The actions and interactions of ASC and its members constitute the 'wavefront' of cybernetics as we move into the 21st Century.

ASC contributions to the promotion and evolution of cybernetics...

ABOUT THESE CONTRIBUTIONS   In anticipation of the 1997 ASC Conference a number of perspectives on cybernetics were solicited for the website. This page offers the set of perspectives contributed by the people who responded to that solicitation, as well as perspectives contributed in subsequent years.

ASC members wishing to add their own perspectives to this evolving set should Contact the Webmaster.


Donna Reese
creativity can't not
do it can't do it
on purpose

follow the present
mix intention present tense
only the present
where power is

deeper into what
is to see what

like steering a boat to the other shore over there out there how do
we get there
elements surrounding senses filling one moment between moments
combine these back to whole that they are
by being here a nervous system
making preferences
finding ourselves
being and doing
or not doing
this or

it is this

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Cristina Magro
With the development of SECOND ORDER CYBERNETICS and its EPISTEMOLOGY, the understanding of what happens between the participants in the COMMUNICATIVE DOMAIN in terms of languaging (and not of LANGUAGE) is compelling.

The western philosophical and scientific traditions have created and worked with the idea of language as an autonomous combinatorial SYSTEM of SYMBOLs and RULEs, which constrain the combinations producing grammatical sentences. This abstract construct is seen, in a great extent, as previously given to individuals as a SPECIES specific property. It depends on two basic notions:

a) the one of REPRESENTATION, in a twofold way: signs and symbols are said to represent things in the world, mediating symbolically between these and concepts and feelings represented themselves in our minds. According to this way of looking, this double conformity is what responds for adequate BEHAVIOR, linguistic or other, and for COMMUNICATION between individuals that "possess" the same language. This leads us to talk about the imperfections of language to represent non-linguistic worlds.

b) the one of CORRESPONDENCE, which responds for the distinction between pairs like literal / METAPHORical sentences or expressions, TRUTH / false statements, mind dependent / mind independent reality, and a whole architecture of dichotomies within which we have got used to live and reason, to the point of finding it our natural way.

As the Second Order Cybernetics claims the OBSERVER to be part of the systems and thus of processes we call "cognitive", and as the observer is described in terms of AUTOPOIESIS, our dependence on this early notion of language is a Gordian knot to be cut here. From Maturana (1978, 1988 and 1989) as well as from Maturana and Varela (1987), we understand that what happens between human beings in a linguistic domain is a recursive history of consensual coordinations of consensual coordinations of actions, along which emerge the world of objects and symbols we live in, together with what we call meaning, consciousness, reasoning. These, the western tradition treat as abstract entities and not as processes, as it is of our interest here. This way of looking allows us to understand:

a) our experience of living in language, as legitimately including both the interpretive variability between individuals and also within the same subject, as well as the experience of interpretive congruence;

b) the networks of conversations we participate in along life as prior texts (see A. L. Becker, 1988 and 1991) we reweave contingently, bringing history and circumstances into our understanding of language;

c) our communicative difficulties as overcome only through conversational effort -- as opposed to the belief that an observer independent reality is a resource that validates our beliefs, and that sentences or texts constructed according to the rules of a language per se carry meanings which should be instantaneously apprehended by efficient hearers.

The idea of languaging is thus a challenge and at the same time a hope for those who have lived in language aware of language.

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Conversation Theory
Paul Pangaro
This piece was written at the request of Frank Galuszka, President, American Society for Cybernetics, in May 1996, and published in monograph format as Communication and Anti-communication. The piece attempts to capture, in every-day language, the breadth of Conversation Theory as purveyed by Gordon Pask. Although it was not explicit in the publication, a sub-title could be, "Conversation Theory in Two Pages."

A: 'Without conversation, there is nothing (no thing).'

B: 'Doesn't that imply, "In the beginning, was the conversation" ?'

As observing beings, we learn what we learn by interacting with our environment: the spaces, objects, processes and others-who-are-also-observing all around us. Construing these interactions as "conversations", whether with our friends or our pet fish, is highly useful in both metaphorical and formal ways.

Metaphorically speaking, we "converse" with everything in our environment. We "offer our views" as we act, re-act and think. The environment "speaks to us" in the sense that we interpret it. We respond to what we hear and see and feel, in an exchange that has the structure of a dialogue in language.

More formally, the term "conversation" was used by Gordon Pask and others in the body of work called Conversation Theory, which formalizes concepts such as agreement, understanding, and consciousness. Each of these concepts (as well as the concept "concept") exists in relation to conversation.

