Q: What is cybernetics?

November 30th, 2021

A: The study of self-managing systems.

Any system, to be considered cybernetic, must manage itself in an environment towards an outcome (a goal or objective), i.e. it must have integral capability to recognise and respond to the gap between its actual position or condition and its desired position or condition.

Examples:

A regulator on a steam engine

A ballcock and valve system on a cistern

In each case the system has a purpose (maintain speed on the steam engine, maintain water level in the cistern). In going ‘out of control’ (changing speed or reducing water level) the mechanism as designed brings it back under control (the regulator opens or closes the steam valve, the ballcock lever opens the water inlet valve), each being brought back to its previous position as the desired speed or water level is reached and by it being reached, i.e. the decrease or increase in speed of the regulator will open or close the steam valve, the rising water level in the cistern will lift the float gradually closing the inlet valve.

A referee or umpire.

They observe the playing of the game, note when the rules are not being followed and implement a corrective action by giving an instruction (a flag, a whistle, a piece of guidance) to one or more individuals to bring the game back within the rules.

The chairperson of a discussion or debate.

They act in the same way, listening to what is said and intervening NOT to lead the debate to a conclusion but to restore the discussion back towards its purpose or objective.

Explanation:

A system is a set of elements in dynamic interaction with each other that produces an outcome.

Recognition of a system implies a boundary (the system includes some things and excludes others). This boundary defines the ‘self’ with all other things being considered to exist in the environment of the ‘self’. That boundary may be conceptual, physical, legal or perceptual and both system and boundary are observer defined

An outcome arises exclusively from the interactions between the parts of the system and is an emergent property of the system, it cannot be found in those parts.

Examples:

Flight, the purpose which is of value, is an emergent property of the interactions between an airframe, a propulsion system and a control system.

A journey, the purpose which is of value, is an emergent property of the interactions of the elements of a rail system (infrastructure, vehicles, stations, drivers, power supply etc).

Manage implies the exercise of a guiding influence and goal directedness, that is, the system is observed as purposeful (it pursues a condition or position). That goal may, in nature, be simply its own survival.

Examples:

In the case of the steam engine and the cistern, ‘manage’ is exercised by the mechanical devices that open and close valves.

In more complex systems it may be built into an electrical device (a switch), an electro-mechanical device (a switch that operates a piece of machinery such as a thermostat), or an electronic device (such as a computer) into which decision criteria have been ‘programmed’ by human beings.

Human beings may manage themselves (control their own activity, make decisions, exercise choice) and may guide the work of others.

Every case relies on the transmission of information from one element of the system to another or others.

The movement of the float in the cistern activates a lever which opens the valve; the information is transmitted by the position of the lever.

The guidance by the referee, umpire or chairperson is the provision of information to modify a behaviour to deliver an outcome.

Every case requires the ability of the system, through its mechanical or human actors, to reflect on the gap between where it is and where it wants to be and to take action to close it.

Self indicates the ability of the system to distinguish itself (and its component parts) from its context or environment. It must recognise the boundary between itself and its environment.

All cybernetic ‘systems’ must have this minimal level of self-awareness (however it is embedded in them from the purely mechanical to the conceptual).

The notion of self-management is then integral to every cybernetic system, this has profound implications for governance, beliefs, values and behaviours in the conduct of organisations.