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April 10, 2009 12:57 PM   Subscribe

You probably think you know what cybernetics means, you are probably wrong. Has the field of cybernetics been discredited, or just mostly forgotten? It has been variously described as the science of communication and control, the art of defensible metaphors, and used in pop culture as a root word for cyborg.

Try googling about cybernetics or anything related, and you will get noise (cybernetics is biological-mechanical interface the same way that neuropsychopharmacology is snorting coke off a prostitute's erect penis with a rolled up $100 bill), cutting trough this noise for others interested in the subject is a major motivation in making this post.

As a "theory of everything" discipline, it may look like crackpottery at first glance, but it has had real results. Cybernetics has been used to connect a number of academic disciplines: for starters.

Its tangible discoveries include anti-aircraft weapons, the concept of an ecosystem, and your home thermostat.
posted by idiopath (49 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
disclaimer: I have participated in a meeting of the ASC (about a decade ago), and have met or known some of the people talked about in these articles (but I am not in regular contact with any of them). Nobody I know hosts any of the above web pages, or wrote any of the articles, to the best of my knowledge.
posted by idiopath at 1:00 PM on April 10, 2009


WHAT IS CYBERNETICS?
Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary study of the structure of complex systems, especially communication processes, control mechanisms and feedback principles. Cybernetics is closely related to control theory and systems theory.
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Indeed.
posted by dersins at 1:02 PM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Well, I've put an RFID chip in my cat. Does that count?
posted by boo_radley at 1:03 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Gah. It's a victim of terminal terminology. Engineers just call it "control".
posted by mr_roboto at 1:05 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Could we use this to build some sort of man-machine?
posted by snofoam at 1:08 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


mr_roboto: many applications of cybernetics, in particular ones related to anthropology, psychology, and ecology, are not primarily about control. It started with Weiner's interest in control systems, but is not limited by that early direction.
posted by idiopath at 1:18 PM on April 10, 2009


Cybernetic? Works well for the Human Hive and oddly enough, Gaians.
posted by The Whelk at 1:19 PM on April 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


From the first link:

"Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary study of the structure of complex systems, especially communication processes, control mechanisms and feedback principles. Cybernetics is closely related to control theory and systems theory."

I'm fairly certain that it's this concept that eventually led to the term "cybernetics" being used do describe the organic/ machine hybrid that most people think of today. At some point people were undoubtedly thinking about taking the idea of control mechanisms and feedback to it's logical, if not extreme conclusion, which would be the mind directly controlling technology. Once non-experts outside of the field heard the concept in conjunction with the term, the two probably became irrevocably intertwined.

And though it pains me to do, I can't resist:

Metafilter: snorting coke off a prostitute's erect penis with a rolled up $100 bill

posted by quin at 1:23 PM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


I am pretty sure I have no idea what cybernetics means - does that mean I am probably right? Sorry, it's Friday :-)
posted by facetious at 1:30 PM on April 10, 2009


No comments about the terminator or the borg, eh?
Ok. What about comments about cylons?
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:33 PM on April 10, 2009


You probably think you know what cybernetics means, you are probably wrong.

That's just the despair squid making you think that.
posted by Artw at 1:34 PM on April 10, 2009


Hey I threw in an Alpha Centauri comment. I'm only one man.
posted by The Whelk at 1:35 PM on April 10, 2009


What about cybernetics ISN'T control theory or systems theory?
posted by kldickson at 1:36 PM on April 10, 2009


My prostitutes don't have penises. Should I bother reading any further?
posted by Glarg at 1:37 PM on April 10, 2009


Glarg: well you could post something substantive about neuropsychopharmacology instead.
posted by idiopath at 1:39 PM on April 10, 2009


William Ashby's book on cybernetics happens to be online at http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/books/IntroCyb.pdf .
posted by kldickson at 1:42 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I find The Human Use of Human Beings to be one of the creepiest titles ever.
posted by Zed at 1:53 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Cybernetic? Works well for the Human Hive and oddly enough, Gaians.