For us to understand each other, there are minimum requirements. We may both utter the word "cup" or "happiness" or "cybernetics", but, what is required for each of us to know we agree on the meaning? A conversation, surely. You explicate how a cup is used, and what it is for. I hear your views, re-compute your perspectives, and come as close as I can get to your meaning of "cup." But is your meaning (or, to say it more carefully, my view of your meaning) consistent with my own, pre-existing view? Are there conflicts? And that is only the half of it. After I exteriorize _my_ view of why a cup is what it is and how it is used, does your view of my view of a cup resonate (and not conflict) with your original view? In summary, if we resonate together in our views of "cup", then (as named by Conversation Theory) we have "agreement over an understanding" - in both metaphorical and formal terms.

This perspective is consonant with Maturana's concept of language as "consensual coordination of consensual coordination of actions." It is in language, and via conversation, that we live together. In that living, and through agreement, we share perspectives and merge into fractal communities of relations, friends, clubs, schools of thought and entire cultures. Insofar as we share our similarities and (for a moment) ignore our differences, we merge with other participants in conversation and lose our individuality in exchange for "becoming one with others", at least in the cognitive domain.

This shared awareness, or consciousness, is an outcome of conversation. It is a state that persists beyond the individual. According to Pask, consciousness is conserved in the same strict scientific sense that matter and energy are conserved in the transformations of physics. And, much as Heisenberg uncertainty informs us about the physical realm, Conversation Theory speaks of how certain we can be of what we know about each other.

And what of the taciturn world of trees and sky, stones and water (particles and electrons)? How do we know anything about these things? How are they distinguished and their properties observed? Though "on our own" we evoke a conversation between these elements, just to be able to see them: figure and ground, boundary and body, identity and exchange. Perhaps the elements of our perceptual field do not, by one meaning of the term, converse; but as observers we trace a dialogue from one side to the other, looping around and across the boundaries we create. Carrying utterances about "harder on this side, swifter on that side" in an interaction that we give breath to, we compare and contrast the two (or more) sides. We invoke a point-of-view for each side, inventing participants in conversation. By this process we construct our understanding of all the elements, based in their relationship to each other.

By this explanation it appears that we learn what we learn through the interactions we construct. Conversation is the basis of all that we know. Hence cybernetics, which is itself a formal inquiry into what we can know and how we know it, is always concerned with conversations.

One further thought about what arises through conversation, in this looping-around across perspectives that constructs what we know. If instead of observing a relationship of objects in our environment, we take a position of observing ourselves in conversation with others, a similar phenomenon occurs: the participants in the conversation are defined by the looping-around. Our features, feelings, opinions, boundaries, differences are computed by the interaction. Thus we find ourselves being constructed (defined, identified, distinguished) _by_ that conversation. From this point-of-view, our selves emerge as a consequence of conversation. Expressed more fully, conversation and identity arise together.

A: 'So without conversation, there is no self-and-other.'

B: 'But can you also say that the conversation creates the observer and the observer creates the conversation?'

These sentences are, themselves, observer statements. Cybernetics, the science of describing, offers to place such circular and self-reflexive utterances in their scientific context: the inevitable consequence of the actions of observing systems.

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Larry Richards
Cybernetics in engineering has to date been primarily of the first-order variety, dealing with "control and communication in the animal and the machine." Whether it be in applications to computer design, adaptive control mechanisms, automation and robotics, coding, communication systems, human factors engineering, bionics, biomedical devices, or software engineering, principle concepts of interest have been information theory, methods for dynamic simulation, linear and non-linear systems theory, optimal control theory, statistical communication theory, and various approaches to artificial intelligence.

This emphasis on first-order concepts is perhaps appropriate, given that when we design devices, we want them to exhibit high degrees of stability and reliability. They are to be systems that, when we observe them, behave in precise and predictable ways, unlike what we might want when we "design" human or social systems. With the advent of human engineering, social engineering, and engineering management, some second-order concepts are beginning to creep into engineering discourse--e.g., organizational closure, autonomy, structural drift, plasticity, phenomenal domains, awareness, self-consciousness, and dialogic process.

These concepts provide a way of conceptualizing creativity and surprise as desirable attributes of systems involving humans. In the United States, the main literary source on cybernetics in engineering is the IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics (IEEE is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers). Prominent among recent topics in this journal are genetic algorithms, fuzzy sets, Petri nets, neural networks, artificial life, and chaos theory, with applications to discrete event simulation, flexible manufacturing, knowledge representation, data fusion, fault detection/tolerance, digital imaging, learning automata, remote sensing, and robotic manipulators.

