Ben Sweeting’s Paper Proposal

Cybernetics of Practice

If cybernetics is primarily a way of understanding—of theorising or explaining—it is also closely related to how we act and so to practice. This is particularly evident in the performative aspects of cybernetic research, such as that of Grey Walter and Pask who played out their thinking using physical experimental devices. There are similarities between this and current thinking in design about practice-based research and this is one basis of the various collaborations between cybernetics and disciplines such as art, design and architecture (as explored by the ASC’s 2010 conference, Cybernetics: Art, Design, Mathematics, in Troy). Underlying these different connections is the way that the epistemology of cybernetics challenges the boundary between how we understand and how we act: (1) theory is itself something we construct and so a form of practice; (2) explanation and action are understood as integrated in a circular relationship with each other (as explored by the ASC’s 2013 conference, Acting-Learning-Understanding, in Bolton).

Recent ASC conferences have reflected on these themes and explored them in the conversational format of the conferences. This has drawn on the idea, as proposed by Mead to the ASC, that a cybernetic society could be run according to cybernetic insights. The principle legacy of this was the idea of second-order cybernetics, that cybernetics be applied to itself, as developed by von Foerster and others. The ASC has returned in recent years to the original context of Mead’s question to consider how a cybernetic society might be run cybernetically. This raises the question of what it means to act cybernetically: that is, in what ways does cybernetics lead to different ways of acting as well as different ways of explaining actions?

While we often distinguish those actions that are cybernetic in their structure (involving circular feedback) from those that are linear, this distinction is not always clearly maintainable. This is because cybernetics is not merely an account of one epistemology amongst others that might be adopted but of the basis of epistemology itself (that is, its account, while provisional, is not relativist). As von Foerster has argued, it makes more sense to speak of the cybernetics of epistemology rather than the epistemology of cybernetics. We can, therefore, explain even the most un-cybernetic and linear of actions in cybernetic terms, including their weaknesses but also the contexts where they are valuable (for instance, while in the process of designing the ambiguity of a drawing is an important part of sustaining design conversations, less ambiguous coded communication is more useful when specifying construction information). There is an apparent neutrality to cybernetics which can also be found in its epistemological and ethical ideas: it leaves open the possibility of contrasting explanations being equally viable (such as where radical constructivism insists on its own undecidability); its ethical implications stress that we should concern ourselves with our own conduct rather than with that of others, implying reticence over advocating one action over another.

This, however, does not mean that the relationship between cybernetics and practice is a neutral one. Explaining any action in cybernetic terms changes how we continue to act. For instance, while we can choose to explain the same action in terms of its goal being intrinsic or extrinsic to it and whether we have included ourselves in it or not, this different explanation results in our continuing action being different. That is, the choice of explanation makes a difference in practice because, in cybernetic terms, explanation is a part of practice. This is an example of the sort of circularity, familiar from examples such as steering, where we take how we understand what we have done as the basis for how we continue to act and so where our actions are interdependent with how we explain them. From this cybernetic perspective, we can see how some ways of acting, by fixing goals in advance, obscure the possibilities of pursuing intrinsic goals, of taking responsibility and of including others. While cybernetics does not necessarily imply that we act in more elaborately cybernetic ways (such as involving more complex or explicit feedback mechanisms), it therefore has clear implications for practice beyond just how its insights might be instrumentally applied.

Cybernetic traditions:

  • 7) Art; design; music; literature
  • 3) Experimental epistemology; constructivism; philosophy of science

5 thoughts on “Ben Sweeting’s Paper Proposal

  1. Michael Hohl

    I think this abstract reads very well thought through and takes a critical and comprehensive approach. It gives an overview of historical examples, includes ethics and creates a very appropriate connection between theorising, acting and practice-led enquiries in design. The ideas and different perspectives are all there, what i am missing a bit is considering the scope. What is it that the text wishes to enquire? What do you want to find out or understand better? That might be a short paragraph at the end of the abstract.

  2. Ranulph Glanville

    I like especially your 3rd paragraph which I think is a very useful summary and which I find very helpful as an alternative to my explanation which tends to talk about the more general (in the sense that Einstein’s mechanics is more general that Newton’s): I see C1 as C2 with the circularity downgraded to the (physically) dismissible feedback.

    I do agree with Michael: I wonder where the critique leaves us? Perhaps you could add that paragraph Michael suggests.

  3. Ben Sweeting

    Thanks both for your helpful comments! I don’t quite have that paragraph yet but I have been trying to sharpen the argument/ question as I work on the paper.

    The key issue I am trying to address is what, if anything, is non-neutral about what cybernetics brings to practice – whether, as well as inform us, expand possibilities, help us understand, it also leads to a preference for acting in one set of ways over others – or, in other words, what sorts of actions, if any, follow from cybernetics rather than the question of which actions are cybernetic in their structure.

    I’m particularly interested in how such an argument can be made given the neutrality of cybernetic ideas about ethics. I think its possible to make arguments in favour of cybernetic actions on instrumental grounds in terms of, say, how circularity helps us handle complexity and is therefore useful. But this is an argument leading to cybernetics rather than following from it, if that makes sense. I think things do follow from cybernetics though, and in particular from the circular relation of action and explanation, and that this has consequences in ethics (a critique of consequentialism…) and design (a critique of the return to automation in BIM and parametrics…).

  4. Tom Scholte

    Very exciting discussion. I am very much looking forward to seeing how it manifests itself in this paper and how similar issues are unpacked during the Cybernetics in the Future portion of the conference. I must admit that, on one (perhaps superficial) level, I find questions about the consequences of “failing to act cybernetically” puzzling in themselves. Isn’t it actually impossible to not act cybernetically in a strict sense given that responding to feedback while “steering” our way through our environment in pursuit of our immediate, short, and long-term goals (making sure, of course, to maintain homeostasis along the way) is intrinsically what we do as human beings? Perhaps I’m simply stating the obvious and/or reinforcing what Ben has already stated but isn’t it really what we each choose to DO with a cybernetic awareness of ourselves that is at issue? My understanding of Beer’s work it makes it seem as if at least some level of attenuation of variety is always necessary for any imaginable system to remain viable (starting with or own biological selves and our visible/audible spectra). What it comes down to is how much control (and over what) we want (or need) any system of our own making, or in which we participate, to exert. I’m fairly new to this field but I haven’t yet found anything explicit within it to guide us on these matters beyond von Foerste’rs admonition for us to “act always so as to increase the number of choices.”. I’m hopeful that we can all live out this advice as much as possible but we may need other epistemologies/philosophies to help us get there.

  5. Ben Sweeting

    Hi Tom, thanks for your helpful comment, I am starting from a similar puzzlement but also a desire to move beyond the comfort of neutrality. As I see it, taking a neutral position in ethics, such as that of von Foerster, is not a neutral thing to do and is not the same as avoiding the question, which some of von Foerster’s powerful rhetoric (“ethics cannot be articulated”) sometimes leads us to.


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