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
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THEME: A Systemic Perspective on the Subject Matter

Treating Things as 'Systems'   Cybernetics is often contrasted with 'general systems theory' (GST). Although there are distinctions that can be drawn between the two fields, the fact remains that both are predicated on the notion of 'system'. In the case of cybernetics the construct of 'system' is crucial, because it circumscribes the constituted entity or set of entities for which dynamic processes and interactions are analyzed.

Although the term 'system' didn't became ubiquitous until the mid-20th century, the concept had been lurking in various corners of academia, philosophy, and science for centuries. This notion of 'system' is fairly well circumscribed by its colloquial connotation of a discernible entity which consists of a finite set of constituent components. Trivially, this construct can be applied to anything constituted of parts. The non-trivial, and hence the interesting, 'systems' are those in which the components actively participate in the constitution, configuration, and behavior of their collective set seen as a whole. The dynamics of these components' interactions, combined with the distinct set of interactions between their collective 'whole' and an environment, make for two domains of behaviors relevant to understanding that 'system'. This is part of the basis for the cliche, "The whole is more than the sum of its parts" - an observaton that can be traced back to Aristotle in the 5th century BC.

Over the centuries the term 'system' appeared here and there, but typically to denote an ordered collection of natural or textual entities such as laws, propositions, theses, philosophies, texts, curricula, geological features, celestial bodies, etc. Insofar as such collections were figuratively no more than the sum of their parts, the term's significance was considerably less than we accord it today.

By the time of the Industrial Revolution the scale of operations in governments, businesses, and technologies had reached a point where things could best be addressed and managed in terms of coordinated collections of components. The appearance of networked communications in the form of the telegraph and the telephone impelled researchers and practitioners to address both the technologies and the activities they facilitated as 'systems'. During this same era the biological sciences in particular exploited the notion of 'system' to describe and explain diverse subjects ranging from the functional constituents of a healthy body to the composite of all life evolved on earth. As a result, much of the early 'systems thinking' was labeled 'organismic' at the time. Finally, the complexity of individual technological artifacts increasingly required their appraisal as 'systems' rather than unary objects.

In the century leading up to the 1940's there was an accelerating wave of allusions to 'system'. It was with respect to the construct of a 'system' that Bogdanov outlined his vision of an integrated world circa 1912. The notion of 'homeostasis' proposed by Bernard in the 1850's and elaborated by Cannon in the late 1920's implied a dynamic 'system' being thus characterized. The idealistic holism promoted by Smuts (1929) relied on a view of the world (and even the universe) as a system. The characteristic whole / part distinction of 'systems' was a prominent theme in German gestalt psychology throughout the 1920's. Ludwig von Bertalanffy first started lecturing on systems in the general sense during the late 1930's. In 1941 Andras Angyal's Foundations for a Science of Personality brought systemic philosophy to psychology. By the time the founders of cybernetics first met, the construct of 'system' was a de facto part of their lexicon.

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The Subject of Cybernetics

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