Publication 2327

Bruni J. (2014) Expanding the self-referential paradox: The Macy conferences and the second wave of cybernetic thinking. In: Arnold D. P. (ed.) Traditions of systems theory: Major figures and contemporary developments. Routledge, New York: 78–83. Fulltext at
According to the American Society for Cybernetics (2012), there is no unified comprehensive account of a far-reaching narrative that takes into account all of the Macy Conferences and what was discussed and accomplished at these meetings. This chapter will thus propose how group dialogues on concepts such as information and feedback allowed the Macy Conferences to act as a catalyst for second-order systems theory, when fi rstorder, steady-state models of homeostasis became supplanted by those of self-reference in observing systems. I will trace how such a development transpired through a conferences-wide interdisciplinary mindset that promoted the idea of refl exivity. According to N. Katherine Hayles, the conferences’ singular achievement was to create a “new paradigm” for “looking at human beings … as information-processing entities who are essentially similar to intelligent machines,” by routing Claude Shannon’s information theory through Warren McCulloch’s “model of neural functioning” and John von Neumann’s work in “biological systems” and then capitalizing on Norbert Wiener’s “visionary” talent for disseminating the “larger implications” of such a paradigm shift. From this perspective, the most crucial work would achieve its fruition after the end of the Macy conferences. Yet the foundations for such work were, perforce, cast during the discussions at the conferences that epitomize science in the making and, as such, warrant our careful attention.


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