Cybernetics ...
  "the science and art of understanding"... - Humberto Maturana
  "interfaces hard competence with the hard problems of the soft sciences" - Heinz von Foerster
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ASC HOME   3. Description of 'My Cybernetics'


    This page provides a summary listing of contributions from participants in the 2008 ASC 'My Cybernetics' online discussion hosted on the CYB-COALITION email forum at Yahoo Groups.

The participants were asked to submit personal statements addressing the following 3 points or topics:

  1. How I Found Cybernetics
    (I.e., how I became acquainted and engaged with the field or its subject matter)

  2. What Cybernetics Means to Me
    (I.e., what value or utility I ascribe to cybernetics in my personal and / or professional life)

  3. Description of My Cybernetics
    (a statement describing cybernetics as you see it)

This webpage collates the contributions with respect to topic / point #3.

To review the contributions submitted for topic #1, click HERE

To review the contributions submitted for topic #2, click HERE



I was - and am - looking for an interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary framework that will allow a theory of information, cognition and communication and therefore also a theory of mind and meaning.


I have collected my last 25 years of work on that idea in the book "Cybersemiotics: Why information is not enough" ...

I am looking forward to receive - what must be severe - criticism from many of you of the solution I have attempted there in order to save many cyberneticians from becoming complete relativists and anti-science in order to escape central power and objectivism in order to celebrate the human aspect of human lives and creativity.



When people ask me what Cybernetics is, I find myself most often going back to Wiener's inspiration in the Greek kybernan, (to steer or pilot a ship). This enables me to continue on with either 1) a philosophical view of whether and in what manner we steer or determine our lives, or to 2) a practical view of how we govern society, manage ecoysystems, or conduct our personal relations. I do not disagree with most of the myriad other definitions, they each emphasize different aspects, yet, as for any distinction, they also obscure other aspects. I suspect that inclusiveness and precision are not going to be attained in any single definition.

I don't think in terms of "My Cybernetics" - Whichever distinction I chose it would in practice operate differently according to which conversation I am in. This is not a matter of being wishy washy, or not having a deep sense of it for myself. Its just that the view of the other determines which aspects of me/my-cybernetics connect, and thus this changes not only the emphasis, but what is revealed and what is obscured. In me, whatever I may speak of as "cybernetics" refers to a systemic flow. And the revealing / obscuring itself is a natural, normal flow - this is how cognition operates. It works.

What delights me most is the self-referential nature of what I see and what I see as the seeing. I think others have alluded to this; probably in the discussion on second order v/s first order.



Constructive, constructivist, epistemological, biological, adaptive, autonomy-creating, meaning-creating, purposive, semiotic, self-organizing, neural, evolving, open-ended.


I see cybernetics as a powerful descriptive language with a high degree of universality; a circle of ideas that, carefully applied, can significantly enrich our understanding of the complexity of man and nature. I also see it as a setting for asking foundational questions and for integrating knowledge from a variety of fields. I am aware, however, of the high potential for abuse that comes with the universality of mathematical models, and I acknowledge that the struggle with complexity and the quest for a holistic approach can result - as it was the case in semiotics - in terminological and conceptual dissolution.


C1 is useful to me wherever I need to control (constrain, dominate, exploit), for example in making physical objects and machines. C2 is valuable to me, similar maybe to the way a warm and comfortable piece of clothing is, because it is not about right or wrong, it recognises value in variety and "error" and it offers a structure for my search of "suitable language" in my asking the questions I have always been asking myself.


Notes: The centre and significance of cybernetics resides in its explicit valuing of a powerful set of ideas (such as feed-back, complexity, circularity, organization, interactivity, cooperation, variability, emergence, and ultimately change etc); and in its simultaneous pursue of harmonious (dynamic) coherences.

On one hand, I suspect that cybernetics will not benefit nowadays from any strict and frozen definition (for that reason I considered the "my cybernetics" exercise adequate and interesting). On the other hand, I think one should be suspicious of any definition oriented towards meta-solutions, worldviews and / or processual absolutes. (To a certain extent, what cybernetics enables is a prioritizing of difference and an awareness about our individual responsibility.) The value I ascribe to C2 is that it enables one to understand the world, life, knowledge, and creation, as a flux-process of circularities, in which participation, self-reference and emergence play important roles. However, one might remain ambivalent to the benefit brought by strict demarcations between C1, C2, C etc, if they emphasize incompatibilities.



