CEPA eprint 2709

A note from the editors

Foerster H. von, Mead M. & Teuber H. L. (1953) A note from the editors. In: Cybernetics: Circular causal and feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems, transactions of the eighth conference, 15–16 March 1951. Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, New York: xi-xx. Available at http://cepa.info/2709
To the reader of this somewhat unusual document, a few words of explanation, and caution. This is not a book in the usual sense, nor the well-rounded transcript of a symposium. These pages should rather be received as the partial account of conversations within a group, a group whose interchange actually extends beyond the confines of the two day meeting reported herein. This account attempts to capture a fragment of the group interchange in all its evanescence, because it represents to us one of the few concerted efforts at interdisciplinary communication.
The members of this group share the belief that one can and must attempt commu­nication across the boundaries, and often chasms, which separate the various sciences. The participants have come from many fields; they are physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers, physiologists, neurologists, experimental psychologists, psychia­trists, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists. That such a gathering failed to produce the Babylonian confusion that might have been expected is probably the most remark­able result of this meeting and of those which preceded it.
This ability to remain in touch with each other, to sustain the dialogue across departmental boundaries and, in particular, across the gulf between natural and social sciences is due to the unifying effect of certain key problems with which all members are concerned: the problems of communication and of self-integrating mechanisms. Revolving around these concepts, the discussion was communication about commu­nication, necessarily obscure in places and for more than one reason. Yet the actual outcome was far more intelligible than one might think, so that the editors felt enjoined to reproduce the transcript as faithfully as possible.
The social process, of which these transactions are an incomplete residue, was not a sequence of formal »papers« read by individual participants and punctuated by pre­pared discussion. With few exceptions people spoke freely and without notes. Unavoidably some speakers produced inaccurate memories of their own facts, or of those of others, and trends of thought were often left incomplete. The printed record preserves the essential nature of this interchange in which partial associations were per­mitted on the assumption that closure would take place, at some other time, producing new ideas or reinforcing those that were thought of in passing.
Stimulation, for many scientists, comes from such partial, and sometimes even inac­curate, reproductions of material from widely separated fields, fields which seem dis­similar except for the logical structure of Page xii their central problem. If the reader wishes a format statement of the work and point of view of individual participants, he will have .to consult other sources. This can be done with ease since most of the contributors have provided references to previously published material.
The reader should be warned that the presentations and discussion tend to be responsive to previous meetings of the group. Some statements were designed to answer questions asked months or years before, or designed to evoke some long-anticipated answer from a fellow member. Radical changes in the manuscript would have necessary had we attempted to rid the group of its history. Such changes would have been distortions, and would prevent the reader from noticing the unfinished state of the group’s affairs.
Our editorial procedure, nevertheless, involved some revision of the transcript prior to publication. A verbatim record based on the stenotyped protocol, even if perfect, would in fact have been an incomplete and misleading account. It would have given turn of head content, but the tones of voice, the gestures, the attention directed by the, toward one person or another would all be missing. For this reason, we adopted a more traditional procedure. Each participant was supplied with a mimeographed copy of his transcribed remarks, and was given the chance to revise his material for the sake of clarity and coherence. Not all of the participants availed themselves of this opportunity so that our working copy represented a mixture of revised and unrevised contributions. In the unrevised passages the editors corrected only those statements which seemed to them obvious errors in recording. For the rest, they confined their censorial activities to occasional deletions of overlapping or repetitive pas- sages and of a few all-too-cryptic digressions. Most of the asides, such as jokes or acid- sties, were preserved as long as they seemed intelligible to people outside the group.
The editors were eager to retain the participants’ first names in the printed record when they had been used during the discussion, but this would have been an unnecessary handicap to the reader. However, the reader should realize that most speakers addressed each other informally as a consequence of acquaintance outside the frame­work of these particular meetings. The occasional shifts to more formal modes of addressing each other was therefore indicative of distance and sometimes of disagreement. The use of last names also underscored the special role of the invited guests of the subtle differences in pace and tone which some of them introduced into the meeting.