Man, I never had a game as the Hive last long enough for me to drag my painfully-slowly-technologising ass as far as Cybernetic. By that time I'd already got bored and used my ludicrous amount of spare industrial production to roll over everyone.

posted by aihal at 1:56 PM on April 10, 2009


Cyborgs are more properly classified as a subject in bionics. Which, I think, is highly applied cybernetics and biomedical engineering.
posted by kldickson at 1:56 PM on April 10, 2009


Wow, Zed: from you link:
Founder of the science of cybernetics—the study of the relationship between computers and the human nervous system—Wiener was widely misunderstood as one who advocated the automation of human life.
This kind of thing is exactly why I made this FPP.
posted by idiopath at 1:57 PM on April 10, 2009


You probably think you know what cybernetics means, you are probably wrong.

Please don't post comments about the terminator or the borg.


Control freak.
posted by longsleeves at 1:59 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


This seems like an appropriate spot to post who-ate-all-the-pies cyberman.
posted by Artw at 2:04 PM on April 10, 2009


See this for a non-mind scrambling introduction. It's really a great book, unless you already know all this stuff. I tried Weiner's Cybernetics in 1965 and couldn't get past the second chapter. And Human Use of Human Beings is creepy.
posted by carping demon at 2:09 PM on April 10, 2009


Shoulda RTFA. Ashby is mentioned in the second and fourth links in the FPP. Probably elsewhere, too. Just tryin' to show off. Nuts.
posted by carping demon at 2:12 PM on April 10, 2009


What about cybernetics ISN'T control theory or systems theory?

Mathematically nothing. But back in the late 1940s when Wiener's ideas were first getting disseminated across different disciplines (thanks in no small part to the Macy conferences) it took on a broader connotation through its connection with other post-WWII technologies such as computers, operations research, information theory, queuing theory, etc. So by the 1950s the word "cybernetic" had gone way beyond the central ideas of positive and negative feedback to almost mean "anything computer-related".

Remember when the web was called "cyberspace"?
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:13 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


idiopath: cybernetics is... snorting coke off a prostitute's erect penis with a rolled up $100 bill.

It is Friday. Being as I am rather hung over and unable to parse one out of three clauses, I hope that you will understand that I'm going to just assume that this is the entire content of your post, both because I'm sort of nodding off at the computer and because I will find it amusing to tell people that I'd be really into cybernetics if it weren't for the fact that I'm too poor to snort the coke with a $100 bill, so it's usually just the twenty that I'm planning on paying the manwhore with later.

'Yeah, um, Bobby? Could I get some change from this? I have to take the bus home.'
posted by koeselitz at 2:23 PM on April 10, 2009


I usually feel descriptive names are best for scientific ideas and sci-fi names work best for sci-fi ideas. So you got any justifications from latin?
posted by jeffburdges at 2:25 PM on April 10, 2009


Wow, that's a flashback. In 1994 I bought an ancient copy of 'An Approach to Cybernetics' by Gordon Pask that introduced me to cybernetics.

I just skimmed through it now and...not really a skimming book, despite being a little tiny volume. It's sitting in the section of my library I call 'mid-centuries systems/sociology stuff', along with time-space studies and some Skinner. I think it - along with some of the other things in that category - is forgotten, as it's kind of a precursor to so many other things. I wish I could put my finger on what, but hell, I trained as an anthropologist and frankly we just steal ideas as they sound nice.
posted by cobaltnine at 2:26 PM on April 10, 2009


jeffburdges: The name cybernetics precedes and is the root of all that "cyber" prefix usage in sci-fi. It is derived from a greek root meaning steersman, alluding to control / guidance / steering. This was mentioned in more than one of the links provided.
posted by idiopath at 2:28 PM on April 10, 2009


The root cyber originally meant control; it's derived from the Greek word for the guy who drives the boat ("steersman"). As it is used today I'd say it refers to systems that look and act alive, but are not. But this returns to the ancient notion that only living things can act independently, so it is somehow cyber-special when a thing made at human hands manages to go forth on its own and do that kind of thing.

