Context: In this empirical and conceptual paper on the historical, philosophical, and epistemological backgrounds of second-order cybernetics, the emergence of a significant pedagogical component to Heinz von Foerster’s work during the last years of the Biological Computer Laboratory is placed against the backdrop of social and intellectual movements on the American landscape. Problem: Previous discussion in this regard has focused largely on the student radicalism of the later 1960s. A wider-angled view of the American intellectual counterculture is needed. However, this historical nexus is complicated and more often dismissed than brought into clear focus. Method: This essay assembles a historical sequence of archival materials for critical analysis, linked to a conceptual argument eliciting from those materials the second-order cybernetic concepts of observation, recursion, and paradox. Results: In this period, von Foerster found the “positive of the negative” in the social and intellectual unrest of that moment and cultivated those insights for the broader constitution of a new cognitive orientation. Implications: As a successful student of his own continuing course on heuristics, von Foerster left the academic mainstream to ally his constructivist epistemology with the systems counterculture.
Summary: The aim of this collection is to provide a two-fold access to von Foerster’s legacy and his work at the Biological Computer Laboratory, the institution he founded and directed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1958 to 1976. It represents a precious contribution for the understanding of BCL, a crucial but still not properly understood chapter in the history of cybernetics and, more generally, of cognitive science. It is greatly recommended.
Excerpt: The whole point of second order cybernetics is that it asserts there is no observation without an observer. There is nothing spoken without a speaker, there is no action without an actor. … The focus of my account lies in the groups Gordan Pask had around him: colleagues at System Research, students at Brunell University, and peers – especially at the Biological Computer Laboratory founded and directed by Heinz von Foerster.
In recent years, I have found an unexpected revival of interest in cybernetics amongst artists and designers. However, the cybernetics they are aware of seems to be the pre1968 variety brought to public attention in the Cybernetic Serendipity Exhibition. I have been wondering how to capitalise on this interest, to bring an updated cybernetics to artists and designers. One move to this end was compiling and editing a double issue of Kybernetes on Cybernetics and Design (Glanville, 2007b). Meanwhile, preparing for the 50th anniversary of the founding (in 1958) of the Biological Computer Laboratory at the May conference of the American Society for Cybernetics, 2 I came to realise the importance of the 9th year of each decade in the story of cybernetics. We can form the history of cybernetics around years ending in 8 – until cybernetics more or less disappeared from popular awareness. The history is, of course, familiar, but the familiar is re-formed by re-centring its focus. More importantly, we can propose a way forward for cybernetics in 2008: develop our association with artists and designers, in such a manner that we can introduce our more recent, and relevant, insights. The serendipitous launch in Vienna in November 2007 of the Gordon Pask archive provides further impetus. Pask’s work, rarely touched on in this journal, is the subject of considerable scrutiny in art and design, in part because of his own performance and output as an artist. Thus, even though history contains no predictive causal mechanisms, we may take a lesson from history in order to move forward. I hope you will find this background helpful in reading the rest of the column.
On a cold day between Christmas and New Year 1961, in search of a place to study, I met Heinz in his office at the Biological Computer Laboratory. I knew of him through a network of designers who, like me, were interested in issues that conventional curricula did not address. Heinz greeted me, a total stranger, with the enthusiasm usually reserved for an old friend. To my surprise, he knew of the place where I had came from (the Ulm School of Design, an avant-garde institution now extinct but reproduced everywhere – much as cybernetics is now), and he suggested that I come to the University of Illinois to study with W. Ross Ashby. This short encounter enrolled me into cybernetics and defined my intellectual focus for years to come.
The article presents a short outline of the history of the Biological Computer Laboratory created in 1958 as a special research unit within the Department for Electrical Engineering of the University of Illinois, Urbana. The founder of the laboratory, the Austrian-born Heinz von Foerster, part of the cyberneticsmovement of the 1940ies and 1950ies, tried to develop and to “apply” findings of the so-called Macy-group to biology with a special emphasis to problems of perception. The consequent transdisciplinary approach of the BCL led to certain conflicts with the main stream in the fields involved. Other conflicts emerged on grounds of teaching experiments undertaken since the late 1960ies. In the seventies the laboratory failed in substituting diminishing research funds from military research ressources. In the consequence, the BCL was closed. Ideas produced there had a major impact on other cognitive domains especially on the social sciences in Europe.
Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to investigate how the heuristics course co-taught by Heinz von Foerster, Herbert Brün, and Humberto Maturana (1968–1969) influenced cybernetic research in the USA. Design/methodology/approach– The author accessed the archived material from three sources: the Herbert Brün Library, the University of Illinois Library, and the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) and interpreted these materials in light of the cybernetics literature, and the publications of the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC). Findings: The heuristics course had major consequences in von Foerster’s evolving critique of education, and in Brün’s work towards founding a School for Designing a Society. von Foerster radically reoriented the BCL toward unconventional course proposals. He also began to critique objectivity and positivism, shifting the foundations of cybernetics and proposing a meta-cybernetics. The year that von Foerster retired, the BCL and the ASC ceased to function. When the ASC returned in the 1980s it took on new emphases, including education and design. It appears von Foerster was pivotal in the shift of emphasis. Originality/value – The findings add new dimensions to the story of the decline of the BCL in the 1970s, and the re-emergence of the ASC in the 1980s with new emphases (such as design) that are not traditionally found in scientific research.
It is a pleasure to introduce this issue of Cybernetics Forum dedicated to my friend and mentor, Heinz Von Foerster. As the following articles demonstrate, Heinz is a man who inspires not only admiration and respect for his scientific contributions but also great affection. He is an outstanding human being as well as a great scientist. The articles by Stafford Beer, Gordon Pask, Humberto Maturana, Lars Löfgren, Edwin Schlossberg and Kenneth Wilson often recount personal experiences with Heinz. Kenneth Wilson provides a very useful overview of Heinz’ major articles as well as the work of visiting cyberneticians in the Biological Computer Laboratory. I shall provide some background on how Heinz came to the University of Illinois, a brief discussion of the effect that the Biological Computer Laboratory had on the students who worked there, and finally some personal reflections on the importance of Heinz’ work for cybernetics, science, and society.
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.
The article has been divided into three sections and proceeds from general insights and observations in innovation research across firms and scientific institutes to a narrower focus on radical innovations in science and their organizational environments and concludes with a specific example, namely Heinz von Foerster’s Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois in Urbana which in the short period of its existence between 1958 and 1975 exhibited a large number of essential characteristics for radically innovative research. In fact, it is astonishing in retrospect that Heinz von Foerster shaped the organizational design of the BCL in a way which nowadays seems to be the most promising and most fruitful configuration for a permanent proliferation of highly innovative and, at times, also highly implausible and counter-intuitive ideas, theories, mechanisms or instruments.