New cybernetics

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New cybernetics is a study of self-organizing systems according to Peter Harries-Jones (1988), "looking beyond the issues of the 'first', 'old' or 'original' cybernetics and their politics and sciences of control, to the autonomy and self-organization capabilities of complex systems".[1] New cybernetics is otherwise known as the cybernetics of cybernetics or second order cybernetics.,[2][3][4] and second order cybernetics is called a new cybernetics.[5]

The term is an attempt to move away from the cybernetics of Norbert Wiener. Old cybernetics is tied to the image of the machine and physics, whereas new cybernetics closely resembles organisms and biology. The main task of the new cybernetics is to overcome entropy by using "noise" as positive feedback.[6]


In 1992 Gordon Pask summarized the differences between the old and the new cybernetics as a shift in emphasis:.[7][8]

  • ... from information to coupling
  • ... from the reproduction of "order-from-order" (Schroedinger 1944) to the generation of "order-from-noise" (von Foerster 1960)
  • ... from transmission of data to conversation
  • ... from external to participant observation – in short, from "CCC" to an approach that could be assimilated to Maturana and Varela's concept of autopoiesis.

Gertrudis van de Vijver stated in 1994 that the old cybernetics, the new cybernetics and the cognitive paradigms are not that different from each other; and as is mostly the case, the so-called new paradigms are in a sense "older" than the "old" paradigms. The so-called "old" paradigms were in most cases strategically successful specializations in a general framework. Their success was based on a strong but useful simplification of the issues. The "new" paradigms are further specializations in the earlier one, or (as is mostly the case) a strategic retreat which broadens the specialized approach and is a return to the original, broader inspiration and outlook.[9]


In March 1946, the first of ten influential interdisciplinary Macy conferences were devoted to the "new cybernetics",[10] and opened with two presentations: the first by von Neumann on the new computing machines, followed by neurobiologist Lorente de No on the electric properties of the nervous system. These circuiting of analogies between behaviour of computers and the nervous system became central to cybernetic imagination and its founding desire to define the essential "unity of a set of problems" organized around "communication, control, and statistical mechanics, whether in the machine or living tissue. In particular, the early cyberneticists are convinced that research on computers and the organization of the human brain are one and the same field, that is, "the subject embracing both the engineering and the neurology aspect is essentially one."[11]

Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as the study of "control and communication in the animal and the machine". This definition captures the original ambition of cybernetics to appear as a unified theory of behaviour of living organisms and machines, viewed as systems governed by the same physical laws. The initial phase of cybernetics involved disciplines more or less directly related to the study of those systems, like communication and control engineering, biology, psychology, logic, and neurophysiology. Very soon, a number of attempts were made to place the concept of control at the focus of analysis also in other fields, such as economics, sociology, and anthropology. The ambition of "classic" cybernetics thus seemed to involve also several human sciences, as it developed in a highly interdisciplinary approach, aimed at seeking common concepts and methods in rather different disciplines. In classic cybernetics this ambition did not produce the desired results and new approaches had to be attempted in order to achieve them, at least partially.[12]

In the 1970s new cybernetics has emerged in multiple fields, first in biology. Some biologists influenced by cybernetic concepts from Maturana, Varela and Atlan, according to Dupuy (1986) "realized that the cybernetic metaphors of the program upon which molecular biology had been based rendered a conception of the autonomy of the living being impossible. Consequently, these thinkers were led to invent a new cybernetics, one more suited to the organizations which mankind discovers in nature – organizations he has not himself invented".[13] It however remained a debate in the 1980s whether or not the new insides of new cybernetics could be projected on social forms of organization.[13]

In political science, Project Cybersyn attempted to introduce a cybernetically controlled economy during the early 1970s. In the 1980s, according to Harries-Jones (1988) "unlike its predecessor, the new cybernetics concerns itself with the interaction of autonomous political actors and subgroups, and the practical and reflexive consciousness of the subjects who produce and reproduce the structure of a political community. A dominant consideration is that of recursiveness, or self-reference of political action both with regards to the expression of political consciousness and with the ways in which systems build upon themselves".[1]