I believe cybernetics is the subject that takes circularity seriously. Taking circularity seriously raises recursion (the form is circular, the process recursive), and the question of inside-ness and outside-ness (and the mechanism of distinguishing between them, drawing a distinction) is crucial. From this we get second order cybernetics, with the observer within.

Cybernetics also accepts error. In this it is nearly unique. Cybernetics does not see error as something to be eliminated (it is understood to be inevitable), but to be accepted and worked with. Error can be the engine of growth. It is also the generator of the original cybernetic interest in feedback. Along with error, cybernetics accepts ultimate ignorance and has methods to explain how we can create knowledge from ignorance, and the status of this ignorance.

My approach is, I think, one of scepticism and of removal. I try to do with less. I look at presuppositions and wonder what would happen if they weren't. For instance, can a black box ever be whitened - and, if not, what does that mean?

I am not primarily interested in application. For me the beauty of the subject is enough, specially as I don't accept the priority of the physical. The application is to itself, to amplifying the beauty. However, I recognise and value the interest of others in application. And I am interested in analogy, for instance the analogy between cybernetics and design: which many might think of as application, which is fine by me!



Now it gets much more complicated.

I've now integrated, FOR MYSELF, several further developments: e.g. 2nd order Cybernetics - Laws of Form - Autopoiesis - Radical Constructivism.

I believe we have serious vocabulary problems with this very deep and broad set of ideas.

And Klaus's dictionary of Cybernetics is an invaluable contribution toward clarity in our conversations. However, IMO Maturana's brilliant work does not share enough common vocabulary with Ernst's RC and Brown's LOF for serving what I think is our bests interests. A kind of incoherence limiting organization potential. The Principia Cybernetica group does about as well as I think possible at this time. Of course what I see is much more consequential than vocabulary, deep epistemological limitations/confusions.

I cannot, at the moment find the exact quote, but somewhere in 'Cybernetics and Human Knowing, Soren Brier is explicit: "I am not a radical constructivist".

Well I AM a RC and I've found the distinctions Ernst makes to be almost impossible to explain to some otherwise brilliant minds. I've never personally discussed this with Soren.

For any who have access to Korzybski's Science and Sanity, on page 99 there's a quote by him written the year I was born (1924). He classifies human thought into three periods. In the third period he says: "Mankind will understand that all that man can know is a joint phenomenon of the observer and the observed."

So the RC understanding was already slowly seeping into my understandings starting way back in 1947. :-)



I see cybernetics as about how living things, and the systems they in their turn compose (social and ecological systems), are organized. I see it as about adaptive flexibility and how that is preserved, or not, leading to the survival of beings or systems, or not. I see it as a way of understanding learning and evolution. I see "information" as being relative to the specific living being for whom it is a difference which makes a difference.

As an aspiring second order thinker I try to see all of this in relation to myself as an observer, who constructs my own reality and whose perception is therefore always limited but also personal. I try to speak a view from somewhere rather than the view from nowhere.



My cybernetics are the every day experiences that have been transformed, and give infinite pleasure, inside a new philosophy of my understanding of understanding. I no longer care about complex systems that are more complicated than two. And even that is outside my range of understanding. It is really the system of one that is responding to the other that is most interesting. I see art and culture as a fascinating kaleidoscopes of polar opposites. Culture binding us to linear concepts and enforcing metaphors of control. Art freeing us to create ourselves within cycles of recognition, molding us with nature in sensuous acceptance. Art seems to exist in the eternal now. Culture depends on a future to validate its past. Art is recreated through emotional responses. Culture, once created by emotional responses, is maintained by intellectual rationale. Subjective vs objective realities; chaos vs group identity, spirit vs religion. All creative pursuits, even pointing, have a quality of timelessness and anarchy. As long as there is anarchy, there is creativity and this suits my personality. I am learning over and over that inside all creative pursuits are the cycles of recognition. The cycles whereby the self is processed and defined, created and destroyed. Art, the anti-thesis of cultural artifact, cannot be absorbed nor can it be warped into linearity and compressed by history. It exists in the now and functions as a transparency through which we grasp the significance of ourselves. This vision grasped is only an individual experience separating one always and ever from linear expectation, from the safety of Procrustean group and into the chaos of self-creativity. And this redemptive quality of cybernetics feels so much better than designing cockpits for Boeing.

