Cybernetics – thinking in systems

Have you ever wondered about life’s mysteries? Ever wanted to really understand something , hold it all in at once and see the big picture? Surely it is a difficult task, but cybernetics might be a good place to look for help.


Photo: Rene Burri. Police headquarter (Tokyo?) Central electronic map with TV intersection monitors. 1980.


Cybernetics is literally the art of controlling something (the root in ancient Greek (kybernetes) stems from the word ‘steersman’ or ‘governor’. Comparing it to the way a ship needs to be steered, just like Plato does when in his dialogue The Republic (Politeia), will give you a good picture of what we are dealing with. Studies in cybernetics are a study of the structures of regulatory systems, meaning that it is a way to describe processes simply enough, that only essential parts are included. By making a simpler description, we are closer to overlooking the big picture. In cybernetics, there are furthermore an important notion when making a description, to look upon it as a system interacting with it’s surroundings and, influenced by them, adapting to them.

So the steering includes a point towards which the steering goes. In cybernetics they speak of it as a goal – or telos another word taken from Greek. Well, the next logical question might just be: what does it steer towards? Or how do we find out? If the system is properly described, we can also use it to make predictions – and that is no doubt a powerful tool.

It is an interdisciplinary field, that of cybernetics. It touches upon many interesting studies such as control systems, electrical network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology and psychology. Originally derived from the studies to understand electronic circuits, it has developed and adapted to the modern world, and is used also to describe economic and societal developments.

With some basic models of development, the cybernetician can look upon a system of systems, and perhaps predict the behavior and interaction of the overall system, by help of her models. The 1972 book by Meadows et al. named The Limits To Growth is a more widely known example of a global model. In the book they look at “broad behavior modes of the population-capital system”. Behavior modes are thought of as “tendencies of the variables in the system (population or pollution, for example)” and to see how they change as time progresses, will give an idea of how the world-system will evolve. The authors never claimed to be able to predict anything with precision, only to show what is most likely to happen, given the data available. 30 years later, in a 2008 paper by Graham Turner, predictions of tendencies in the book were found to match very well with the changes in industrial production, food production and pollution. (Quotes are from Meadows, D. (1974). The Limits to Growth, Second Edition Revised, Signet. ISBN 73-187907, pages 99-101 in Wikipedia, ref.#9).

What I am wondering these days is.. how complex can the model get? Can we use some of the models from cybernetics to understand (or maybe as a start explore) some of the more intriguing and fundamental questions that we ask in philosophy? Why is the world as it is? How many possible scenarios are there for a living world? How big? How small? what are the most common or likely ones?  – and how can we benefit from this approach, when struggling to gain an overview of life, and the world, ourselves? I think it could very likely give us the broad perspective needed!


About Sif S. Stewart-Ferrer

Passion for knowledge - especially the philosophy of natural science. MA in Philosophy from the University of Southern Denmark, with a minor in Anthropology from Aarhus University, Denmark. Currently working on finding funding for a PhD project on placebo effects. Interests include philosophy (the philosophy of science and environmental ethics), mycology, martial arts (daito-ryu, aikido and ving tsun), anthropology (Anthropocene, Asian cultures), computer games and outdoor life. I also love dogs.
This entry was posted in Life Sciences, Miscellaneous, Philosophy, Theory of Everything and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Cybernetics – thinking in systems

  1. Oh wow, love this post!

    There is loads of interesting research on complexity being done at the Santa Fe Institute if you wanted further reading on that! Also, the incredible BBC documentary “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” looks at how cybernetics theory influenced ecology (I wrote a post that thinks in a similar way here if you’re interested).

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