One characteristic of the emerging new cybernetics considered in 1978 by Felix Geyer and Hans van der Zouwen, according to Bailey (1994), was "that it views information as constructed and reconstructed by an individual interacting with the environment. This provides an epistemological foundation of science, by viewing it as observer-dependent. Another characteristic of the new cybernetics is its contribution towards bridging the "micro-macro gap". That is, it links the individual with the society.[14] Another characteristic (Geyer and van der Zouwen noted) was the "transition from classical cybernetics to the new cybernetics [that] involves a transition from classical problems to new problems. These shifts in thinking involve, among others:

(a) a change from emphasis on the system being steered to the system doing the steering, and the factor which guides the steering decisions.; and
(b) new emphasis on communication between several systems which are trying to steer each other".[14]

New Cybernetics: Topics[edit]

Just as quantum theory has superseded classical physics, so the new cybernetics approach has superseded the classical theory of communication. According to F. Merrel (1988) in this new era, and speaking generally of the reigning conceptual framework, incompleteness, openness, inconsistency, statistical models, undecidability, indeterminacy, complementarity, polycity, interconnectedness, and fields and frames and references are the order of the day.[15]

Geyer & J. van der Zouwen (1992) recognize four themes in both sociocybernetics and new cybernetics:[3]

  • An epistemological foundation for science as an observer-observer system. Feedback and feedforward loops are constructed not only between the observer, and the objects that are observed them and the observer.
  • The transition classical, rather mechanistic first order cybernetics to modern, second order cybernetics, characterized by the differences summarized by Gordon Pask.
  • These problem shifts in cybernetics result from a thorough reconceptualization of many all too easily accepted and taken for granted concepts – which yield new notions of stability, temporality, independence, structure versus behaviour, and many other concepts.
  • The actor-oriented systems approach, promulgated in 1978 made it possible to bridge the "micro-macro" gap in social science thinking.

Other topics where new cybernetics developed are:

Types of new Cybernetics[edit]

Cybernetics of cybernetics[edit]

The term "Cybernetics of cybernetics" is also called "second order cybernetics".

Organisational cybernetics[edit]

Organizational cybernetics is distinguished from management cybernetics. Both uses many of the same terms but interpret them according to another philosophy of systems thinking. Organizational cybernetics by contrast offers a significant break with the assumption of the hard approach. The full flowering of organizational cybernetics is represented by Beer's Viable System Model.[21]

Organizational Cybernetics (OC) studies organizational design, and the regulation and self-regulation of organizations from a systems theory perspective that also takes the social dimension into consideration. Researchers in economics, public administration and political science focus on the changes in institutions, organisation and mechanisms of social steering at various levels (sub-national, national, European, international) and in different sectors (including the private, semi-private and public sectors; the latter sector is emphasised).[22]


The reformulation of sociocybernetics as an "actor-oriented, observer-dependent, self-steering, time-variant" paradigm of human systems, was most clearly articulated by Geyer and van der Zouwen in 1978 and 1986.[23] They stated that sociocybernetics is more than just social cybernetics, which could be defined as the application of the general systems approach to social science. Social cybernetics is indeed more than such a one-way knowledge transfer. It implies a feed-back loop from the area of application – the social sciences – to the theory being applied, namely cybernetics; consequently, sociocybernetics can indeed be viewed as part of the new cybernetics: as a result of its application to social science problems, cybernetics, itself, has been changed and has moved from its originally rather mechanistic point of departure to become more actor-oriented and observer-dependent.[24] In summary, the new sociocybernetics is much more subjective and the sociological approach than the classical cybernetics approach with its emphasis on control. The new approach has a distinct emphasis on steering decisions; furthermore, it can be seen as constituting a reconceptualization of many concepts which are often routinely accepted without challenge.[14]

Second order cybernetics[edit]

The term "second-order cybernetics" is from Heinz von Foerster, introduced in hindsight to denote the explicit preoccupation of the new cybernetics with the nature of self-reflexive systems.[7] New cybernetics does operate on higher-levels of order from classical cybernetics, however, it does not focus only on investigators as part of the system and the self-referentiality of the entire process alone but as covered above it has re-imagined the fields previously not considered cybernetic.