This integration between the logical and the intuitive, objective and subjective, inside and out is not, of course, limited to creative arts. It is the orchestration of, or the bridges between, various modes of being.


Jixuan Hu

Cybernetics (and System Thinking) to me is a useful world-view wider than any other body of knowledge of specific fields of study, but more solid and reliable than pure philosophies, ideologies or religions. It is an enabler for me to observe the world much better compared with if without it, and sometimes a helpful tool to assist in effective and efficient actions.


I see cybernetics as a body of knowledge encompassing (1) universal representions of information and complexity; and (2) a broad meta-disciplinary theory of a living world as an evolving control system. While its ostensive raison d'etre is its liberating focus on the necessity of circularity at all levels of representation, still its overall constructivist, model-based epistemology and requirement of multiple and complementary representations are the essential tools for advancing a coherent unified science. The Systems Sciences have many pillars, many expressions. And many movements in computer science, information technology, biology, and complex systems have superceded them without a look back. While my route has always been formal, through mathematical modeling and science, I relish the interplay with conceptual, philosophical, and aesthetic thinkers of all sorts I have met over the years. The recognition of myself, you, all of us, and all of our living planet as evolving semiotic control systems is truly profound, demanding our best efforts to develop the underlying SCIENCE implied, if we are to save ourselves.


There is a deep structure in the circularity of process of observation, thought and action that is at the heart of creation.


I read others say one cannot own cybernetics. I agree. But I will say briefly how I conceive the discourse I am writing and what fascinates me now.

Long time ago I suggested and recently repeated it in an entry on cybernetics for the International Encyclopedia or Communication that one could think of cybernetics as having four pillars or conceptual commitments: circularity, process, diversity or information, and participation. Generally, I do not theorize without either of them. as Bateson said, linearity is making the mistake of cutting a circle open. Focusing on processes of becoming is far more powerful to me than describing what is. Everything I know has multiple interpretations. We live in diversity not singularities, in multiverses not a single universe. Coherence and consistency is for politicians and dictators.

Regarding participation I probably deviate from some folks in cybernetics. I think the emphasis on observation is a vestige of the enlightenment. Putting the observer in the observed - for which I have cited Heinz often - is not enough. Einstein suggested it long time ago. Ashby preached it (although he falsely is categorized as a first-order cybernetician). In anthropology and sociology we have a reflexive turn. There is not that much new in the idea of observers explaining their observing.

To me, participation goes beyond observation. It means much like Lukas mentioned that one cannot separate one's actions from one's perception, I would say one's constructions from how we dwell in them. To me the crucial feature -- entering Wittgenstein -- is language. I think radical constructivism is too psychological to contribute to society generally, to change the world in which we live.

I consider myself a critical scholar, someone who is willing to question what others don't, someone who does not take for granted what others do. One of my continuing interests is to question scientific authority and ask how it is socially constructed, what speech acts, which linguistic moves make it so.



My relation to cybernetics is ambivalent because of its aspiration to develop grandiose theorizing on the basis of mathematical principles extracted from mainly the biological sciences. For example, the central role of the observer - e.g., Von Foerster's (1979) Corrolary to Maturana's Theorem Number One: "Anything said is said by an observer." - provides a focus on agency.

Scientific discourse is agent-based, but the potential self-organization of communication and control can be considered a non-linear result of the interactions among agents. The discourse processes observational reports; the observers are the carriers of observations which update the expectations. In other words, Spencer Brown's "distinction plus a designation" generates at the level of inter-human communication only an observational category and not yet an observation with a value.



I think that cybernetics is the most elegant life science, and its elegance is in how it connects life, intelligence, and culture, from the simplest animation (I.e. sensor-actuator activity) to the most complex civilization, as ultra-stable meta-systems. In Buddhist terms, I see cybernetics as the science of "arising, dwelling, and ceasing." I like how cybernetics challenges our distinctions between natural and artificial phenomena, while affording the distinction-making mechanism which is itself subject of natural-artificial distinction. I also think it's funny how many 'c' words are involved of cybernetics: causality, change, circularity, communication, complexity, connectivity, control, constructivism, ... Thank you all for allowing me to participate in this.


