CEPA eprint 1400 (EVG-110)
Should cybernetics be useful?
Glasersfeld E. von (1988) Should cybernetics be useful? Continuing the Conversation 12: 5. Available at http://cepa.info/1400
Some years ago, when I was asked to compile a statement about cybernetics for the American Society for Cybernetics, I wrote, among other things, that cybernetics is a new way of thinking, not a collection of facts. I also mentioned that each cybernetician has his or her own way of defining the field, but that, nevertheless, there is a certain amount of consensus about a number of topics that are considered to be part of it. Self-organization is one of these topics—but how one elaborates on that topic and where one chooses to see manifestations of it is very much an individual aﬀair.
For me, the notion of self-organization is crucial in the attempt to answer the question about the utility of cybernetics. However, if I try to explain this, I hope it will be understood that it cannot be anything but one individual’s answer, and that this individual will not be surprised if readers should consider it so idiosyncratic as to be irrelevant.
One of the great revelations of the cybernetic way of thinking was and is for me the idea that living systems can be considered informationally closed. That means that the notion of self-organization must apply also to what we want to call “knowledge” or, in the simplest terms, that knowledge must be built up within the system from material that is available within the system. If this is taken as a working hypothesis, the role of knowledge changes. It can no longer be assumed that knowledge could be, let alone ought to be, a representation of an independent world that “exists” as such outside the cognizing system. The moment one says this, someone objects that one is talking solipsism. But that is just another manifestation of the either/or mentality we are trying to get rid of. If the cognitive organism cannot depict an ontological reality within itself, the results of its cognitive activity are not necessarily pure, unadulterated phantasy. Knowledge may still be seen as the accumulation of ways and means the organism finds to attain its material goal of staying alive, as well as its intellectual goal of integrating these ways and means into a relatively consistent and non-contradictory conceptual network; and these two goals can be subsumed under the term “equilibrium.” In other words, knowledge may have, as Piaget has long maintained, an adaptive function.
To adopt this way of thinking is, I would suggest, extraordinarily useful—especially in the kind of experiential world in which we are struggling today. Above all, it leads to the conviction that although we may be unable to organize and control others, we should always be able to organize and control ourselves. This conviction has momentous consequences in our interactions with others, interactions under the banner of love as well as under the banner of enmity. As a corollary, which Maturana has so beautifully formulated, power can never be imposed, but only conceded. This idea, of course, is enormously diﬃcult to live up to in practice. We have all been educated and trained to believe that it is often necessary and moral to concede power, against our own judgement. Hence, we have developed the habit of conceding power to others and then complaining that we are compelled to do so. However, if we try to adopt the cybernetic principle of self-organization, and to realize the entailed autonomy, we may begin to construct a new ethic—founded not on the concept of competition, but on the concept of collaboration.
My answer to the question, then, even without taking into account whatever practical uses cybernetics may have, is an unconditional yes. The idea of cognitive self-organization makes for a richer and less cantankerous life than the linear idea of external causes and internal eﬀects—simply because there is always more than one way to maintain an equilibrium.
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