In 1967, Margaret Mead, one of the original attendees at the Josiah Macy Jr. conferences and the founding mother of cybernetics, presented a paper (published in 1968) called “Cybernetics of Cybernetics” to the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC). Following on from a suggestion by Gregory Bateson1, Mead proposed that the ASC should consider itself as a cybernetic body, and apply cybernetic insights and techniques to its own organization and operation. 2

Although Mead proposed a number of specific questions the ASC could ask about how it might be run (see full quote here), her suggestion received little attention. Rather, the title of her paper (given to her by Heinz von Foerster) became used more generally in the application of cybernetics to cybernetics, or second order cybernetics.3

The “Cybernetics of Cybernetics” paper thus leaves two legacies. The ASC has come to recognize the need to take up Mead’s original challenge and address the conflict that occurs when a cybernetic society is not run according to cybernetic principles. The ASC can be seen as convention-bound in its operation, which is particularly odd for a cybernetic society.

The ASC (and no doubt other societies) needs ideas and renewal, and we are looking to competition entries for inspiration and direction according to cybernetic principles. As the established home of second order cybernetics, these cybernetic principles should reflect, preferably, second as well as first order cybernetics.

1) In a conversation between Stewart Brand, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, Mead recalls “I went back to the correspondence, Gregory, where you had proposed that we plan an organization in relation to its purposes. This was before the cybernetics meetings, while you went overseas”. Quoted from: For God’s Sake, Margaret. Conversation with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. Originally published in the CoEvolutionary Quarterly, June 1976, Issue no. 10, pp. 32-44.

2) Mead had earlier made a similar suggestion to a meeting of the Society for General Systems Research (now the International Society for Systems Science), where she was “slapped down without mercy.”

3) According to von Foerster, consideration of the cybernetics of “observing systems” was what distinguished second from first order cybernetics, which was concerned with the cybernetics of “observed systems”.

Judging Criteria
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One Response to Context

  1. Robert Martin says:

    One of the things I did as ASC Membership Chair was to automate as much as possible the very time consuming process of doing a membership drive each year. This has been a successful way of handling membership without requiring a member of the executive board to put in untold hours into the job (which I and my student assistants did). No doubt other functions can be automated so that members can be self-organizing as individuals and/or groups in regard to participating in ASC.

    In general, the cost in time and attention to do something has to be worth the payoff. In general also, things which come to our attention and can be looked at responded to easily are more likely to be attended to and responded to. Thus, I am much more likely to respond to a list serve than an ASC blog because I don’t have to go to a website and enter a password. Both have value, it’s just that one is easier to use, so I find myself using the one that is easier.

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