Excerpt: In 1995, the Leo Apostel Centre in Brussels, Belgium, organised an international conference called “Einstein meets Magritte”. Nobel prize winner Ilya Prigogine held the opening lecture at the conference, and Heinz von Foerster’s lecture was scheduled last… Heinz von Foerster was enchanted by the conference theme and – in the spirit of surrealist Belgian painter René Magritte – had chosen an appropriate title for his talk: “Ceci n’est pas Albert Einstein”. … [H]e was delighted to grant the organisers the following interview, in which he tells us about an even longer journey – that of his remarkable life and scientific career.
Upshot: Ranulph Glanville’s musings about cybernetics are statements of wonder as much as careful reconstructions of the core ideas of cybernetics. In Vol. III of his Black Boox all 39 of them are collected, which appeared between 1994 and 2009 in the Journal, Cybernetics and Human Knowing. If Heinz von Foerster said that the ideas of second-order cybernetics are nowadays to be found just about everywhere in everyday life, Glanville is not that sure about this.
Purpose: To provide illumination of how systems tend to produce an output nobody expected. It is in these moments that observers may learn something about their own expectations. Design/methodology/approach – The paper discusses two cases in the history of art: faked Vermeer paintings and a test Heinz von Foerster did in the art department at the University of Illinois. Findings: McLuhan’s notion of the “collide-oscope” is applied to the way Heinz von Foerster (ab)uses images in his own texts; furthermore it is applied to the way the BCL was organized. The formal structure of the “collide-oscope” offers a model of perception. Originality/value – Provides a discussion of a fundamental message of cybernetics – that we cannot escape collisions and disturbances. They are its essence. Relevance: This paper relates to the second-order cybernetics of Heinz von Foerster.
Often we like to attribute credit for something we have accomplished by saying that we could not have done it except for the far greater work done by some predecessor. As Isaac Newton put it If I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants. This phrase has now become common usage, and we use it to pay our deepest respect to someone whose work has substantially contributed to what we ourselves do. Many people in the American Society for Cybernetics have my deepest respect and have contributed greatly to my thinking. Not the least of these is Heinz von Foerster who I had the opportunity to visit several times over the last seven years. However I would not speak of myself as standing on his shoulders; it does not seem like a comfortable thing to do, and furthermore, like many memorable phrases, it evokes various listenings; various thoughts and emotions which do not pertain to the way I related to this wonderful man. Sometimes the claim I stand on the shoulders of is heard as trivial, as a stock phrase used in a formal dance to satisfy a perceived requirement for deference. Sometimes it is heard as trite, in the sense of superficiality. Of course it is sometimes both uttered and heard as having both conviction and depth, yet even then a number of interesting ambiguities persist, and it is those that I wish to reflect on now.
Upshot: Emergence and Embodiment is a highly worthwhile and well-crafted collection of essays on second-order cybernetics that draws together ideas related to self-organization, autopoiesis, organizational closure, self-reference, and neurophenomenology. Chapters include articles by Heinz von Foerster, Francesco Varela, Niklas Luhmann, George Spencer-Brown, and Evan Thompson and external commentaries on them that analyze the relevance of their ideas in the context of social and cultural theory. Despite some projective distortions to cybernetics that arise from the internal imperatives of culture criticism, the book contains many valuable insights and analyses of core ideas of cybernetics that significantly advance our understanding of them.
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.
Emergence and Embodiment focuses on cybernetic developments that stem from the second-order turn in the 1970s, when the cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster catalyzed new thinking about the cognitive implications of self-referential systems. The collection opens with an interview with von Foerster and includes essays by Varela and Luhmann. It engages with Maturana and Varela’s creation of the concept of autopoiesis, Varela’s later work on neurophenomenology, and Luhmann’s adaptations of autopoiesis to social systems theory. Taken together, these essays illuminate the shared commitments uniting the broader discourse of neocybernetics.
