernetics' derived not from disciplinary self-identification but from Heinz von Foerster's desire to avoid overtaxing his then-limited English skills.

It is probably more accurate to say participants' main focus was presentation and discussion of these themes' applicability to their personal research interests than integration of these themes into a unified theory (much less a discipline). This is evidenced by the fact no one came out of the Macy Conferences claiming to have been transformed from whatever they'd previously been into a 'cybernetician'. Macy attendees arrived as (e.g.) mathematicians and psychologists, and they departed as mathematicians and psychologists. This explains chairperson McCulloch's conundrum at the end of the series, when his summary of outcomes stated, "Our most notable agreement is that we have learned to know one another a bit better, and to fight fair in our shirt sleeves."

So what did the Macy Conferences accomplish? First, they provided a venue in which interested scholars could explore and refine their understanding of these innovative ideas. Second, they provided a venue in which an ever-growing population of people (most particularly social scientists) could be exposed to these ideas. As such, the Macy Conferences were less an original birthplace than a breeding ground for cybernetics.

Owing to their fame then and thereafter people such as Norbert Wiener, Ross Ashby, Claude Shannon, and John von Neumann are presumed to have been instrumental in the Macy Conferences.

There are many misunderstandings pertaining to the Macy Conference attendees and their roles in fostering cybernetics in the context of these meetings. Ross Ashby would become one of the most noted of the cyberneticians, but in fact he was a guest at only one Macy Conference (the 9th), and his presentaton of his 'homeostat' was not universally well-received there. Shannon, who attended only 3 of the 10 conferences, had less of an impact than others in disseminating his information theory within the meetings. Neither Wiener nor von Neumann participated in the seminal 1942 Cerebral Inhibition Meeting, proactively aided in setting up the conference series, or attended the last three conferences. It was the attendees of the 1942 meeting (particularly McCulloch and Bateson) who would lobby Fremont-Smith to set up the conference series. It was Rosenblueth who had excited these people with the new ideas in the first place. It was McCulloch who chaired all 10 conferences (and thus might be considered the single most influential participant). It was von Foerster who suggested adopting the label 'cybernetics' for the conferences' central subject. In any case, the two people most critical to establishing and maintaining the conferences may well have been Lawrence Frank and Frank Fremont-Smith.
The multidisciplinary population of attendees represented a balanced sample of relevant fields.

In spite of care taken to include people from a variety of disciplines, the majority of the series' participants were allied with a pair of broadly-stated fields - neurological science and psychology. By and large, the most vociferous debates involved members of one or both these two camps against the core group's mathematicians and engineers. In retrospect, it is interesting to consider the extent to which the range of fields to which 'cybernetics' was to prove applicable was underestimated by the set of fields represented by the Macy Conference attendees.

Early on, the new ideas were touted as being of particular relevance to political science and economics - two disciplines from which not a single Macy participant was drawn. The sole sociologist in the original core group (Lazarsfeld) recommended (and received) a special 'sociological subconference' preceding the 2nd Macy Conference, at which the most prominent sociologists who would popularize systems thinking (Parsons and Merton) got their only exposure to the cybernetics group. Lazarsfeld himself dropped out after the fifth conference.

Although discussion sometimes alluded to physical and chemical 'systems', not a single physical scientist was added to the core group. Although the persistent allusions to 'organisms' would seem to have mandated the presence of biologists, 'biology' was represented by proxy through the ecologist G. E. Hutchinson and the many medical experts (most of them specialists in neurophysiological studies). Although electrical and electronic engineers had been analyzing 'feedback' for a couple of decades, there appear to have been no guests or presentations aimed at this linkage.

It is also interesting to note the majority of the psychologists were specialists in psychotherapy and social psychology issues (as opposed to, e.g., ethology or experimental psychology). As a result, the most energetic interactions between the 'technological' and the 'behavioral' camps had to bridge a gap extending not just from machines across to organisms, but all the way to humans in the context of their (e.g.) personal neuroses or social behaviors.

The arts and humanities were hardly represented (or acknowledged as relevant) at all. The Macy Conference discussions were often 'philosophical', but the sole philosopher in attendance - F. S. C. Northrop - found the group sufficiently disdainful of academic 'philosophy' to make him remain largely silent after the first meeting. A group of scholars in linguistics (broadly defined) were guest attendees at the fifth conference - the only occasion where the conference program was dedicated to language. Another presentation on human language per se (by literary critic and linguistics scholar I. A. Richards) didn't generate any significant discussion. Though cybernetics' principles would later be exploited in the visual and musical arts, this connection received no more than passing speculation during the conferences.

There was a uniformity of interests, purposes, enthusiasm, and consensus among the participants.

It is also clear that the specific guests invited to the conferences were often determined by personal acquaintance and adherence to one or another core member's worldview. This tended to keep the group persistently subdivided into the same thematic camps throughout the series. This in turn helps to explain why some guests found no place for themselves at the conferences. Köhler's presentation of his Gestalt approach to perception was eagerly anticipated but led only to heated argument, his disinterest in returning, and the eventual resignation of his colleague Molly Harrower. In acceding to von Neumann, a geneticist (von Neumann's own preferred candidate - Delbrück) was invited to join the group. However, Delbrück found something about the conference so unappealing as to make him never want to return. The engineers and mathematicians were so critical of psychoanalysis and its adherents that one would be forgiven for wondering why the psychiatrists and psychologists came back year after year.

Even the relatively cursory overview we've provided here at the ASC website suffices to illustrate how misleading these mythologized features actually are. One of the main points one draws from the facts is that the cybernetics group certainly represented a relatively stable discussion circle, but they cannot be claimed to have ever 'gelled' as a coherent body. Though Fremont-Smith envisioned these conferences as an experiment in open multidisciplinary interaction, it appears that the participants' discipline-specific interests and attitudes continued to influence and separate them.

By the same token, it is similarly clear that the basic themes which initially attracted the cybernetics group continued to be considered viable and valuable. Besides adoption of the name 'cybernetics' and the consideration (if not incorporation) of notions from information theory, no significant additions to the 1942 repertoire of circular causality, feedback, and 'teleological mechanisms' ever occurred.

As such, it is difficult to validate the popular myth that cybernetics was created collaboratively through a series of ten convivial conferences serving as its sole and unique birthplace. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the already-acknowledged central elements of cybernetics were illustrated, debated, elaborated, and disseminated to a wider audience through these events. In the end, it is fair to say that the net effect of the 10 Macy Conferences was an expanded version of the 1942 Cerebral Inhibition Meetings' outcome - imparting new concepts and an enthusiasm for their power to social and humanistic scholars.

ASC contributions to the promotion and evolution of cybernetics...