ASC HOME   2002 Conference Home   About this Contribution

American Society for Cybernetics
ASC 2002 Conference
June 13-16, Santa Cruz 


  The Cybernetics of Cybernetics
the Cybernetics of Cybernetics

Frank Galuszka

June 2002

This text was read to the audience by Frank Galuszka and Paul Pangaro, each reading a section in turn and thus giving it the feel of a conversation. In this archival version, highlighting is used to portray this conversational turn-taking.



The cybernetics of thinking and the thinking of cybernetics, the cybernetics of conversation and the conversation of cybernetics, the this of the that and the that of the this. The cybernetics of cybernetics and the cybernetics of cybernetics, or perhaps even the cybernetics of cybernetics and the cybernetics of cybernetics.

This title was not chosen. It is an inevitable outcome of a history of conferences, papers and conversations.
This symmetrical phrase feels surprisingly asymmetrical.

In this phrase, the first "cybernetics of cybernetics" suggests more internal distinctions (and activity) than the second "cybernetics of cybernetics".

The first "cybernetics of cybernetics" seems more concrete than the second "cybernetics of cybernetics".
There is a general sense of materiality and activity arising, then declining, or dissolving as this whole title passes the "and" and nears its end. The two "cybernetics" in the first "cybernetics of cybernetics" seemed distinct from one another, while the two "cybernetics" in the second "cybernetics of cybernetics" feel less distinct and seem to blur, becoming one somewhat less dynamic mass.
The first "cybernetics of cybernetics" becomes visible, the second "cybernetics of cybernetics" feels, if not invisible, somewhat less visible than the first.
Do we simply tire of the phrase? Can we not hold it all in our minds? Is something failing here?
The second is a repetition of the first; the second is not a repetition of the first.
Our title is an anticommunication: not a block of conveyed information, but a vessel that invites creative filling. Herbert Brun said," There is no repetition; only insistence." In this case the insistence wears itself out after the third "cybernetics" implies there will be a fourth soon to follow.

The first "cybernetics of cybernetics" feels serious, the second feels like a parody of the first, and seems to undercut not only its own authority, but the authority of the phrase that precedes it. Heinz's original "cybernetics of cybernetics" must have had that same parodic ring to its first hearers. And subsequent to it, all these marvelous reversals from "The cybernetics of understanding and the understanding of cybernetics" through the "The cybernetics of class structure and the class structure of cybernetics" to the"The cybernetics of dark glasses, and the dark glasses of cybernetics." In the evolution of the titles of talks on cybernetics, "The cybernetics of cybernetics and the cybernetics of cybernetics" was an inevitability.

This title is like the Death card in the Tarot. This title is an assault. It intends to make a change, perhaps even to kill cybernetics. It may kill cybernetics by sinking it into the empty or the ridiculous, by revealing an ineffectuality dogging its undiscriminating inclusiveness.
As we seek to design, with cybernetics in mind, wemay be warned Bob Dylan's paradox that "There is no success like failure and failure is no success at all." Cyberneticians often enjoy coaxing contradictions into dynamic alliances. And cybernetics has the capacity to regard failure as a success, to even celebrate failure as success.
But in planning and designing, we intend to create something. We intend to create something that is better than its absence or better than whatever version of it has come before.
Dylan's second part, "failure is no success at all" is the revenge of the original meanings of "failure" and "success" breaking into the heady circularity of the paradox in which they have become ensnared. Dylan's pessimism concludes that either "success cannot be achieved" or that "success does not exist."

Can we design in an atmosphere of such fatalism? Success, as we usually define it, is in achieving what we want, or in achieving what we think we should want. Success as we define it, is a shortsighted thing. Success, as we define it, coalesces around the achievement of goals. According to Dylan, and according to our experience, one thing we know about goals is that they are not perfectly met. "Planning does not work," Maturana says.

