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Science of Communications and Control within Systems – Choice over Instinct

Cybernetics is the science of control and communications in animals, including humankind, and machines. 

The study of cybernetics has been used in various ways since ancient times to attempt to explain and understand and manage the effective workings of all manner of systems - social, organisational, animal, mechanical, electronic and others. As such, the cybernetics concept (notably 'the first law of cybernetics') is immensely relevant to the modern development of management, and one's own role and potential within systems of all kinds.

The organisation in which we work; the world in which we live; the people around us - these are all systems.

The 'first law of cybernetics' has massive significance especially in understanding and developing greater individual self-determination; and greater understanding, tolerance and variety of responses to situations and people around us; which are all essential for our ability to interact and respond effectively within work and beyond.

The 'first law of cybernetics' is arguably one of the most powerful maxims for living a happy productive and successful life.

And while 'successful' is of course a matter for individual interpretation, cybernetics provides the key to achieving it, whatever your interpretation might be. It's a very very powerful concept - in a way cybernetics is the science of thoughtful choice over unquestioning instinct:

The 1st Law of Cybernetics

"The unit within the system with the most behavioural responses available to it controls the system."

This is also known as 'the law of requisite variety', which is central to the concepts of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

Cybernetics is also very relevant to Nudge theory - a powerful change-management methodology which emerged in the 2000s.

History and Overview

As stated above, the word cybernetics is from the Greek word 'kubernetes' meaning 'steersman' or 'pilot'. This literal translation embodies much of the modern relevance of the cybernetics principles.

Cybernetics as a popularised (such as it is) science and term in this sense seems generally to be attributed (according to Chambers notably) to Norbert Wiener, 1894-1964, an American mathematician (amongst other capabilities). Wiener was part of a group of very brainy people with various specialisms (psychology, mathematics, sociology, philosophy, knowledge management), including Stefan Odobleja, Arturo Rosenblueth, Julian Bigelow, Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, who seem to have been at the centre of cybernetics theorising around 1940, much based in France, where Wiener's work was first published. 

Other reference sources cite earlier origins and use of the word cybernetics (or translated equivalent) dating back to Plato, 428-348BC, in which he used the term in 'Republic' to describe systems of government. More recently others used the cybernetics term prior and closer to Wiener's ideas, notably André-Marie Ampère, 1775-1836, he of electromagnetism fame, and later Louis Couffignal, 1902-1966, a French 'cybernetics pioneer'. In short, the study of control and response to complex systems has been keeping great minds busy for thousands of years, and Wiener seems to regarded as the chief modern architect.

Particularly Wiener appears to have combined the main contributory cybernetics perspectives which have been developed by many and various people over the past two thousand years, ie., the principles of:

regulating, and responding to -

  • mechanical and electrical systems,
  • social and governmental systems,
  • human and animal nervous systems, and
  • human and animal social systems.

Cybernetics is central to our understanding of life, organisations, and the way we relate to our world, however we define it.

This is how DJ Stewart of the UK Cybernetics Society explains the formal establishment of the cybernetics term:

"By the summer of 1947, the science of control and communication had developed to such an extent that it was beginning to be inconvenient not to have a name for it, and so the term 'cybernetics' was coined..." (and Stewart then quotes Weiner from 1948):

"Thus as far back as four years ago, the group of scientists about Dr Rosenblueth and myself had already become aware of the essential unity of the set of problems centering about communication, control, and statistical mechanics, whether in the machine or in living tissue. 

On the other hand, we were seriously hampered by the lack of unity of the literature concerning these problems, and by the absence of any common terminology, or even of a single name for the field. 

After much consideration, we have come to the conclusion that all the existing terminology has too heavy a bias to one side or another to serve the future development of the field as well as it should; and as happens so often to scientists, we have been forced to coin at least one artificial neo-Greek expression to fill the gap. We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or in the animal, by the same 'Cybernetics', which we form from the Greek kubernetes or 'steersman'. "

(Stewart concludes): "Further justification for the new term is that kubernetes is the root of the Latin verb gubernare, 'to govern', and that one of the earliest forms of automatic control mechanism was the speed governor of the steam engine. Incidentally, the word cybernétique had been used, in something approaching the present sense, when Ampère used it as a name for his science of civil government (Ampère, 1834)."

Wiener studied zoology at Harvard, philosophy at Cornell, and at Cambridge (with Bertrand Russell) and Gottingen, and later became Professor of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wiener was an expert in mathematical communication theory, ultimately relating his work with guided missile systems and information handling in electronic devices to the mental processes in animals. His publications 'Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine' (1948), and 'The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society' (1950) helped to popularise cybernetics as a science and particularly as a scientific term.

In truth humankind has always been fascinated by cybernetics - how we relate to and respond to the world around us. Thanks to Wiener we now all know what to call it.

I am not saying that you need to study cybernetics as a science in itself, although feel free to so so if it grabs you. What I am recommending is that you consider the essential philosophy contained in the 'first law', and see how it relates to your life and the systems around it.

Think about it:

"The unit within the system with the most behavioural responses available to it controls the system."

The 'unit' is you.

The 'behavioural responses' are how you react and plan, and what you do and say.

The 'system' is the environment (in all respects) and the people that represent the world that you seek to succeed within.

And 'control' is the choice that you are able to exercise in achieving what you want, whatever that may be.