Cybernetics ...
  "the science and art of understanding"... - Humberto Maturana
  "interfaces hard competence with the hard problems of the soft sciences" - Heinz von Foerster


Pre-History of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants
BACK: History
THEME: Regulation and Control in Human Affairs

Governance - the Basis for the Term 'Cybernetics'   It is common to characterize 20th century cybernetics as the innovation which raised hopes and then fears about control and regulation of collective human affairs. This is incorrect in light of historical facts. Rancor over, and scholarly attention to, such social and political control had been going on for centuries. Watt's success at functional regulation of the steam engine set off the Industrial Revolution, but it was the shock of the attendant workplace regimentation (i.e., social regulation) which set off the Luddite insurgencies. There is no better illustration of this social dimension's relevance than the fact the writers first employing the label 'cybernetics' - over a century before Wiener - did so with respect to social rather than mechanical regulation.

In the early 19th century Andre Ampère, already noted in physics for his research on electricity, embarked on an effort to classify and categorize all human knowledge in terms of 'sciences'. This led to his 1834(?) volume Essai sur la philosophie des sciences, ou Exposition analytique d'une classification naturelle de toutes les connaissances humaines. In it, he returned to a steersman metaphor invoked by both Plato and Aristotle and created the term cybernétique to denote his envisioned science of government or 'art of governing.' Over a century later, after Wiener's recycling the metaphor in a different context, 'cybernétique' resurfaced as the French translaton of this latter 'cybernetics'.

No more than a decade afterward, the Polish philosopher Bronislaw Trentowski (coiner of the term 'intelligentsia') undertook a study of similarly grandiose scope. In this case, the subject was coordination or unification of all human activities under the direction of a manager. Trentowski foresaw this manager as having to be 'transdisciplinary' because no single discipline covered the range of knowledge requisite to such a task. Trentowski's vision was documented in an 1843 volume entitled Cybernetyka, subtitled "The relation of philosophy to cybernetics, or the art of how to govern a nation."

The Industrial Age was the Age of Scale, characterized by large enterprises populated by ever more compartmentalized specialists. Supervising operations of such scale was both novel and stressful for businesses, who immediately began their endless quest for ideas and guidance on how to run things. Initially they obtained clues and bought advice from the only sector with experience in large-scale operations - the military. Clausewitz was called in as the first 'name brand' management consultant, and the hierarchical command structure introduced at mid-century for the Austro-Hungarian army was adopted as the model for organizational structure. By 1900, supervision had diverged from ownership, and a new class of professional 'managers' was appearing.

Scientific approaches to managing scale pursued optimization via modeling, analysis, and planning. Demand for better such techniques escalated with the outbreak of World War II - Industrial Age warfare waged with corresponding mass and volume over great distances. In the UK, talented scientists were assigned to make bigger things run better than ever. They responded with cunning mathematical applications that would become the field of operations research.

Meanwhile, anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were exploring social regulatory mechanisms in a different sense and from a different angle. Their ethnographic work in southeastern Asia had given them an appreciation for the manner in which cultures manifested and preserved themselves via communications among their participants (e.g., via ceremonies and rituals). In particular, Bateson had spent much of the 1930's analyzing how reciprocal communications related to conflict escalation behaviors observed during his time in New Guinea.

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The Subject of Cybernetics

on the shoulders of giants
This essay contributed by Randall Whitaker, March 2003