What is Cybernetics?

Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems, their structures, constraints, and possibilities. In the 21st century, the term is often used in a rather loose way to imply “control of any system using technology;” this has blunted its meaning to such an extent that many writers avoid using it.

Cybernetics is relevant to the study of systems, such as mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive, and social systems. Cybernetics is applicable when a system being analyzed incorporates a closed signaling loop; that is, where action by the system generates some change in its environment and that change is reflected in that system in some manner (feedback) that triggers a system change, originally referred to as a “circular causal” relationship.

System dynamics, a related field, originated with applications of electrical engineering control theory to other kinds of simulation models (especially business systems) by Jay Forrester at MIT in the 1950s.

Concepts studied by cyberneticists include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaptation, social control, emergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy, and connectivity. These concepts are studied by other subjects such as engineering and biology, but in cybernetics these are abstracted from the context of the individual organism or device.

[caption id="attachment_4" align="alignright" width="300"]Cybernetics: ASIMO uses sensors and sophisticated algorithms to avoid obstacles and navigate stairs. ASIMO uses sensors and sophisticated algorithms to avoid obstacles and navigate stairs.[/caption]

Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” The word cybernetics comes from Greek κυβερνητική (kybernetike), meaning “governance”, i.e., all that are pertinent to κυβερνάω (kybernao), the latter meaning “to steer, navigate or govern”, hence κυβέρνησις (kybernesis), meaning “government”, is the government while κυβερνήτης (kybernetes) is the governor or the captain. Contemporary cybernetics began as an interdisciplinary study connecting the fields of control systems, electrical network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, and psychology in the 1940s, often attributed to the Macy Conferences. During the second half of the 20th century cybernetics evolved in ways that distinguish first-order cybernetics (about observed systems) from second-order cybernetics (about observing systems). More recently there is talk about a third-order cybernetics (doing in ways that embraces first and second-order).

Fields of study which have influenced or been influenced by cybernetics include game theory, system theory (a mathematical counterpart to cybernetics), perceptual control theory, sociology, psychology (especially neuropsychology, behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology), philosophy, architecture, and organizational theory.


Cybernetics has been defined in a variety of ways, by a variety of people, from a variety of disciplines. The Larry Richards Reader includes a listing by Stuart Umpleby of notable definitions:

“Science concerned with the study of systems of any nature which are capable of receiving, storing and processing information so as to use it for control.” — A. N. Kolmogorov
“The art of securing efficient operation.” — Louis Couffignal
“‘The art of steersmanship’: deals with all forms of behavior in so far as they are regular, or determinate, or reproducible: stands to the real machine — electronic, mechanical, neural, or economic — much as geometry stands to real object in our terrestrial space; offers a method for the scientific treatment of the system in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored.” — W. Ross Ashby
“A branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness, and information, focuses on forms and the patterns that connect.” — Gregory Bateson
“The art of effective organization.” — Stafford Beer
“The art and science of manipulating defensible metaphors.” — Gordon Pask
“The art of creating equilibrium in a world of constraints and possibilities.” — Ernst von Glasersfeld
“The science and art of understanding.” — Humberto Maturana
“The ability to cure all temporary truth of eternal triteness.” — Herbert Brun

Other notable definitions include:

“The science and art of the understanding of understanding.” — Rodney E. Donaldson, the first president of the American Society for Cybernetics
“A way of thinking about ways of thinking of which it is one.” — Larry Richards
“The art of interaction in dynamic networks.” — Roy Ascott


The term cybernetics stems from κυβερνήτης (kybernētēs) “steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder”. As with the ancient Greek pilot, independence of thought is important in cybernetics. Cybernetics is a broad field of study, but the essential goal of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with desired goal, and again to action. Studies in cybernetics provide a means for examining the design and function of any system, including social systems such as business management and organizational learning, including for the purpose of making them more efficient and effective.

French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère first coined the word “cybernetique” in his 1834 essay Essai sur la philosophie des sciences to describe the science of civil government.

Cybernetics was borrowed by Norbert Wiener, in his book “Cybernetics”, to define the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Stafford Beer called it the science of effective organization and Gordon Pask called it “the art of defensible metaphors” (emphasizing its constructivist epistemology) though he later extended it to include information flows “in all media” from stars to brains. It includes the study of feedback, black boxes and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines and organizations including self-organization. Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks. 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.” The most recent definition has been proposed by Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics, “Cybernetics is the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves.”


“Cybernetics.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybernetics>.

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