I remember when I was a kid that it was a big deal that some researcher built a robot that was capable of rolling around and seeking darkness or light, according to how a switch was flipped; it was so primitive it used a couple of vacuum tubes. Today grade school kids build much more sophisticated cyber-animals with things like BASIC stamps, but in the day it was considered kind of wonderful in a creepy sort of way.

Although the technology isn't up to what Gibson imagined in Neuromancer, human imagination has filled the gap and today lots of people spend much of their lives in cyberworlds like Second Life and WoW. (I would even say that discussion spaces like Metafilter are cyberworlds, though obviously at a much lower resolution, which fulfuill many of the same social interaction needs even though the interface is much more abstract than Gibson imagined.)

And I think this is the reason for the adulteration of the prefix. It's no longer weird or wonderful when a machine can wander about on its own and perform functions without a human controlling it; we expect that. And I think this is leading us toward an even more wonderful revelation. Most religions are based on a two thousand year old model of reality that insists that nothing can move or make decisions without human input, and that the Universe itself must therefore have some greater maker that pushes things around. Today we take it for granted that things, even simple things we make ourselves, can push themselves around. So the idea that some conscious higher power had to set things in motion gets weaker with every passing year. And the ramifications of that are quite profound.
posted by localroger at 2:30 PM on April 10, 2009 [7 favorites]


"Its tangible discoveries include anti-aircraft weapons, the concept of an ecosystem, and your home thermostat. "
Plus increasing intelligence, eliminating negative emotions and alleviating psychosomatic illnesses like heart attacks with that exploding volcano guy.
...no, wait, I misread something.

There's some overlap with combat science, in operations research, fire support doctrine, ship operations and other purposive systems maintaining systemic equilibrium (obviously leadership and organization, et.al).
I've always speculated how much Nazi ideology had to do with the development of Cybernetics (as a counterexample I mean) - - at least as it relates to war and most particularly feedback. Not an ideology that'd be big on it. Real big on compartmentalization of information tho and ignoring errors in their systems (Uh, the planes can't fly that way...sir?) Which could be why their system broke down.
Just musing there. Only know a touch of this from the military perspective.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:31 PM on April 10, 2009


Cybernetics Anonymous: Support for your internet sex addiction.
posted by clearly at 2:36 PM on April 10, 2009


Side note: when Wiener began his graduate studies at Harvard at the age of 14, he was totally overshadowed by another prodigy; 11 year old William James Sidis, possibly the smartest person who ever lived. But where are you now, William James Sidis?

Wiener describes this in his book Ex-Prodigy.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:40 PM on April 10, 2009


Its tangible discoveries include anti-aircraft weapons, the concept of an ecosystem, and your home thermostat.

At first glance I read that as "anti-papercraft weapons" and got all excited for some reason.

Gotta stop reading BoingBoing...
posted by Avelwood at 2:42 PM on April 10, 2009


And I think this is the reason for the adulteration of the prefix. It's no longer weird or wonderful when a machine can wander about on its own and perform functions without a human controlling it; we expect that.

Do we? Speaking for myself, when I see non-living things moving on their own, my assumption is either a) this thing is being controlled by a human being, either via remote control or previous programming of movements, or b) it's time to go to bed.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:47 PM on April 10, 2009


I find The Human Use of Human Beings to be one of the creepiest titles ever.
You seem not to be alone, but AFAICT— from having read other stuff by Wiener but only skimmed tHUoHB— it's written as a reaction to the growing inhuman use of human beings. Essentially trying to answer the question of, with increasing automation, mechanization, and Ford- and Gilbreth-style optimization of the workplace: how do we avoid dehumanizing human beings, without discarding what we know about productivity? How can we make the work that humans do be the most human work, able to contribute the things that we, as humans, value, while leaving the inhuman aspects of the job to machines?