The term "cybernetics" is much more prominent in European (both East and West) and East Asian engineering journals, where it is also more broadly interpreted than it is in American journals. However, it is the rare article indeed that employs any second-order concepts.

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Bunny Kaufman
Embodiment is a manner of living, not a "talking about." For me, one way embodiment is lived is through behaviors I call Mothering. As I grow older, I discover more and more that it is the ordinary, the common, that truly endures and influences our lives. It is in that realization that the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Frequently we experience something so often that we take it for granted. Only later do we realize that it has always been an important and sometimes foundational part of our lives. Mothering is in that category. I use the term Mothering as a metaphor for Living in Love - or living in a domain of unconditional acceptance. Humberto Maturana defines love as: "the domain of those behaviors through which the other arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself." Much of my understanding of what I call Mothering was stimulated by my study of Maturana's exploration of the evolution, development and perpetuation of the human species.

My selection of the term Mothering may be viewed as controversial by some. However, it is deliberate and intended to counter the negative connotation the expression "mothering" now has. The expression "Mothering" has frequently been used in very pejorative ways. Mothering has been portrayed as the unwanted, smothering, controlling and manipulating behavior of one's mother. It has been viewed and verbalized as intrusive acts in an adult child's life. I do not share that opinion. Further, I do not consider Mothering to be gender specific or necessarily associated with motherhood.

All mothers are women. However, Mothering can be done, and is done, by both men and women. In the American culture, and in most cultures around the world, the functions of attending to and raising a child are performed by women. Not all men want to raise children. Men, however, are biologically and emotionally able to be as loving and nurturing as Mothering women. Culture and society in many cases have taken that privilege from men through negative reinforcement.

I use the word Mothering in the widest possible context. The term could apply to any interaction between people. It also includes other living organisms. However, it has become clear to me that it is the Mothering that takes place in the home between the Mothering parent and child that sets a child on the path s/he will follow for the rest of his or her life. Whoever does the Mothering of a child becomes that child's mirror - the way the child views his or her worth in the world.

The first relationship we have in life is with our mother. We know her and she knows us even before we make an appearance on this earth. Regardless of how our lives proceed, the mother-child relationship is the closest relationship we will ever have with another human being. And too, once born, the relationship we have with the person who Mothers us, be that person male or female, is foundational in our experience of loving ourselves and loving others. Mothering is so quiet as to go unnoticed - so loud as to be heard forever. Mothering is the essence of our humanity. It is at the same time the most simple and most complex of human emotioning. It is profound.

Mothering is a manner of living. It is not about giving to or doing for another. It is an emotional framework that includes both the self and other. It is living in a place of openness, and, by virtue of your manner of living, issuing an invitation to others to meet you there. It is a place of non-judgment. It is a place of absolute safety. It is a willingness, a desire, to accept others at face value. It does not urge you to agree or disagree with someone else's way of life or to "fix" what is wrong. To think Mothering is about doing is to engage in simulated mothering. Like all simulations, it may look like the real thing, but it is a staged production for public consumption. It is self-serving.

I have learned that to meet others without judgment, one must be without self-judgment. Judgment of others is self-judgment and in many cases a projection. Mothering does not mean that we must like all the behaviors we encounter. Mothering is in the recognition of a particular behavior as being what it is and acknowledging that there are particular consequences attendant to those behaviors. Mothering does not mean that we must live in a false state of perpetual happiness. It does not mean that we can never feel angry, or sad. It is only in openly being able to bring every emotion to another that it is possible to live in love. If we come to another without feeling the safety to be open in our emotioning, then what do we have? A game? A dance? How can we be in a loving relationship if we feel it necessary to hide part of ourselves? I would say we cannot.

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Unclosed Loops
Paul Schroeder
Mutual Orientation in Public Spaces

During the past several years a theme has been resounding for me. When the theme comes to mind it is marked by the phrase "unclosed loops."

An approach to thinking cybernetically about unclosed loops is what I am attempting here. To not make this attempt would itself mark a refusal to close a loop launched by the invitation to provide a lesson in cybernetics from "art, library science or daily life." An invitation to which I had agreed to respond.

Loops and their closing are central to cybernetics, the art of "communication and control in machines and living organisms." Without some contact with cybernetic thought it is likely I would not be able to see this phenomenon at all.

