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: Treating Relationships in terms of 'Communication'

'Communication' as Illustrative Metaphor and Communications Research as a Source of Inspiration   Wiener's landmark 1948 definition of cybernetics was 'the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine.' In the earlier subsections on cybernetics' prehistory we have examined 'control', both with respect to machines and in human affairs. It is now time to consider the 'communication' portion of his definition. In one or another form, 'communication' deserves to be considered one of the seminal themes in the origin of cybernetics. In particular, 'communication' influenced cybernetics' coalescence in two distinct yet equally important senses:

  • The first sense was the invocation of 'communication' as a descriptive metaphor for addressing functional interrelationships within and among dynamic systems.
  • The second sense was the distillation of general principles from analyses of dynamics in (e.g.) interpersonal communications and communication technologies.

Let us review these two aspects in turn...

'Communication' as Descriptive Metaphor   One primary issue in analyzing systems and systemic behavior is how to address functional interrelationships within and among dynamic systems. For purely mechanical systems, this is a matter of specifying the physical interactions among components (e.g., the physical interrelationships among the gears in a clockwork). As mentioned earlier, there was a general commitment to an explanatory orientation of 'mechanism' among the originators of cybernetics, but this didn't mean a commitment to mechanistic explanations framed solely with regard to physical factors.

It was therefore crucial to establish a means for addressing functional interrelationships at a level of abstraction that could encompass the non-physical features of systemic operation. Only by such allusion to the non-physical could the early cyberneticians come to grips with the interrelationships and interactions among components of systems such as (e.g.) electronic devices, artificial neuronal networks, and human societies.

The solution was to invoke 'communication' as a descriptive and analytical metaphor. In terms of communicational 'vehicle', this meant framing interrelationships in terms of signals, channels, and routing. In terms of communicational 'content', this meant framing things in terms of signs, signification, and pragmatics. In terms of both, the stage was set for the adoption of Shannon's 'information theory' as a key influence in early cybernetics. To us nowadays this may seem obvious, straightforward, and hence somewhat trivial. However, we must bear in mind that we're blinded to the revolutionary nature of this approach because we've been immersed in the 'information-oriented age' that subsequently ensued.

The events and developments making 'communication' a rich metaphor to employ stretch far back into history. In the earliest stages, attention to such immaterial interaction was the province of academics and philosophers. The notion that communicational content entailed a formal and hence exploitable structure can be traced back to Aristotle's initial formulation of rules for discursive logic in the 5th century BC and Chrysippus' invention of propositional logic two centuries later. The notion of an abstract realm influencing material events dates back to Plato. With respect to individual cognitive processes, this notion became operationalized in modern Western thought with Descartes' cleavage of 'soul' from 'body' and Locke's formulation of 'idea' in the colloquial sense we use today. Leibniz popularized the notion of abstract logical forms as determinative for all phenomena by around 1700. Berkeley's and Vico's emphases on personal interpretations of phenomena opened the door to considering abstractions as the bases for perception and cognition (i.e., the systemic operations of human mentation) - a development reified in Kant's distinction between noumena and phenomena.

Through the 19th century and into the 20th, this philosophical examination of communicative interrelationships expanded to consider the mechanisms and methods of communication. Prior to the 19th century, distance communication was essential a matter of disseminating texts, and analysis of communicative media was essentially limited to such texts. In the early 1800's philosophers like Dilthey and Schleiermacher generalized the study of hermeneutics (theretofore analysis of Biblical texts for religious insight) to address the full range of textual communications. Boole, De Morgan, and Babbage contributed to a framework for mechanizing logic during the 1830's. Ada Lovelace then realized that automated logic processing could be applied to all symbols, not just mathematical ones. By the end of the 19th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce had equated signs and symbols with mentation and communication in the course of producing his rigorous framework of significations. In combination with Saussure's work in the early 1900's, this set the stage for the development of formal semiotics.

Now, what has all of this philosophizing to do with modern cybernetics? Its primary significance derives from the manner in which its motifs and themes influenced events relating to the development and proliferation of communications technologies. With the invention of the telegraph (Morse, 1837) we see the introduction of realtime distance communications and all its attendant issues. One issue was the creation of formal systems of codes and procedures to effect these new communications. For one thing, this brought technologists into the circle of people concerned with meaningful abstractions. For another thing, this marked the first widespread influence of everyday activities by abstract coded messaging (as contrasted with interpersonal verbalizations). Such coding schemes and their implementation became part and parcel of the machine and social regulatory innovations previously cited as major themes. These schemata provided a basis for dealing with 'information' (in the colloquial sense) across a range of disciplines and endeavors.

In other words, by the early 1940's the 'cybernetics group' could draw (literally or metaphorically) on a sophisticated set of concepts and frameworks in addressing the abstracted or non-physical interactions within and among the systems they were addressing.

'Communications' as Source of Inspiration   Another important thematic influence of 'communications' was the distillation of general principles from analyses of dynamics in (e.g.) interpersonal communications and communication technologies. By the early 1940's this 'communication' motif afforded a basis for conversations among the various people poised to launch a new transdisciplinary field. It gave the social science participants (e.g., Mead and Bateson) a context in which to relate their interests and work to the more technologically-oriented context in which (e.g.) McCulloch's and Wiener's work was framed. Moreover, much of the engineering research supplying inspirational metaphors in the form of 'closed-loop circuits' and 'feedback' (as well as formalisms for explaining such things) had recently arrived from the area of communications technology and engineering.

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The Subject of Cybernetics

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