(Wiener here joins the long, long tradition of scientists who perceive a problem in a field related to their research, write a book about it, and decades later when the rest of the world notices the problem, the scientist is assumed to have been in favor of it. Because, you know, scientists never think about the results of their research? READ THE DAMN SOURCE MATERIAL, PEOPLE.)
posted by hattifattener at 2:51 PM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Okay, now I'm awake; let's talk about this.

longsleeves: Control freak.

Indeed. There are two things I find ironic about this post: first, the poster seems to be hoping to exact an amount of control on the conversation that's rarely practicable. Second, well, this:

idiopath: Try googling about cybernetics or anything related, and you will get noise... cutting trough this noise for others interested in the subject is a major motivation in making this post.

You probably should have checked to see if this was true before you said it. Googling for 'cybernetics' yields perfectly serviceable results; I don't know about related terms, but here are the first fourteen results for the key term. In fact, I thought some of these were really great links:

1. Cybernetics - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: Cybernetics is the interdisciplinary study of the structure of regulatory systems. Cybernetics is closely related to control theory and systems theory...
2. Cybernetics: Specializes in the design, manufacture, and direct sales and service of disk and tape storage products.
3. Cybernetics - A Definition: Artificial Intelligence and cybernetics: Aren't they the same thing? ... The answer to these questions is emphatically, No... Practitioners of cybernetics use models of organizations, feedback, goals, and conversation to understand the capacity and limits of any system (technological, biological, or social); they consider powerful descriptions as the most important result.
4. Cybernetics home page - University of Reading: Cybernetics is about systems (and most things are a system), in particular, systems with feedback.
5. Cybernetics and Systems Theory: 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).
6. American Society for Cybernetics
7. Cybernetics: Cybernetics takes as its domain the design or discovery and application of principles of regulation and communication.
8. Cybernetics - Scholarpedia: Cybernetics, as a scientific discipline has been named by Norbert Wiener (1894- 1964). It was the title of his book with the subtitle Control...
9. The Cybernetics Society: the UK national learned society and professional body promoting pure and applied cybernetics
10. Cybernetics: The Principia Cybernetica Web site includes sections on cybernetics & systems theory and their integration.
11. What is Cybernetics? Norbert Wiener, a mathematician, engineer and philosopher was the first to try to thoroughly define cybernetics... [as] the science of communications and control in animals and machines.
12. Amazon.com: Cybernetics, Second Edition: or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, by Norbert Wiener
13. Cybernetics and Systems Analysis (a cybernetics textbook)
14. Open Site - Science: Mathematics: Applied: Cybernetics: Cybernetics, the theory of intercausal networks underlaying communication and organization processes in dynamical systems...


It looks like there's not that much 'noise' up there, after all.

I'm almost sorry to say this, but I'll go further: your tone kind of annoys me. Why make a post about this subject? By which I mean: why make a post about how people don't know what words mean? Wouldn't it be better to make a post that's about cybernetics? You said yourself that your biggest motivation had to do with the noise surround the term; isn't cybernetics interesting enough in itself to sustain a post without making it about proving that you're right and other people are wrong? I don't know how many threads you've read here, but it's absolutely inane (were I a blushing flower as some are inevitably going to be it'd be insulting) to assume that people are going to want to fill this thread with comments about 'the terminator or the borg.' In my opinion, you really shot yourself in the foot with that snide little jibe, but continue; I genuinely hope this goes well, your own bad expectations notwithstanding.
posted by koeselitz at 3:28 PM on April 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


Result number 13 has way too much noise!
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:34 PM on April 10, 2009


Arg, 12 and 13 are borked, but you can tell what they are and look them up yrself.
posted by koeselitz at 3:39 PM on April 10, 2009


I would even say that discussion spaces like Metafilter are cyberworlds, though obviously at a much lower resolution,

I'll link to this with a caveat that the image didn't appear for me in Forefox today :-/ Had to use IE. YMMV.
posted by Sparx at 3:41 PM on April 10, 2009


That would be Firefox, with the other vowel.
posted by Sparx at 3:42 PM on April 10, 2009


koeselitz: That's communication and control freak to you.