It is noteworthy that these invited guests cannot be identified by any obvious differ­ences between their vocabulary and that of the regular members. One of the most surprising features of the group is the Page xij almost complete absence of an idiosyncratic vocabulary. In spite of their six years of association, these twenty-five people have not developed any rigid, in-group language of their own. Our idioms are limited to a handful of terms borrowed from each other: analogical and digital devices, feedback and servomechanisms, and circular causal processes. Even these terms are used only with diffidence by most of the members, and a philologist given to word-frequency counts might discover that the originators of »cybernetics« use less of its lingo than do their more recent followers. The scarcity of jargon may perhaps be a sign of genuine effort to learn the language of other disciplines, or it may be that the common point of view provided sufficient basis for group coherence.
This common ground covered more than the mere belief in the worthwhileness of interdisciplinary discussion. All of the members have an interest in certain conceptual models which they consider potentially applicable to problems in many sciences. The concepts suggest a similar approach in widely diverse situations; by agreeing on the usefulness of these models, we get glimpses of a new lingua franca of science, fragments of a common tongue likely to counteract some of the confusion and complexity of our language.
Chief among these conceptual models are those supplied by the theory of informa­tion.[Note 1] ,[Note 2] ,[Note 3] This theory has arisen under the pressure of engineering needs; the efficient design of electronic communication devices (telephone, radio, radar, and television) depended on achieving favorable »signal-to-noise ratios.« Application of mathematical tools to these problems had to wait for an adequate formulation of »Information« as contrasted to »noise.«
If noise is defined as random activity, then information can be considered as greater order wrenched from disorder, as improbable structure in contrast to the probability of randomness. With the concept of entropy, classical thermodynamics expressed the universal trend toward more probable states: any physiochemical change tending to be found by referring to degrees of improbability of a state.
The improbable distribution of slots in a slotted card, or the improbable arrangement of nucleic acids in the highly specific pattern of a Page xiv gene both can be considered as »coded« information, the one decoded in the course of a technical (cultural) process, the other in the course of embryogeny. In both instances, that of the slotted card and that of the gene, we are faced not only with carriers of information but with powerful mechanisms of control: the slotted card can control long series of processes in a plant (without itself furnishing any of the requisite energy); the gene, as an organic template, somehow provides for its own reproduction and governs the building of a multicellular organism from a single cell. In the latter case, mere rearrangement of submicroscopic particles can apparently lead to mutations, improving or corrupting the organism’s plans as the case may be. Such rearrangement may indeed be similar to the difference brought about by the transposing of digits in numbers, 724 to 472, or by transposing letters in words such as art and rat.[Note 4]
Extension of information theory to problems of language structure has been fur­thered by psychologists and statisticians.[Note 5] ,[Note 6] ,[Note 7] ,[Note 8] ,[Note 9] There are unexploited opportunities for additional applications of the theory in comparative linguistics, and more particu­larly in studies of the pathology of language. Yet available work is sufficient to show how communication considered from this standpoint can be investigated in mechani­cal systems, in organisms, in social groups;[Note 10] and the logical and mathematical prob­lems that go into the construction of modern automata, in particular the large elec­tronic computers,[Note 11] have at least partial application to our theorizing about nervous systems and social interactions.
A second concept, now closely allied to information theory, is the notion of circu­lar causal processes. A state reproducing itself, like an organism, or a social system in equilibrium, or a physiochemical-aggregate in a steady-state, defied analysis until the simple notion of one-dimensional cause-and-effect chains was replaced by the bidimensional notion of a circular process. The need for such reasoning was clear to L. J. Henderson, the physiologist, when he applied the logic Page xv of Gibbsian physicochemical systems[Note 12] to the steady-states of human blood,[Note 13] and to integration in social groups, down to miniature social systems.[Note 14] Quite independently, social scientists had been tending in the same direction, as witnessed by the work of the functional anthropolo­gists Radcliffe-Brown[Note 15] and Bateson.[Note 16] ,[Note 17] In ecology, the concept of circular causal systems has been employed by Hutchinson,[Note 18] and further applications in statistical biology and genetics can be expected.
