A (cybernetic) musing: The gestation of second order cybernetics, 1968–1975 – A Personal Account
Glanville R. (1998) A (cybernetic) musing: The gestation of second order cybernetics, 1968–1975 – A Personal Account. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 5(2): 85–95. Available at http://cepa.info/2841
Table of Contents
A Testamony, Not A History
We Are Not Alone
A Personal Contribution
Recently, two of the editor’s graduate students, Maj-Britt Rosenkilde and Anja Abel Sørensen, wrote to ask about my version of the beginnings of second order cybernetics. Since the plans I had for this issue were to write a jointly authored column with two applied linguists from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and the plans didn’t work out – I had a change of schedule for personal reasons – this request seemed fortunate, timely and apposite. (The jointly authored column is still planned.)
A Testamony, Not A History
This is not so much history as testamony. 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.
When I try to create my account of the “Gestation of Second Order Cybernetics”, if I am to be true to my subject I will not try to write the history, but a personal history at most. My account is of my experience as a participant in this event, and is particular: it is particular because my experience was particular. It happened in a particular context, at a particular time and place. And to a particular person.
I am not sure that I believe it is consistent with the message of Second Order Cybernetics that history should be attempted. Perhaps I am a little extreme in this, but that is in my character. Anyhow, I am not the person to try to write that history which will be the history. 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.
Yes, one of the more interesting aspects of this event was that it was enacted by people from such different backgrounds and in such different places (what has become the internet was only itself in early gestation at this time). It was widely (if thinly) based. For the historian who may one day try to write the history, this may be a matter of great interest.
I mention some of the many others who were involved in this Gestation at the end. The reason I do not refer more to their work is that they were not a part of my history. The added advantage of this is that this leaves room for others to add their own accounts. The editor confirms that he supports the invitation. Please feel welcomed to contribute your own account. If there is to be a history, let i be a history of these personal accounts.
But this column is not really a history. It is my testament.
I first became aware that cybernetics was undergoing a sea change early on in my studies with Gordon Pask, during the winter of 1971–2. Pask was then concerned with what he called “Task Structures”, which eventually lead him to develop Conversation Theory. Pask’s way of teaching, at that time, was to rehearse in front of his class the context of the problem that was bothering him that week, and then to introduce the problem to the class, inviting our comments and attempts at solutions. It was a fine approach, and he managed it wonderfully.[Note 2]
Pask introduced the question first brought up by the great mathematician David Hilbert, and finally disposed of by the legendary Kurt Gödel. This is a well-known question. As I remember, Gordon brought the matter up in the following way.
Taking the notion of a system, he wanted to introduce a meta-system that would model or describe that system completely. (The reason for this concern grew out of his wish to create complete descriptions of tasks, generalised to the complete descriptions of knowledge.) According to Gödel (the generalised version of Gödel’s finding, the original of which was actually limited to arithmetic), this is an unattainable aim. We cannot know that we have a description that, staying within a system is simultaneously both complete and consistent.[Note 3] So how could he achieve his impossible aim and make a “perfect” model? How could he describe a structure of tasks, for instance, and have confidence that the description would cover all eventualities and not lead to conflicts: that is, be absolutely accurate and reliable.
Why would this matter? Because, if you wish to control a system, the subtlety of your control is dependent on the accuracy of the model. This is the meaning of Ashby’s notion of variety and is borne out in the classic paper “Every Good Regulator of a System Must be a Model of that System” he wrote with Roger Conant and to which, for some reason I still do not understand, Gordon had a strong aversion.
Furthermore, this was considered – and to a large degree still is (see Roger Penrose’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, for example) – the crucial question at the centre of philosophical debates on the attainability of an Artificial Intelligence, a debate that Gordon’s colleague at Brunel University, Frank George, was profoundly interested in at this time.
Pask presented the conventional way in which we have dealt with problems such as this. We have used the notion of cascading systems. If the meta-system (the model) could not be accurate, could we add a further meta-meta-system that would deal with the problem? After a bit the answer is obvious. Of course not: the problem remains the same because there will always be another meta level to strap onto the one we’ve just added. And so on. As you start adding meta’s you progress ever further along an infinite regress. The completeness/consistency problem does not, however, recede.
As a way out, Pask cited a paper by the Swedish Autologist, Lars Löfgren. Löfgren was one of a group of academic visitors to Heinz von Foerster’s Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Others included Humberto Maturana, Gotthard Günther, Ross Ashby and Gordon himself – to name but a few. Löfgren’s paper (“An Axiomatic Explanation of Complete Self-Reproduction”) published in 1968, was presented by Gordon as seminal, representing a change in approach to the problem of meta’s.[Note 4] It was probably more of an inspiration to Pask than a literal model.
