This field grew out of the landmark book, Cybernetics:Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Wiener 1948).
Dr. Norbert Wiener studied the subsystems that control behavior in animals, social groups, and machines, looking for common functionality. He identified and analyzed some of the information channels used. From there, he formulated some rules that seemed to apply universally. He was essentially reverse engineering the behavior of task oriented systems. He identified “goal directed behavior” and the feedback loops necessary for success. To perform tasks, a system has to have a way to monitor progress to know when the goal has been attained. Feedback mechanisms provide that information.
Feedback mechanisms return some of the output as input. Your heating system probably has a thermostat. It monitors the temperature, which is the result of the system’s output, and feeds that information back into the system. When the selected temperature is reached, the system shuts down the furnace.
This concept is core to information processing and indispensable in the design of computers and their networks. Concepts like feedback loops and self organizing systems developed from the observation of a wide range of functioning processes.
In many of those processes, like machines or social groups, the organizing principles are easy to see, but in biological systems the controlling factors are more obscure. It is obvious that functionality involves feedback and self organization, but where are the physical channels that carry and organize that information? In machines and social interaction we are fully aware of those channels because we created them. We know that intelligence is applied to gain functionality. Without intelligent human participation, machines and social groups do not function. The fact that biological systems function at all indicates to me that there is an intelligent element at the root of all biological action. The fact that biological systems function so well indicates a high level of intelligence is involved.
Second Order Cybernetics
Call it self organization, but the system that controls biological information processing has physical components that make its functionality possible. It obeys natural laws and produces real output. It should be no big trick for us to identify those physical components and the rules they follow, but that forces us into an area known as, “second order cybernetics”.
Second order cybernetics, initiated by Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002) and Roger Ashby (1903-1972), presents a similar hurdle to the one encountered by quantum physics; if the observer is part of the system, part of a feedback mechanism, how is the observation affected? We can’t just study other cybernetic systems without considering that the study is an interaction between two cybernetic systems.
We are individual cybernetic systems, and as such have our own observational components. Our keen awareness, and the senses that make our observations possible, follow a set of internal rules that have been learned. That learning is heavily influenced by our culture and the beliefs we inherit from it. The resulting personal view of reality is the baseline we must use to measure our observations. If that view is skewed by erroneous assumptions, it is surely affecting everything else.
For example, we have been under the assumption that the systems we observe are fundamentally different from ourselves. We have always assumed that human beings, whether created by god or evolution, are special beings with skills, rights and privileges not available to other species. The most important of course, is our superior intelligence.
We have always thought of ourselves as intelligent beings living in a largely unintelligent alien environment. We share that environment with vicious creatures ruled by animal instinct. Survival has been seen as a battle against a hostile environment, vicious predators and other humans seeking the same resources. That point of view still dominates our consciousness, today.
Objective observation reveals that we humans are indeed cybernetic subsystems, functioning within other cybernetic systems, and fundamentally the same as the rest. As such, we operate under the same set of rules and are subject to the same limitations as all living things. When we study other living things, we are studying but another model of the same subsystem as ourselves. Our view of human beings and how they fit into the larger systems has definitely been, “skewed by erroneous assumptions”.
Conflict of Interest
More importantly, we are not at war with the System, we belong to it. I think most of us realize that defeating Mother Nature is not a realistic goal, yet that is the very behavior our species continues to exhibit daily. We have caught ourselves in a major conflict of interest. Our civilization is organized to reap maximum benefit from exploitation of the environment. We are very efficient at this from a economic point of view. The more we know about the environment and how we fit into the system, the more obvious it becomes that our current rate of exploitation is not sustainable. Global warming is only the tip of the iceberg, it is only a symptom of a deeper malaise. Our efficiency at sucking the energy out of the environment is wreaking havoc on multiple levels.
At any rate, the introduction of second order cybernetics pretty much put an end to the philosophical branch of cybernetics. The practical application of these concepts proved to be much more economically rewarding. Cybernetics was applied to the design of computers and their networks, and in some ways, defined the concept of information processing. Our concept of cyberspace, traversed by a virtual information highway, grew out of this new understanding of the role of information in any active process.