The remarkable constancy in the concentration of certain substances in the fluid matrix of the body led Claude Bernard originally to posit the fixity of the »milieu interieur« as one of the elementary conditions of life.[Note 19] Cannon[Note 20] designated as »homeostasis« those functions that restore a disturbed equilibrium in the internal envi­ronment – the complex self-regulatory processes which guarantee a relative constancy of blood sugar level, of osmotic pressure, of hydronium ion concentration, or of body temperature. Many of these processes are at least partially understood, but, as Klüver[Note 21] has pointed out, we know next to nothing of the physiological functions which underlie our perceptual »constancies.«
Normal perception is reaction to relations, to »universals« such as size, shape, and color. Perceived objects tend to remain invariant in their size while distance from the observer varies; perceived shapes and colors retain subjective identity in varying posi­tions and under varying illumination. This crucial problem for the physiological psy­chology of perception is rarely faced[Note 22] and the neural correlates for our reaction to universals are still sub judice.
Recent attempts at identifying a possible neural basis for our re-Page xwactions to univer­sals[Note 23] have adduced hypothetical sustained activity in neuronal circuits as one of the prerequisites for the central processes which guarantee perceptual constancies. Persis­tent circular activity in nervous nets had been postulated on theoretical grounds by Kubie[Note 24] over twenty years ago, thereby anticipating the subsequent empirical demon­stration of such reverberating circuits by Lorente de Nó.[Note 25] The importance of Lorente de Nó’s disclosures for neurological theory lies in the fact that, earlier in the century, many investigators considered the central nervous system as a mere reflex-organ; the mode of action of this organ, despite all the evidence to the contrary, was viewed as limited to the relating of input to output, stimulus and response corresponding to cause and effect. The possibility of self-sustained central activity in the nervous system was overlooked. Thence the denial of memory-images in early behaviorism, the emphasis on chain reflexes in attempts at explaining coordinated action.
To this day, many psychologists tend to see the prototype of all learning in elemen­tary conditioned reflexes, a tendency which cannot be understood unless one assumes, with Lashley,[Note 26] that these psychologists are still handicapped by »peripheralistic« notions, the unwarranted idea that central nervous activity cannot endure in the absence of continuing specific input from the periphery. Undoubtedly, the action of reverberating circuits can be overgeneralized, and has been abused. Long-range mem­ory may need more permanent neural changes, but the notion of such circuits has suggested models of neural activity which are potentially testable and therefore of value.[Note 27] ,[Note 28]
Activity in closed central loops thus has to be carefully distinguished from the older and simpler notions of neural circuits, circuits which join periphery and centers, as in the classical conception of postural reflexes. Sir Charles Bell[Note 29] spoke of a »nervous cir­cle which connects the voluntary muscles with the brain.« Through such circuits, mus­cles in a limb maintain a given tension, as long as motor impulses flow into the muscles according to the sensory signals which issue from these same muscles. The idea ante­dated the discovery of the sense organs (muscle Page xx spindles) which monitor a state of tension in the muscle and, by increasing their rate of centripetal firing, set off centri­fugal volleys which shorten the muscle in response to imposed stretch.