Unclosed loops are a source of pain. Refusal to respond when in a communicative context is often, but not always, based on a decision to cause pain. It may be claimed that the decision is out of one's control; deciding to cause this pain may simply be habitual.

Counterpart to such refusals are what are termed "breakdowns of communication." The breakdown may be a purely accidental and unforseen failure of a physical channel. Imagine that you and I agreed to meet in a public place at a given time, for whatever purpose. And you or I have had a flat tire; and we have not established a backup communications plan. The result: confusion, panic, anger, resignation, concern. These are names for emotions which build within to complete a loop that suddenly stands unclosed.

Not all of what passes for communication requires direct response. Our environment is filled with broadcast signalling. Here is an example: a dapper gentleman in gray moustache and dark suit walks a city sidewalk with his cane carried lightly against his shoulder; the cane is tipped with a three-inch steel spike. This is a broadcast signal.

Broadcast signals exclude direct loops. The gentleman knows his signal is received whenever he is not attacked. The advertisers know their signals are received when the dollars pour in.

The absence of adequate public feedback mechanisms and the willful design of signal systems which allow only implicit closure is central to violence in our time. This situation also points to a working definition of the "information poor," a new underclass of which we are all members.

What does cybernetics recommend? Grounded both in the realms of engineering and in cognition, a cybernetician may attempt to build a "dialogical machine" which allows contextual and indirect loops, and further encourages the construction of directly closed loops. A second-order cybernetician might see this as a "participant observatory." Construction of participant observatories is the project of the second cybernetics.

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General Systems Theory
Larry Richards
I describe the approach of General Systems Theory (GST) as one that focuses on the purposiveness of systems. That is, the way to study (and learn and know and understand) a system is to identify its purpose in the context of an environment and to draw conclusions about the behavior of the system from the relations between it and its environment. Because all systems of any consequence are purposeful or purposive, isomorphic mappings across system types, and hence across disciplines, become possible and desirable. What is learned in one discipline from the point of view of systems theory can be generalized to other disciplines.

In modern cybernetics, the observer serves as the starting point for inquiry. The observer is treated as integral to the system being observed (experienced), creating closure in the dynamics of observation and action. (We can't view a system from some external standpoint.) What we observe as behavior is a consequence of the dynamics of operation of our cognitive structure; this is not a mapping between a system and its environment, nor between an observer and its environment. What we accept as reality is a system of explanations that conserve our living as humans. This is not a purposive system, simply one (of many) that arises out of our language and interaction with each other. As humans, we live in language, and all that we know and understand we do in language. With interaction in language arises awareness and self-consciousness, and with self-consciousness arises the concept of purpose, the idea that we can be deliberate in our action. In this context, to use the word purpose as a descriptor of a system is to project this quality we attribute to ourselves as humans to the system being observed. While this is often a useful way of explaining behavior, cybernetics wants to ensure that we are aware of what we are doing when we do that.

While the rise of complex adaptive systems and self-organization has created some overlaps of interest between those who claim to be studying modern cybernetics and those who claim to be studying GST, there are still some fundamental distinctions between the two. The concept of closure in cybernetic explanation/description implies that all phenomena are self-organizing in some way or another, although we may choose not to describe them that way; in this case, self-organization does not become a distinguishing characteristic of anything except when we choose to use it. In GST, systems can be described as open to an environment, so that self-organization characterizes some systems and not others. In cybernetics, self-organization and dissipation are the same process from different perspectives.

In modern cybernetics, complex adaptation is a process whereby an organism alters its structure in response to perturbations to its dynamics of operation in such a way as to conserve its dynamics of operation as a living entity. In GST, complex adaptation is a process whereby an organism alters its structure in response to changes in its environment; the openness of the organism to this environment permits a relational arrangement between system variables (organism) and environment variables. In cybernetics, any distinction between system and environment is a part of the (closed) cognitive structure of an observer, and cannot describe the adaptation of the observer herself. The explanation of adaptation must be in the dynamics of operation of the observer, not in relational arrangements with an environment. It is our language--the language in which we live, and the logic(s) embedded therein, that makes this necessary.