I describe cybernetics in terms of the people and projects that are closest to my interests in knowing, learning, creating:

  • Von Glasersfeld's (and Piaget's) project: Understanding how we know and its philosophical and developmental underpinning (Von Glasersfeld is one of the world's experts on Piaget and Piaget is a mainstay of my teaching).

  • Bateson's project: Understanding what can be said about "patterns that connect" -- and undermining mind / body dualism wherever he found it.

  • Maturana's project: How we know--and its biological / neurophysiological underpinning.

  • Watzlawick's project: Understanding how we as humans frame/reframe our experience.

  • Heinz's project: Investigating cognition: especially how we know, and underpinning his ideas by learning from and connecting Von Glasersefeld, Maturana, Bateson, etc.

I do not separate my description of cybernetics from my application of it because I see cybernetics as a way of looking and a way of thinking. This is not quite accurate though because "a way of looking and thinking" sounds like given thing rather than a process which itself evolves.

I see second order cybernetics as one thread of many that is rooted in awareness of the observer as part of the observation process . If the "venerables" of cybernetics so infrequently refer to cybernetics in their writing it is because they are speaking/writing to groups that are not concerned with cybernetics as a discipline or field of study--groups that would find reference to "cybernetics" mystifying and unhelpful. Which leads us back to the set up problems so concisely and entertainingly described by Randy.



A means for getting what I want [after Ashby].

The art of the assurance of the efficacy of action [from Couffignal].

The art of defensible metaphors [Pask].

A science of circularity [after von Foerster].

What we want it to become, that is, cybernetics is to be [Vallée].

What I cannot avoid, every day that I see the world, for I see through the eyes of my cybernetics.



There are definitions of cybernetics that are valued in the context in which they arise and function. To me 'cybernetics' is a way of navigating that makes the process, in which this navigating brings forth you and your world, accessible', of course always within its particular constraints.


My cybernetics is not a science, although it addresses many scientific questions; it is not a philosophy, although it has many philosophical implications; and, I will continue as long as I am able to fight to keep it from becoming a religion; the apparent need for humans in our current society to have a stable anchor to which they can return to find solace (and a little hope) makes this a daunting challenge. My cybernetics is not seeking an ultimate truth or grand theory. Quite the opposite, it wants to continually generate the new out of the incompatible and the opposing. This inclination toward dialectics is realized in the dynamics of (human) conversation, where the incompatible meet and, with human care and ingenuity (admittedly limited by our language), creates new ideas and new designs (along with their incompatible and/or opposing ideas and designs). My desirable society is one in which this process prevails; with such a dialogical process participation can be realized and sustained and the offerings of all people and groups of people be taken as contributive (at least as the stimulus for further conversations).

My cybernetics is not something in which to "believe". It is something to question and to use to generate questions. When I need an anchor, I turn to my "passions" - dialogue and participation - not to a set of beliefs, and to the idea of a society in which these passions are realized. Since these passions emerged from and are supported by concepts associated with cybernetics, I need cybernetics. My cybernetics offers a vocabulary for talking, and hence thinking, about the dynamics of relations and behavior.

The label "cybernetician" is one to which I can aspire, but choose not to claim at this time. The idea of such labels to designate experts, or members of an elite club, is not compatible with my idea of cybernetics as a way of thinking about ways of thinking (of which it is one). Anytime there is a change in any way of thinking, the set of ways reconfigures itself; cybernetics is (and should be) in constant flux, and I choose to be a participant in that flux. When I attend a cybernetics conference, I choose to do so as one who, although passionate, is not comfortable with what he knows or thinks he knows and definitely not comfortable with the status quo. I am always looking for new twists, new conundrums, new incompatibilities, as well as new projects, new designs, new ideas.