Numerous analogues for such recalibrating mechanisms can be found in those modern electronic devices in which output is regulated by constant comparison with input. The automatic volume control circuit of a radio receiver prevents»blasting« by decreasing the volume as the signal is increased and counteracts »fading« by increasing the volume. A speed control unit slows a motor down when its revolutions exceed a desired value and speeds it up when revolutions fall below this value. Such »feedback« or »servomechanisms«[Note 30] are man-made models of homeostatic processes. They are not exclusively found among electronic devices. In the days of the thermal engine, Max­well[Note 31] developed the theory of the mechanical »governor« of steam engines. Small ver­sions of this governor are still found today in old-fashioned phonograph turntables. Two massive metal spheres are suspended by movable links from a vertical shaft which spins with the main shaft of the machine. As speed increases, centrifugal force drives the metal spheres apart and increases the drag on the shaft; the machine slows down. Again, with the spheres sinking low, the drag on the shaft is decreased and the machine speeds up. Such a governor insures approximate constancy of speed in the engine, by the simplest mechanical means, and, in contrast to many more complicated devices, the mechanical governor shows little likelihood of going into uncontrollable oscillations.
Recent complex electronic devices are not only »error-controlled« (like a mechanical governor), but can be so built as to »seek« a certain state, like »goal-seeking« mis­siles which predict the future position of a moving target (at time of impact) by extra­polation from its earlier positions during pursuit. Such devices embody electronic computing circuits, and the appearance of »purpose« in their behavior (a feedback over the target!) has intrigued the theorists[Note 32] ,[Note 33] and prompted the construction of such like­able robots as Shannon’s electronic rat described in this volume.
The fascination of watching Shannon’s innocent rat negotiate its maze does not derive from any obvious similarity between the machine and a real rat; they are, in fact, rather dissimilar. The mechanism, however, is strikingly similar to the notions held by certain learning theorists about rats and about organisms in general. Shannon’s con­struc-Page xytion serves to bring these notions into bold relief.
Recent emphasis on giant electronic computers as analogues of the human brain should perhaps be considered in the same light. The logical and mathematical theories demanded by the construction of these computers raise problems similar to those faced on considering certain aspects of the nervous system or of social structures.[Note 11] It is no accident that John Von Neumann, a mathematician who is currently concerned with the theory of computers, should be more generally known for his analysis of human interaction in games and economic behavior,[Note 34] and that Norbert Wiener, after work­ing on computers and guided missiles, turned to the consideration of the social signif­icance of these mechanisms.[Note 35] Brief consideration of computers may therefore be in order.
Computers are constructed on either of two principles: they may be digital or ana­logical. In an analogical device, numbers are represented by a continuous variation of some physical quantity, a voltage, say, or a distance on a disc. A digital device, however, represents numbers as discrete units which may or may not be present, e.g., a circuit that may be open or closed, and the basic alphabet of the machine may be a simple yes or no, zero or one.
Peripheral neurons act on an all-or-none principle, and synapses in the central ner­vous system are frequently considered to act similarly. Theories of central nervous activity have consequently often paralleled those required for digital rather than ana­logue machines (cf., Pitts and McCulloch[Note 23] ). The applicability of digital notions to the actions of the central nervous system has been questioned,[Note 36] but the calculus worked out for handling them is certainly applicable to electronic digital computers,[Note 37] and the very fact that testable theories of nerve action have been proposed is due to the avail­ability of the electronic models.
We all know that we ought to study the organism, and not the computers, if we wish to understand the organism. Differences in levels of organization may be more than quantitative.[Note 38] But the computing robot provides us with analogues that are help­ful as far as they seem to hold, and no less helpful whenever they break down. To find out in what ways a nervous system (or a social group) differs from our man-made Page xz analogues requires experiment. These experiments would not have been considered if the analogue had not been proposed, and new observations on biological and social systems result from an empirical demonstration of the shortcomings of our models. It is characteristic that we tend to think of the intricacies of living systems in terms of non-living models which are obviously less intricate. Still, the reader will admit that in some respects, these models are rather convincing facsimiles of organismic or social processes – not of the organism or social group as a whole, but of significant parts.