Purpose: This paper sets out to provide arguments and examples supporting the idea that some “wicked” design problems may be usefully approached through the process of bringing forth a self – observing collective, i.e., a community of observers capable of generating and dynamically adjusting a collective standpoint from where new observations can be made. Design/methodology/approach – Interactions within a community of observers can be designed to generate a collective standpoint from where new observations can be made and fed back to the interacting observers, thus ensuring that the collective standpoint also extends the observers’ capacity to observe. Instances of this process are discussed to demonstrate its contribution towards dealing with some wicked design problems. Findings: The paper suggests that one’s capacity to observe, feel, reflect, communicate, and act can be systematically harnessed in a self – observing collective in order to strengthen each member in the face of complex and unstructured problem situations. However, the continued success of the process depends on the effective construction and dynamic maintenance of the collective standpoint that gives the self – observing collective its unique power. Originality/value – The paper borrows certain insights from second – order cybernetics to suggest a way of dealing with ill – structured (and wicked) design problems by facilitating a process of interaction within a community of observers who must be enabled to live with the wickedness of the problem with minimum harm. Relevance: The idea of self – observation in research is a gift from cybernetics, especially from the work of Heinz von Foerster, where the idea was central to the framework of second – order cybernetics or cybernetics of observing systems (as opposed to first – order cybernetics, which is the cybernetics of observed systems). The subject matter of the present paper deals with demonstrating the possibility of coordinating interaction of observers in a group setting so that the group itself acquires the dual status of being an observed system as well as an observing system. Such a group can generate new standpoints or schemata based on the inputs from its members, thus giving rise to new viewpoints.
Context: At present, we lack a common understanding of both the process of cognition in living organisms and the construction of knowledge in embodied, embedded cognizing agents in general, including future artifactual cognitive agents under development, such as cognitive robots and softbots. Purpose: This paper aims to show how the info-computational approach (IC) can reinforce constructivist ideas about the nature of cognition and knowledge and, conversely, how constructivist insights (such as that the process of cognition is the process of life) can inspire new models of computing. Method: The info-computational constructive framework is presented for the modeling of cognitive processes in cognizing agents. Parallels are drawn with other constructivist approaches to cognition and knowledge generation. We describe how cognition as a process of life itself functions based on info-computation and how the process of knowledge generation proceeds through interactions with the environment and among agents. Results: Cognition and knowledge generation in a cognizing agent is understood as interaction with the world (potential information), which by processes of natural computation becomes actual information. That actual information after integration becomes knowledge for the agent. Heinz von Foerster is identified as a precursor of natural computing, in particular bio computing. Implications: IC provides a framework for unified study of cognition in living organisms (from the simplest ones, such as bacteria, to the most complex ones) as well as in artifactual cognitive systems. Constructivist content: It supports the constructivist view that knowledge is actively constructed by cognizing agents and shared in a process of social cognition. IC argues that this process can be modeled as info-computation.
Context: By proposing to regard objects as “tokens for eigenbehavior,” von Foerster’s seminal paper opposes the intuitive subject-object dualism of traditional philosophy, which considers objects to be instances of an external world Problem: We argue that this proposal has two implications, one for epistemology and one for the demarcation between the natural sciences and the humanities. Method: Our arguments are based on insights gained in computational models and from reviewing the contributions to this special issue. Results: Epistemologically, von Foerster’s proposal suggests that what is called “reality” could be seen as an ensemble of eigenforms generated by the eigenbehavior that arises in the interaction of multiple dynamics. Regarding science, the contributions to this special issue demonstrate that the concept of eigenbehavior can be applied to a variety of disciplines from the formal and natural sciences to the humanities. Its universal applicability provides a strong argument for transdisciplinarity, and its emphasis on the observer points in the direction of an observer-inclusive science. Implications: Thinking in eigenbehavior may not only have implications for tearing down the barriers between sciences and humanities (although a common methodology based on von Foerster’s transdisciplinary approach is still to crystalize), a better understanding of eigenbehaviors may also have profound effects on our understanding of ourselves. This also opens the way to innovative behavior design/modification technologies.