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edit classify history index Cybernetics
Again, in a ship, if a man were at liberty to do what he chose, but were devoid of mind and excellence in navigation (αρετης κυβερνητικης), do you perceive what must happen to him and his fellow sailors? (Plato, Alcibiades, 135A).

Cybernetics is the study of Communication and control, typically involving regulatory feedback, in living organisms, machines, organizations, and their combinations. For example, it includes the study of computer-controlled machines such as automata and robots, along with the study of sociotechnical systems. The term cybernetics stems from the Greek Κυβερνήτης (kybernetes, steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder — the same root as the word government). It is an earlier but still-used generic term for many of the subject matters that are increasingly subject to specialization under the headings of Adaptive Systems, Artificial Intelligence, Complex Systems, Complexity Theory, Control Systems, Decision Support Systems, Dynamical Systems, Dynamism, Information Theory, Learning Organizations, Mathematical Systems Theory, Operations Research, Simulation, and Systems Engineering. A more philosophical definition, suggested in 1956 by Louis Couffignal, one of the pioneers of cybernetics, characterizes cybernetics as “the art of ensuring the efficacy of action”.


Contemporary cybernetics began as an interdisciplinary study connecting the fields of Control Systems, Electrical Network theory, Logic Modeling, and Neuroscience in the 1940s. The name cybernetics was coined by Norbert Wiener to denote the study of “teleological mechanisms” and was popularized through his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (1948).

The word cybernetics (’cybernétique’) had, unbeknownst to Wiener, also been used in 1834 by the physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) to denote the sciences of government in his classification system of human knowledge. It was also used by Plato in The Laws to signify the governance of people. The words govern and governor are also derived from the same Greek root.

The study of teleological mechanisms (from the Greek τέλος or telos for end, goal, or purpose) in machines with corrective feedback dates from as far back as the late 1700s when James Watt’s steam engine was equipped with a governor, a centrifugal feedback valve for controlling the speed of the engine. In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell published a theoretical article on governors. In 1935 Russian physiologist P.K. Anokhin published a book in which the concept of feedback (“back afferentation”) was studied. The Romanian scientist Ştefan Odobleja published Psychologie consonantiste (Paris, 1938), describing many cybernetic principles. In the 1940s the study and mathematical modelling of regulatory processes became a continuing research effort and two key articles were published in 1943. These papers were “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology” by Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow; and the paper “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity” by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts.

Cybernetics as a discipline was firmly established by Wiener, McCulloch and others, such as W. Ross Ashby and W._Grey_Walter. Grey Walter was one of the first to build autonomous robots as an aid to the study of animal behaviour. Together with the US and UK, an important geographical locus of early cybernetics was France where Wiener’s book was first published.

In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy, France and organized by the bourbakian mathematician, Szolem Mandelbrojt (1899-1983), uncle of the world-famous mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot.

During this stay in France, Wiener received the offer to write a manuscript on the unifying character of this part of applied mathematics, which is found in the study of Brownian Motion and in telecommunication engineering. The following summer, back in the United States, Wiener decided to introduce the neologism cybernetics into his scientific theory.

Wiener popularized the social implications of cybernetics, drawing analogies between automatic systems such as a regulated steam engine and human institutions in his best-selling The Human Use of Human Beings : Cybernetics and Society (Houghton-Mifflin, 1950).

While not the only instance of a research organization focused on cybernetics, the Biological Computer Lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign, under the direction of Heinz von Foerster was a major center of cybernetic research for almost 20 years, beginning in 1958.


In scholarly terms, cybernetics is the study of systems and control in an abstracted sense — that is, it is not grounded in any one empirical field.

The emphasis is on the functional relations that hold between the different parts of a system, rather than the parts themselves. These relations include the transfer of information, and circular relations (feedback) that result in emergent phenomena such as self-organization, and, (expressed as a term coined much later by Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela and Ricardo Uribe), “Autopoiesis”. The main innovation of cybernetics was the creation of a scientific discipline focused on goals: an understanding of goal-directedness or purpose, resulting from a negative feedback loop which minimizes the deviation between the perceived situation and the desired situation (goal). As mechanistic as that sounds, cybernetics has the scope and rigor to encompass the human social interactions of agreement and collaboration that, after all, require goals and feedback to attain.

Ampère’s earlier use of the term echoes in the development of Second-Order Cybernetics, which includes observers as part of whatever system is being studied. A primary force behind second-order-cybernetics was Heinz von Foerster, an Austrian trained in physics, who was appointed by Warren McCulloch as the editor of the Macy Conferences, a series of meetings held between 1946 and 1955, involving Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, F.S.C. Northrop, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, Konrad Lorenz, Warren McCulloch, W._Grey_Walter, and Norbert Wiener. (Wiener is usually considered the “father of cybernetics” because of his authorship of the book Cybernetics, published in 1948, but this is an oversimplification that Wiener would be the first to point out.) These meetings were originally called “Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems”. From this original title, as well as the breadth of fields represented by the attendees, the scope and depth of second-order cybernetics is dramatically apparent.


  • Ashby, W.R. (1956), Introduction to Cybernetics. Methuen, London, UK. PDF text.

  • Bluma, Lars (2005), Norbert Wiener und die Entstehung der Kybernetik im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Münster.

  • Boulding, Kenneth E. (1956), The Image : Knowledge in Life and Society, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI.

  • Clynes, Manfred E., and Kline, Nathan S. (1960) “Cyborgs and Space”, Astronautics, pp. 26-27 and 74-75. Reprinted, pp. 29-34 in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera (eds.), The Cyborg Handbook, Routledge, New York, NY 1995.

  • Couffignal, L., “Essay d’une définition générale de la cybernétique”, The First International Congress on Cybernetics, Namur, Belgium, June 26-29, 1956, Gauthier-Villars, Paris, 1958, pp. 46-54.

  • Heims, Steve J. (1980), John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, 3. Aufl., Cambridge.

  • Heims, Steve J. (1993), Constructing a Social Science for Postwar America. The Cybernetics Group, 1946-1953, Cambridge University Press, London, UK.

  • Heylighen F., and Joslyn C. (2001), “Cybernetics and Second Order Cybernetics”, in: R.A. Meyers (ed.), Encyclopedia of Physical Science & Technology (3rd ed.), Vol. 4, (Academic Press, New York), p. 155-170.

  • Ilgauds, Hans Joachim (1980), Norbert Wiener, Leipzig.

  • Masani, P. Rustom (1990), Norbert Wiener 1894-1964, Basel.

  • Medina, Eden (2006), “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation : Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile”, Journal of Latin American Studies 38, 571-606.

  • Pangaro, Paul (1990), “Cybernetics — A Definition”, Eprint.

  • Patten, B.C., and Odum, E.P. (1981), “The Cybernetic Nature of Ecosystems”, The American Naturalist 118, 886-895.

  • von Foerster, Heinz (1995), “Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics”, Eprint.

  • Norbert Wiener (1948), Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

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Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article “Cybernetics” under the GNU Free Documentation License.

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