How this way of thinking emerged in the group is difficult to reconstruct. From the outset, John Von Neumann and Norbert Wiener furnished the mathematical and logi­cal tools. Warren McCulloch, as the group’s »chronic chairman« infused it with enthu­siasm and insisted on not respecting any of the boundaries between disciplines. The Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, through Dr. Frank Fremont-Smith, provided the physical setting but actually much more than that: the social sanction for so unorthodox an undertaking. The confidence of the Foundation and of Dr. Frank Fremont-Smith made it possible to obtain a type of cross-fertilization which has proved rewarding over a period of six years.
The gradual growth of the principles can be recognized from dates and titles of suc­cessive Conferences. A nucleus of the current Cybernetics Conference seems to have been formed in May 1942 at the Macy Foundation Conference on »Cerebral Inhibi­tion.« Among the participants were: Gregory Bateson, Lawrence K. Frank, Frank Fre­mont-Smith, Lawrence Kubie, Warren McCulloch, Margaret Mead, and Arturo Rosenblueth. All of these later became members of the continuing group devoted to the discussion of »cybernetics.« The publication of the article on »Behavior, Purpose and Teleology« by Rosenblueth, Wiener, and Bigelow in 1943[Note 32] focused attention on several of the problems which led to the organization of the first Macy Foundation Conference in March 1946 devoted to »Feedback Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems in Biological and Social Systems.«
The fall of 1946 found the group very active. Two meetings sponsored by the Macy Foundation followed rapidly upon each other: first, in September, a special meeting on »Teleological Mechanisms in Society«; then, in October, the second Conference on Teleological Mechanisms and Circular Causal Systems. Next, the group formed the nucleus of a formal symposium on »Teleological Mechanisms« held under the auspices of the New York Academy of Sciences.[Note 39]
In the following year, 1947, the third Macy Foundation conference was held, retaining the title of the second meeting; the fourth and Page ya fifth conferences, in 1948, were entitled: Conference on Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems. The fifth conference concerned itself particularly with considerations of the structure of language.
With the publication of Norbert Wiener’s book Cybernetics, a term appeared which was unanimously chosen as title for the sixth conference in the spring of 1949. The title Cybernetics was maintained for the seventh and the present eighth conference 1950, 1951 with the subtitle Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.
Through the fifth conference, no transactions were published. With the sixth conference (1949) our program of publication began, so that the two preceding confer­ences, the sixth[Note 40] and seventh,[Note 41] are available in print. The reader might suspect that this urge to fix the group process in printed form is the beginning of fossilization. He may be right, but we prefer to think of it in terms more favorable to the group.
For well over two thousand years, the »symposium« has been a setting for the matching and sharpening of ideas. Evolved from the Attic stage, the literary form cre­ated by Plato has persisted through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Until recently, it was unrestrained by stenotypists and tape recorders. Few of the classical symposia were anything but prose poems of one man’s making. They brought a simple message, stated in contrapuntal fashion. Now we have our modern devices for the recording and storing of information. Communication transmitted has been infinitely multiplied in volume, but the thinking of simplifying ideas has not kept pace.
Whether the meetings here recorded contain such simplifying ideas, the editors would not presume to say. Some of us believe we can see such ideas here and there. For this reason, we preserved the record, and exhibit it to others for their judgment.
Pressure of time made it impossible in the last two years to sum up the historical background and to formulate an editorial policy. The published records of the sixth and seventh conferences, in 1949 and 1950, therefore appeared without any introduc­tion. We hope that this note will serve as a preface to the earlier reports, as well as to the present publication.
New York, N.Y.January 29, 1952 Page yb
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SHANNON, C. E., and WEAVER, W.: The Mathematical Theory of Communication . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949 (p. 116).
WIENER, N.: Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, New York:Wiley, 1948 (p. 194).
GERARD, R.W.: Unresting Cells. New York: Harper, 1940.
FRICK, F. C. and MILLER, G. A.: Statistical behavioristics and sequences of responses. Psychol. Rev. 56, 311 (1949).
MILLER, G.A.: Language and Communication. NewYork: McGraw-Hill, 1951.