GST is useful as a way of thinking about phenomena as an external observer, particularly physical phenomena or phenomena that can be treated as though they are a part of a physical reality. My interest in modern cybernetics stems from an interest and concern with human phenomena, interaction between humans, and the human predicament. I find this approach quite useful (and desirable) as a way of thinking about language, conversation, awareness, self-consciousness, choice and decisionmaking, participation, thought and ways of thinking themselves. The recursive aspect of a way of thinking about ways of thinking renders cybernetics a dynamic way of thinking--constantly changing. It does not and cannot seek absolute truth, and as such is not a science in the usual sense. Biology may be the only area of inquiry where science has made some sense out of this, and in so doing has transformed biology as a science. GST (unless it has changed a lot since I was involved with it) assumes that the world can be known, and that with that knowledge, we can realize our purpose in it. It is not clear to me how GST differs from modern science in this respect.

I'm sure that I can be corrected on my characterizations of these fields, particularly GST. I welcome comments.

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Art of Living
Ernst von Glasersfeld
When I compiled the "Declaration of the ASC" in 1983, I wrote:

This was true above all for those cyberneticians who focused on the philosophical, psychological, and social implications of the notion of self-regulation rather than on its applications in electronics and engineering. Heinz von Foerster coined the term "Second-order Cybernetics" to characterize the method of investigation that included the observer/actor as essential part of the phenomena that were being studied. "Objectivity in the traditional sense" he said. "is the delusion that it is not a delusion. It is the cognitive version of the physiological blind spot: we do not see what we do not see. Objectivity is a subject's delusion that observing can be done without him. Involving objectivity is abrogating responsibility, hence its popularity"

Humberto Maturana generalized the same idea in the now famous phrase: "Everything said is said by an observer." And Gregory Bateson formulated what to me is still the most fundamental principle of our way of thinking and explaining: "The classical example of this type of explanation is the theory of evolution under natural selection. According to this theory, those organisms which were not both physiologically and environmentally viable could not possibly have survived. Therefore evolution always followed the pathways of viability. In cybernetic language, the course of events is said to be subject to restraints"

If this sounds too abstract and complicated, think of the good old thermostat. In an air conditioning system, for instance, you set the temperature you want, and you expect the thermostat to maintain it. Actually, this is not exactly what the thermostat does. When it senses a temperature above the set reference value, it switches on the cooling mechanism, and when it senses a temperature below the mark, it switches on the heating. Thus, there is a range of temperatures, where the thermostat does nothing. This is its area of equilibrium between the two constraints. The thermostat was the favorite example in explanations of cybernetics. It is usually presented as a gadget that controls conditions in its environment.

This was an observer's view and quite misleading from the controlling gadget's own perspective. As Bill Powers put it in the title of his 1973 book, "Behavior, the Control of Perception" cybernetic mechanisms operate on the basis of sensory feedback and try to control their own sensations. They know nothing of an environment, they merely act to maintain their equilibrium.

This principle is remarkably powerful because it has a large range of applications. On the one hand, it makes possible the model of epistemology that has become known as "constructivism" and that views knowledge, not as a representation of reality but as the repertoire of cognitive constructs that prove to be viable in the knower's experiential world. On the other hand, the principle of equilibrium within constraints, provides a useful approach to practical activities such as teaching. It suggests that students see no reason to learn something new in situations which, they feel, they can handle to their own satisfaction using ideas and methods they already have. - Too often teachers (especially in the sciences) forget that students are autonomous, thinking creatures who have learned to cope with problems in context-specific ways that may be incompatible with the generalized knowledge they are now to be taught.

Speaking for myself, the principle of cybernetics embodies an essential directive in the art of living: rather than worry about unalterable constraints, invent and pursue desirable possibilities in whatever space you have between them.

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Human Understanding
Humberto Maturana
I proposed the phrase "The Art and Science of Human Understanding" for cybernetics. Why? The person that guides the ship, the skipper, acts both on practical know-how and intuition. Thus, the skipper acts both as a scientist and as an artist.

Understanding a system requires both intuition as a gestaltic grasping of the systemic coherences of the system under consideration, and the seeing of the structural (causal) coherences of the locality where the observer stands. Understanding further involves relating these two different operational perspectives in a manner that, although not deductive, shows the dynamic connectedness of any part of the system to the dynamic totality that the system is. So, to the extent that cybernetics has to do with the handling of systems, as well as with explaining them scientifically as they arise in our understanding as observers, I call cybernetics the art and science of understanding. If this sounds psychological, that is to me no problem because explanations are manners of interpersonal relations, and science itself is a manner of living together in the club of scientists.

I think that to call science rational and art emotional is not adequate because both entail the total operation of the human being in the particular braidings of emotioning and languaging, that art and science are, as networks of conversations."

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ASC contributions to the promotion and evolution of cybernetics...