What would the label "cybernetician" need to distinguish for me to aspire to it? If the label was to be applied to anyone and everyone, it would not distinguish anything, and I find those kind of labels to be dangerous. Perhaps, the cybernetician is a craftsperson. There is a difference between knowing a vocabulary and doing it. Doing cybernetics is a craft. What type of craft? If I talk about cybernetics as linking the domain of dynamics with the domain of relations, a concept of "time" is implied. I contend (and here is where the "my" in my cybernetics really kicks in) that time is a human invention. It may have arisen as a required concept in the language in which we live, but it is an invention nonetheless. As an invention, it can be manipulated and changed, and history can be transformed. So, what other label can claim craftsmanship in time (except for the magician or sorcerer, of course)?

Follow-up comments:

I imagine a different society in which everyone is an expert (and hence no one), everyone contributes and, therefore, everyone has a "job". The most important aspect of these jobs is that they would focus on the removal of any un-pleasantries (rather than their perpetuation) so that only the pleasant remains (even when what qualifies as "pleasant" changes). My cybernetics is what I point to as facilitating this thinking (and awareness). If cybernetics became a profession in the current society, I could no longer claim it as pointing to a new and more desirable one.

My cybernetics is not mutually exclusive of any other category of concepts, although it may be incompatible or even opposing to some ideas; in this case, the distinctions become valued as the facilitator of conversations. I think it therefore desirable to draw the distinctions between systems theory and cybernetics, not only to clarify what is being distinguished by these labels, but also to facilitate their interaction in the interest of the "new".



Although I like to consider cybernetics as a kind of Platonic universal, external to me, with a timeless form and timeless truths, I accept that knowledge cannot be separated from the knowing of the knower. I like Gotthard Gunther's aphorism that, "Cybernetics seeks after a theme that is hidden." Thus, as cyberneticians, we all weave variations on that hidden theme. There is a variety in our unity and a unity amidst our variety.

For more on my variant on the theme, please see:

Scott, B. (2002). "Cybernetics and the integration of knowledge", invited chapter for Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, UNESCO.



My cybernetics is when, given an inquiry, I identify an element of herself that smells of the inquiry and follow its relations, dynamics, and their responses to where they converge with the reciprocating responses of one of the systems of systems which constitute my unidentifiable environment and, naming the system(s) and their elements, mark it with the flavor of my inquiry and trace our interactions back to myself, naming her in light of that relationship.


My comments above lead me recursively (sic) to indicate that 'My cybernetics' is essentially engaging in conversing with others and with 'my' self in diverse contexts. Bearing in mind, for example, that 'at every moment in time we can choose to act towards more desirable futures'

Attached is a diagram (Our conversations shape who we become) which encapsulates some principles underlying the process of conversing.

One of these is initiating conversation with someone you don't know, something which very few people do, in my experience. And yet the outcomes are invariably joyful.

Isn't it a strange feature of human existence that we have not set up the means for people to engage readily with strangers about things that matter?

In my experience, the only widespread instance in which this happens naturally and spontaneously is Youth Hostels. In these travelers enquire from each other while eating or washing up together: What have you found interesting about this place? Do you know where I can find Vegemite? (Only Aussies may appreciate how vital this is) J

There are special places where this does happen. One is Sami Sunchild's marvelous Bed and Breakfast Redvic in San Francisco at which she invites house guests to have breakfast together. I have stayed there in order to experience this lovely opportunity and am booked in to do so again in July when attending the next World Open Space on Open Space.

Another is Ron Sher's Third Place Books in Seattle. This is essentially a private enterprise community center, set up primarily to enable a sense of community to be realized among suburban dwellers. I was present at the opening of this wondrous enterprise in 1998 and am delighted to learn periodically of its remarkable evolution. One element of this is the coming into being of Third Place Commons, co-created by a great friend of mine, Anne Stadler.

Among the many applications that I see for the fundamental notion that high quality relating arises through conversing are:

. The tenets of complexity science are realized. As are those of positive deviance.

. The meaning of 'Intelligence is a property of conversation' (Gordon Pask via Kathleen Forsythe) becomes more understandable.

. People are alive, inspired, connected, surprised, engaged, listened to, heard, empowered, responsible and open to possibility ...

. Being enlivened and banishing banality are key features of living.