The work of Gregory Bateson was also strongly influenced by the new cybernetics.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Peter Harries-Jones (1988), "The Self-Organizing Polity: An Epistemological Analysis of Political Life by Laurent Dobuzinskis" in: Canadian Journal of Political Science (Revue canadienne de science politique), Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jun., 1988), pp. 431–433.
  2. ^ Joseph Zeidner (1986), Human Productivity Enhancement, University of Michigan, p.173.
  3. ^ a b R.F. Geyer and J. v.d. Zouwen (1992), "Sociocybernetics", in: Cybernetics and Applied Systems, C.V. Negoita ed. p.96.
  4. ^ Anatol Rapoport eds.(1988), General Systems: Yearbook of the Society for the Advancement of General Vol 31, p.57.
  5. ^ a b Loet Leydesdorff (2001), A Sociological Theory of Communication: The Self-Organization of the Knowledge-Based Society ..p.253.
  6. ^ Tom Darby (1982), The Feast: Meditations on Politics and Time, p.220.
  7. ^ a b Alessio Cavallaro, Annemarie Jonson, Darren Tofts (2003), Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, MIT Press, p.11.
  8. ^ Evelyn Fox Keller, "Marrying the premodern to postmodern: computers and organism after World War II", in: M. Norton. Wise eds. Growing Explanations: Historical Perspectives on Recent Science, p 192.
  9. ^ Gertrudis van de Vijver (1994), New Perspectives on Cybernetics: Self-Organization, Autonomy and Connectionism, p.97
  10. ^ Karl M. Newell & Peter C. M. Molenaar (1998), Applications of Nonlinear Dynamics to Developmental Process Modeling, p.217.
  11. ^ Orr, Jackie (2000), "The ecstasy of miscommunication: cyberpsychiatry and mental dis-ease", in Traweek, Sharon; Reid, Roddey, Doing science + culture, New York: Routledge, p. 158, ISBN 9780415921121. 
  12. ^ a b c d Luciano Floridi (1993), The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information, pp.186–196.
  13. ^ a b Jean-Pierre Dupuy, "The autonomy of social reality: on the contribution of systems theory to the theory of society" in: Elias L. Khalil & Kenneth E. Boulding eds., Evolution, Order and Complexity, 1986.
  14. ^ a b c Kenneth D. Bailey (1994), Sociology and the New Systems Theory: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis, p.163.
  15. ^ Merrel, F., "An Uncertain Semiotic", in: The Current in Criticism, eds. V. Lokke and C. Koelb, West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1987, p.252
  16. ^ Rachelle A. Dorfman (1988), Paradigms of Clinical Social Work, p.363.
  17. ^ Policy Sciences, Vol 25, Kluwer Online, p.368
  18. ^ D. Ray Heisey (2000), Chinese Perspectives in Rhetoric and Communication, p.268.
  19. ^ Margaret A. Boden (2006), Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science, p.203.
  20. ^ Roland Littlewood, "Social Trends and psychopathology", in: Jonathan C. K. Wells ea. eds., Information Transmission and Human Biology, p. 263.
  21. ^ Michael C. Jackson (1991), Systems Methodology for the Management Sciences.
  22. ^ Organisational Cybernetics, Nijmegen School of Management, The Netherlands.
  23. ^ Lauren Langman, "The family: a 'sociocybernetic' approach to theory and policy", in: R. Felix Geyer & J. van der Zouwen Eds. (1986), Sociocybernetic Paradoxes: Observation, Control and Evolution of Self-Steering Systems, Sage Publications Ltd, pp 26–43.
  24. ^ R. Felix Geyer & J. van der Zouwen Eds. (1986), Sociocybernetic Paradoxes: Observation, Control and Evolution of Self-Steering Systems, Sage Publications Ltd, 248 pp.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • History of organizational events of the American Society of Cybenertics. In 1981 the title of the ASC conference was "The New Cybernetics", Oct. 29 – Nov. 1, GWU, Washington, DC (chair Larry Richards, local arrangements Stuart Umpleby).