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How cybernetics connects computing, counterculture, and design

Posted on by Brandon Klein

“Man is always aiming to achieve some goal and he is always looking for new goals.”
—Gordon Pask[1]

Beginning in the decade before World War II and accelerating through the war and after, scientists designed increasingly sophisticated mechanical and electrical systems that acted as if they had a purpose. This work intersected other work on cognition in animals as well as early work on computing. What emerged was a new way of looking at systems—not just mechanical and electrical systems, but also biological and social systems: a unifying theory of systems and their relation to their environment. This turn toward “whole systems” and “systems thinking” became known as cybernetics. Cybernetics frames the world in terms of systems and their goals.

This approach led to unexpected outcomes.

Systems achieve goals through iterative processes, or “feedback” loops. Suddenly, serious scientists were talking seriously about circular causality. (A causes B, and B causes C, and C causes A.) Looking more closely, scientists saw the difficulty of separating the observer from the system. Indeed, the system appeared to be a construction of the observer. The role of the observer is to provide a description of the system, which is provided to another observer. The description requires language. And the process of observing, creating language, and sharing descriptions creates a society.[2] Suddenly, serious scientists were talking seriously about subjectivity—about language, conversation, and ethics—and their relation to systems and to design. Serious scientists were collaborating to study collaboration.