Anyway, yeah, I could have crafted this post better. I have been reading here for years, commenting for a much shorter period of time, and this is my first attempt at a FPP.

I am interested in issues within or related to cybernetics that often get me noise in the search results, and I mistakenly remembered having this problem just with the search term cybernetics itself. For example, when crafting the post, I tried to find better examples of cybernetic concepts or approaches to computer science and networking - I had a hard time finding the kind of material I was looking for. Mostly it was drowned out by the usage of the term cybernetic to mean "computer or network related". A more specific example: I was looking for information online relating to an event that I heard about by word of mouth, the changes in the 1970's to DARPA funding rules, which resulted in academic cyberneticians having to choose between working directly on military technologies or losing their funding (causing the end, for example, of the BCL at UIUC).
posted by idiopath at 3:49 PM on April 10, 2009


Well, thanks, koeselitz for encouraging to doubt my original lack of results and look a little further, I found a very good article by Stuart Umpleby about the history of cybernetics in the US. Most interestingly, he proposes that its basic concepts keep getting re-invented (my take from the reading was that because it attempts to be cross-disciplinary, it made little inroads into academia, and its basic concepts keep getting re-invented with insufficient knowledge of or reference to previous iterations of the same ideas).
posted by idiopath at 4:08 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll link to this with a caveat that the image didn't appear for me in Firefox today :-/ Had to use IE. YMMV.

Just disable ABP for that page and anyone else should see it fine.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:21 PM on April 10, 2009


And for my part, I know I've seen the term "cybernetics" used on occasions before, but I guess I had my own muddled idea for what this meant. This is all some pretty interesting stuff, especially Wiener's story.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:38 PM on April 10, 2009


Ah. Thanks for reminding me about cybernetics. I'm still interested in all the things it's about, but I've been getting my fix mostly from people who put the center of their field in a slightly different place, and who call it 'cognitive science.' But literally two days ago I got to describe open-loop vs. closed-loop control in a linguistics seminar, and I wondered briefly why a linguist would learn that. Well, because he's a closet cyberneticist, that's why.
posted by eritain at 6:30 PM on April 10, 2009


Linguist, anthropologist ... I ran across cybernetics studying music composition and performed at an ASC conference with Herbert Brun. Herbert was, among other things, a pioneer in computer generated music in the 60s, you can read all about it in his essay Technology and the Composer. Interestingly, idiopath, he was involved with the BCL at UIUC which is how I learned about Heinz von Forester, Ernst von Glasersfeld, and other great minds mentioned in other people's followups. I wound up in educational psychology and still hand out articles from these guys that are 30 years old but as fresh as ever.

There is no wikipedia link for it, but the UIUC BCL would probably be the subject of a fascinating book.
posted by cgk at 10:35 PM on April 10, 2009


cgk: small world, I learned about cybernetics from Herbert and from Steve Sloan, who also participated in the UIUC BCL. I was a student at the School For Designing A Society, which you may have heard about. I linked to an article in one of my above comments that is a history of cybernetics in the US, including some content about the BCL. There is also the book that the BCL published: The Cybernetics of Cybernetics. I would have gone in to more detail about these things in my original post, but that was getting close to violating the linking guidelines.
posted by idiopath at 10:49 PM on April 10, 2009


idiopath: way too small a world, I took part in the syntegration process (Stafford Beer) after the 1992 ASC conference that did initial planning for the school. I spent a little time with the PWE and can think of no meaningful contribution that I made to the process, but it was certainly the most mind expanding and influential time of my life. Thanks for bringing it all back.
posted by cgk at 3:42 PM on April 11, 2009


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