The reminder of "failure is no success at all" restores the meaning of failure. Failure is that which fails. Dylan includes success as one of the things that fails.
What if we accept Dylan's paradox but reject his pessimism, which is the not-so-invisible companion to his statement? What if we accept his statement as accurate and invent optimism around it? We are then free from the burdensome obligation to success and failure is freed from failure. If we eliminate success as commonly defined, we eliminate failure as well: "There is no failure like failure and failure is no failure at all."
But how also, in this Pollyanna fatalism to achieve effectiveness? How will it be possible to distinguish a change as an improvement?
Gordon Pask spoke in the late 1980's "Against reliability and repeatability." Later, in the mid nineties, he chided that we should always remember there is always "mystery", suggesting, I believe, that mystery is an inextinguishable component in everything we encounter. The perception of reliability and repeatability is a failure of imagination. Every moment brings the unique and the mysterious; it is only through force that circumstances for repeatabilty can be engineered and only by deception that "mystery" may be extracted from experience.
"A rose is a rose is a rose" may be a rose growing closer, or increasing with vibrancy, or seen through time, or it is a procession of roses, and, certainly it is also, "a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose", though that, with the fourth "rose" becomes considerably weaker overall. Perhaps there is a pulse of insistence that runs through repetitions. Or, perhaps this: with the first three "rose"s we expect a different word rather than the same word to appear after each "a", and we learn after three to expect the fourth.
The word, "cybernetics", is more volatile to us than the word,"rose". As has been discussed intermittently, the all-purpose cybernetic reply is:"it depends." In cybernetics looking at itself, any definition of cybernetics must address the circumstances in which the definition is requested. Thus, even in defining cybernetics, the cybernetician hesitates and says, "it depends…" Hence, the phenomenon of the definition not being fixed, but changing according to the questioner, the phenomenon of describing cybernetics differently under every circumstance. So much so that, in Heinz's original "Cybernetics of cybernetics" the second cybernetics seems to have different characteristics from the first, and even this distinction is unstable as each "cybernetics" operates on the other. And also, in our string of four, each mention of "cybernetics" produces a different, and mutable, identity.

When visiting with Heinz about five or six years ago, Judy Lombardi and I noticed a number of books in Heinz's library on the subject of "artistically" photographed nude young women. When Judy asked him about this, he replied," You have discovered my weakness — and — my strength!"

In this he suggests that weakness and strength can co-exist or, perhaps, that they can even be structurally coupled. If mere coexistence, there is, looking over the whole system, a self-acceptance of idiosyncracy in a context of humor. If structurally coupled, the helplessness of weakness, by the act of its acknowledgement, structures into strength and the hubris of strength is disciplined by the awareness of weakness.

Cybernetics, cybernetics, cybernetics. The weakness of strength and the strength of weakness; the photograph of the nude and the nudity of photography!
What is the weakness of cybernetics? What is its strength?
It is important that weakness is not failure and that strength is not the same as success.
In our "Cybernetics of cybernetics and the cybernetics of cybernetics" the second "cybernetics of cybernetics" crumbles into weakness, after the first "cybernetics of cybernetics" displays its strength. The strong first "cybernetics of cybernetics " props up the second for a time, and the second "cybernetics of cybernetics" returns (by way of our memories) to nibble away at the power of the first.

On first glance the first "cybernetics of cybernetics" reads to us as a sort of fact, compared to the second "cybernetics of cybernetics" which reads as progressively gratuitous fiction. Here, in this title even, there feels as if an unsettling priviliging of fact over fiction is going on. The "cybernetics of cybernetics" giveth and the "cybernetics of cybernetics" taketh away.

Our title, an evolutionary inevitability, balances, on an "and", the life and death of cybernetics. The same phrase that looks insightful on one side of the balance, appears silly or vacant on the other.
"It is only the undecidables that we can decide." Cybernetics, as we in the ASC understand it, is an undecidable. After all,"it depends…" and after that "it depends…." Further, and so on.

Klaus Krippendorff has asserted that the agenda of Second Order Cybernetics is wholly emancipatory.

At this moment, by way of this title, cybernetics is hereby emancipated; cybernetics is freed from itself.
If we wish the discipline, formerly known as cybernetics, to live, we might do well to consult its first order ancestry, which addressed cybernetics as an explanatory and predictive mechanism to the material, to problems, to issues of prediction, planning and design. Inventing a middle path above, below or between certainty and relativism, we can direct provisional and revisable models toward goals that themselves retain flexibility by way of being provisional and revisable. If we emphasize learning, including deutero-learning in designing, we can expand imagination, increase choices and reduce obsolescence even against future backgrounds of unpredicted motion and change. This is what, I think, we mean by design in an ecological context.
ASC HOME   BACK: 2002 Conference Contributions   Top of Page

This HTML transcription was generated from (e.g.) an electronic manuscript and/or whatever other record materials were available. The manuscript has been transcribed "as is" - i.e., with no modifications beyond those minor ones required for basic Web viewing (e.g., tagging special characters, converting graphics).

Microsoft Word transcription: Pille Bunnell, August 2002

HTML transcription: Randy Whitaker, October 2002