Cybernetics in the United States has evolved through three identifiable periods. In the first period of the 1950s and 1960s there was a primary concern with designing control systems and with building machines to emulate human reasoning. In the second period of the 1970s and 1980s the focus of attention was on the biology of cognition and constructivist philosophy. In recent years increasing attention has been given to social systems. Whereas the work on the biology of cognition required that attention be shifted from what was observed to the observer, the recent interest in social systems requires an emphasis on multiple observers and their beliefs. The third period of social cybernetics or the cybernetics of conceptual systems is illustrated by considering constructivist cybernetics as a conceptual system created to promote the evolution of certain social systems in a preferred direction.
In recent years the field of cybernetics has been described as consisting of two bodies of work created in two time periods: first order cybernetics from the late 1940s until about 1975, and second order cybernetics from the mid 1970s to the present. Each period lasted about 25 years. What comes next? I shall describe here what I think comes next and how the new point of view emerged, at least in my own thinking. Relevance: Second order cybernetics was in part an effort to reform science itself by adding attention to the observer. What comes after second order cybernetics is related to the evolution of science and the evolution of constructivism.
From time to time, a small group of people makes an effort to transform society by promoting a set of ideas. Examples include any revolutionary or liberation movement, a new theory within the social sciences, or a new political or social program. This paper argues that in order for an intellectual movement to be successful, both the ideas and the tactics used to promote it must be suited to the society in which the movement occurs. Ideas that are rapidly and widely adopted in one society may have little impact in another society. To be accepted a new message must fit the local culture. Furthermore, the way that ideas are presented and advocated may be quite different in different societies. The intent of this paper is to add a consideration to the philosophy of science. At least in the social sciences theories should fit not only the phenomenon described but also the way the receiving society changes itself. Relevance: Second order cybernetics and constructivism are quite similar. The article describes second order cybernetics as an intellectual movement that has struggled for acceptance. The basic ideas of this intellectual movement are compared with the movement for communitarianism advocated by Amitai Etzioni.
Heinz von Foerster was the founder and director of the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. BCL existed from 1957 to 1976. In 1976 Heinz retired and moved to California. One revealing story about Heinz and the Biological Computer Laboratory concerns the Mansfield Amendment, which led to the closing of BCL. I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois from the late 1960s until 1975.
George Soros’s reflexivity theory is quite compatible with second order cybernetics. Indeed his work shows how to apply ideas in second order cybernetics to economics, finance, and political science. This paper briefly reviews three theories of reflexivity in cybernetics. It provides an introduction to Soros’s version of reflexivity theory and reviews applications in economics and finance. Soros’s approach to economics is based on different assumptions about information and about human behavior. His approach to finance is more holistic than most current work in finance. He does not emphasize mathematical models but rather sees finance as a human player game with himself as a participant. The paper concludes that Soros’s work is a very important contribution to and expansion of contemporary social science.
In the 1950s and 1960s Ross Ashby created a general theory of adaptive systems. His work is well-known among cyberneticians and systems scientists, but not in other fields. This is somewhat surprising, because his theories are more general versions of the theories in many fields. Philosophy of science claims that more general theories are preferred because a small number of propositions can explain many phenomena. Why, then, are Ashby’s theories not widely known and praised? Do scientists really strive for more general, parsimonious theories? This paper reviews the content of Ashby’s theories, discusses what they reveal about how scientists work, and suggests what their role might be in the academic community in the future. Relevance: Since Ashby defines a system as a set of variables selected by an observer, his work is quite compatible with second order cybernetics even though Ashby never directly addressed the issue of the observer or second order cybernetics.
Current research on complexity can be thought of as the working out of ideas related to self-organizing systems, which were developed about 1960. Much more advanced technical means are now available, and the great accomplishment of the recent research has been the involvement of people from a wide range of disciplines in using modeling methods, such as cellular automata and genetic algorithms, which are a significant departure from previous methods. Research in reflexivity is less well known. Its origins can be traced back at least to 1975. Several reflexive theories have been proposed, for example by Argyris and Schon, von Foerster, Lefebvre, and Soros. The literatures in second order cybernetics and constructivism are very close to reflexivity, but the term “reflexivity” might attract wider interest. This presentation will describe the basic features of the theories of complexity and reflexivity, their early history, their evolution, and reactions to date. Although complexity is a major change from previous modeling methods, it does not violate any informal fallacies or any assumptions underlying the philosophy of science. Reflexivity does. Accepting reflexivity as a legitimate movement in science will require an expansion of the conception of science which still prevails in most fields. A shift from Science One to Science Two is now being discussed. This presentation will explain what is being proposed.
Heinz von Foerster proposed that the observer should be included in the domain of observation. He suggested that this approach to cybernetics be called second-order cybernetics. Heinz was primarily interested in understanding cognition, based on neurophysiology and mathematics. But there has also been strong interest in cybernetics as a theory of social systems. Using the “second order” idea for existing social science fields would focus attention on the role of the observer and on reflexive phenomena such as the effect of theories on what is being studied. This article considers how the field of economics might adopt the second order idea. Relevance: Second-order cybernetics, by interpreting self-reference as occurring in time, can serve as a guide to the social sciences for how to include reflexive phenomena in their theories.