In conclusion regarding this description of 'My Cybernetics'

There are particular elements of our humanity that I sense are worth knowing about. Among these are that we are emotioning and languaging creatures and that how we live is integrally influenced by how re respond to our emotioning in particular contexts through our languaging.

A nice example is the manner in which we pose 'Why' questions. For example, these can either express victimhood ie 'Why me?' or they can express curiosity ie 'Why does it work like this?' A fundamental difference it the emotioning that underpins the languaging.

This idea of R.D Laing's has long struck me as being intriguing - and potentially very useful - as an explanation of much of our human experience (We have explanations for everything, according to Humberto).

"The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds."

In my observation there are three huge elements of our 'modus operandi' as human 'beings' that we 'fail to notice' and, as a consequence, do not put into practice.

Our main 'failure to notice' as a species, in my opinion, is

"Whenever we treat each other well good things happen"

aka the implications of practising the Golden Rule.

I suggest that it is our habitual self 'put downs' - as individuals and communities - which underpin the tragedy of failing to notice this law of life.

Secondly we live as though naming something is the thing. If I call someone 'unfriendly' this implies that this is an inherent characteristic of the person.

What we fail to notice is that naming something is a only construct which serves our purposes as it absolves us from responsibility - after all 'the person is unfriendly. 'Nothing to do with me!'

Thirdly, something that Lucas has recently reminded me of and may well you too if you have the good fortune to be at his presentation at the great BCL Commemoration in Urbana shortly:

'It is the listener, not the speaker, who supplies meaning to an utterance.' From Heinz.

Would you agree that bringing these - and other - tenets of second order cybernetics to widespread attention world wide could make a substantial difference that matters?



In teaching cybernetics I use several mental schemas:

  1. I think the development of cybernetics can be described in three stages -- engineering cybernetics, biological cybernetics, and social cybernetics.

  2. I find I repeatedly use three models drawn from cybernetics -- regulation (two elements: regulator and system being regulated), self-organization (n elements within an informationally closed system), reflexivity (two levels of analysis -- observation and participation).

  3. I find that systems tend to be described using variables, ideas, groups, or events. These can be arranged in a circular pattern that illustrates both reflexivity and Mueller's epigenetic theory (genotype and phenotype). These different descriptions enable "operationalization" of cybernetics. However, each mode of description has different criteria for establishing validity. This does not cause conflict as long as the various descriptions are seen as part of a larger whole.

  4. The triangle -- world, description, observer -- shows the relationship among the three stages (see 1 above). Karl Mueller and I agree that "second order cybernetics" should apply to the whole triangle, not just "biological cybernetics."

Papers describing these ideas can be found on my website --



In fact I think that we must not try to define cybernetics too precisely. Cybernetics is to be. Anyway, for me the important thing is what I call « cybernetical systems », able, metaphorically or not, to perceive decide and act. Not only we have, in the words of Heinz von Foerster, observing systems, basis of second order cybernetics, but also « deciding systems » foundation of what I called « third order cybernetics » (1998), a part of « epistemo-praxiology ».

Barbara Dawes

A description of My Cybernetics can only be what my Cybernetics / cybernetics means to me.*

(For me, 'Cybernetics' is both a professional discipline (a perspective of scholars 'out there' that is learned) and it is also 'cybernetics,' a 'way' of being in the world .)



In my opinion, 'cybernetics' is about relations and not about the entities among which relations hold. Its context for concern is the pattern or network of relations integrating a set of componential entities as a distinctly behaving (and hence distinctly discerned) whole. Its focus thus becomes the domain of states or actions such a distinguished whole does or can manifest as a result of the relational space thus circumscribed. This is why I sometimes crudely describe the province of cybernetics as 'encapsulated causality' or 'contextualized determinism.'

It is this emphasis on the circumscribed that explains cybernetics' intrinsic preoccupation with circularity (in static descriptions) and recursion (in dynamic descriptions). In turn, cybernetics may be described as the field that (a) addresses circularities without going in circles and therefore (b) cannot accept 'loopy' as a pejorative term.

I suspect cybernetics will not be coherently defined or accepted as 'science' for so long as we continue to be unable to address relations (as opposed to entities) as the foreground subjects of reference and analysis. Ultimately nothing can be constructively explained about an entity without attention to why it is apprehended as entitative in the first place.


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