MILLER, G. A., and SELFRIDGE, J. A.:Verbal context and the recall of meaningful material. Am. J. Psychol. 63, 176 (1950).
NEWMAN, E. B.: Computational methods useful in analyzing series of binary data. Am. Psychol. 64, 252
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BAVELAS, A.: A mathematical model for group structures. Appl. Anthropol . 7, (part 3)
VON NEUMANN, J.: The general and logical theory of automata. Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior (The Hixon Symposium). Jeffress, L.A., editor. New York: Wiley, 1951 (pp. 1-41).
GIBBS, J. W. On the equilibrium of heterogeneous substances. The Collected Works. Vol. 1. Thermodynamics. New York: Longmans, 1928 (pp. 55-371).
HENDERSON, L. J.: Blood: A Study in General Physiology. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1928 (p. 390).
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R.ADCLIFFE-BROWN, A. R.: The Andaman Islanders. A Study in Social Anthropology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1922 (pp. XIV and 504).
BATESON, G.: Naven: Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe, Drawn from Three Points of View. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936 (p. 286).
– : Bali: the value system of a steady state. In: Social Structure. Studies Presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown.Oxford University Press, 1949 (p. 35).
HUTCHINSON, G. E.: Circular causal systems in ecology. Ann. NewYork Acad. Sc. 50, 221 (1948).
BERNARD, C.: Leçons sur les phénomènes de la vie communes aux animaux et aux végétaux. Two volumes. Paris: J. B. Bailliere, 1878-79.
CANNON, W. B.: The Wisdom of the Body. New York: Norton, 1932 (p. XV and 312).
KLÜVER, H.: Behavior Mechanisms in Monkeys. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933 (p. XVIII and 387).
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PITTS, W., and McCULLOCH, W. S.: How we know universals; the perception of auditory and visual forms. Bull. Math. Biolphys. 9, 127 (1947).
KUBIE, L. S.: A theoretical application to sonic neurological problems of the properties of excitation which move in closed circuits. Brain 53, 166 (1930).
LORENTE DE NÓ, R.: Analysis of the activity of the chains of internuncial neurons. J. Neurophysiology 1, 207 (1938).
LASHLEY, K. S.: Discussion. In: Cerebral Mechanisms in Behavior (The Hixon Symposium). Jeffress, L. A., editor. New York: Wiley, 1951 (p. 82).
McCULLOCH, W. S.: A heterarchy of values determined by the topology of nerve nets. Bull. Math. Biophys. 7, 89 (1945).
HEBB, D. O..: Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. New York: Wiley, 1949 (p. XIX and 335).
BELL, C.: On the nervous circle which connects the voluntary muscles with the brain. Proc. Roy. Soc. 2, 266 (1826).
MACCOLL, L. R.: Fundamental Theory of Servo-Mechanisms. New York: Van Nostrand, 1945.
MAXWELL, C.: On governors. Proc. Roy. Soc. 16, 270 (1868).
ROSENBLUETH, A., WIENER, N., and BIGELOW, J.: Behavior, purpose and teleology. Philos. of Sc. 10, 18 (1943).
NORTHROP, F. S. C.: The neurological and behavioristic psychological basis of the ordering of society by means of ideas. Science 107, 411 (1948).
VON NEUMANN, J., and MORGENSTERN, O.: Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944.
WIENER, N.: The Human Use of Human Beings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950.
GERARD, R. W: Some of the problems concerning digital notions in the central nervous system. Cyber­netics. von Foerster, H., editor. Trans. Seventh Conf. New York: Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, 1950 (p. 11).
MCCULLOCH, W S., and PITTS, W.: A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity. Bull. Math. Biophys. 5, 115 (1943).
SCHNEIRLA, T. C.: Problems in the biopsychology of social organization. J. Abn. Soc. Psychol. 41, 385 (1946).
FRANK, L. K., et al.: Teleological mechanisms. Attn. New York Acad. Sc. 50, 189 (1948).
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