The Pask gloss on/development from Löfgren went more or less thus:
Consider a system and a meta-system, which describes the system. As we know, the meta-system cannot describe the system simultaneously both completely and consistently. Imagine, contrary to what we have already discovered, that the meta-system’s description is improved a bit. It is still not simultaneously both complete and consistent, of course, but it is better. Imagine, again, that there is another improvement, and then another. At some point the system and the meta-system might be indistinguishable, although this may involve a virtually infinite regress. That is, the meta-system may eventually come to simultaneously both completely and consistently model all of the system. (This is, of course, a calculus-like argument of limits and could be translated into a concatenation of meta’s.)
But how would this happen? The obvious way is for the meta-system to improve and improve. That is, for all the change to happen in the meta-system – but we know the problem with this. Less obviously, the system might change towards the meta-system, or both might change towards the each other. Gordon dragged each of these possibilities out of us, the latter by means of a wonderful what if question: what if the model of the model were actually the object modelled in the first instance? How could that be? As I remember, this was what he was discovering from Löfgren’s work – that each system could be seen as describing the other, and there would have to be a “core” where these descriptions function “properly”.
I don’t know if I can communicate the astonishment and sense of revelation I experienced at this. The process was exciting. The man was exciting and brilliant. But the ideas, the ideas were pure magic. Suddenly there was a world sucking me in, where ideas could be played with, developed and turned in on themselves in wondrous ways. For me it was a (long) moment of sudden passionate clarity, and of transcendence and release.
In brief, what we were discovering, in class, was this:
That there could be circular systems taking a less “disguised” form than the feedback loop. (By this I mean that a feedback loop is seen as taking very little energy, and therefore is in some sense secondary, even peripheral. But in second order cybernetics, which is no longer primarily concerned with and based in a world of energetics, circularity and all its complications do not have to be excused or evaded. They are the stuff of it.) That it is possible to think of coupled systems each of which models the other. That stability may be due to internal conditions and not to the relationship to an external goal. (Indeed, a stable system might seem from outside to move very fast, even chaotically.) That the view of a system from inside and the view from outside must be considered of different (Russellian) types.
(It was these notions that had set me off on the handed universe I outlined in the last issue, a universe that had a metaphorical hand on its boundary to grab the external observer (and anything else) and pull it into the universe itself, so it always contained its most recent observer/observation and was always complete.)
We Are Not Alone
Imagine, then, my astonishment and delight when two legendary figures turned up for our class one day in the spring of 1973. I say legendary, but that was to those better versed that I was. To me, they were just two visitors some of my fellow students were getting very excited about. On their way back from a Piaget celebration in France, they were Heinz von Foerster and Humberto Maturana (who had been working with colleagues Francisco Varela and the unaccountably under-recognised Ricardo Uribe). And both of them had exciting things to tell us about new developments in their research.[Note 5]
Von Foerster spoke first. He presented work that is summarised in his “Notes on an Epistemology for Living Things”. This paper had two meanings for me that day.
The first was that a circular argument could be sustained and yet, taking part in it, I could be moved (in both senses). The argument concerned the inclusion of the observer (an old problem in human and social sciences, but, equally, in physics) and the nature of the knowledge thus produced: it pursued the assertion that what we do is observing, not observing some thing, which Heinz had made in his slightly earlier paper “On Constructing a Reality”. He showed that there was a process by which, going through a series of steps, you would return to where you had started from, but with a far greater and deeper understanding. Observing is recursive, each loop including and being based on the one before. It was like the saying of DT Suzuki, doyen of teachers of zen in the west, quoted by the composer John Cage:
Before studying zen, men are men and mountains are mountains.While studying zen all is confused.After studying zen, men are men and mountains are mountains.The difference is, that in the first case, the feet were a little bit off the ground.
The second was that what he was saying and the way he was saying it mapped onto each other as I believed (and still do) the form and the content of works of art do: the form indicated the content, the content required the form.[Note 6] His argument went round, repeating from the same start/end point. Coming from a background in architecture and music, this meant a lot to me (and still does: cybernetics is my art).
At the time, Maturana’s presentation was, if anything, even more impressive. I wish I could recreate it. It was a big bamboozle: a magic. I remember it – and me – being spun in the way he spoke. He used the word “concatenation”, a word I’d never heard before and spoken in that special intonation of his, and it went round and round in my head, a sort of incantational chorus: the concatenation of concatenations… etc.[Note 7]
What he was talking about was “Autopoiesis”. This was about as early as anyone had heard of this concept, in public. Of course, Gordon knew it: he, Maturana and von Foerster were in frequent contact. And what Maturana was saying, at that time, was that life is the process of producing life (i.e., is a verb, not a noun). He talked about how a system that was self sustaining through process could come into being: it produced itself and then continued to produce itself of itself. He talked of studying the process of living not by killing it, but as something that only had coherence as a process. In my shorthand, he talked of life not in the death of vitrio, but as (the process of) living.
It became clear that what we had been discussing and developing in Gordon’s classes was not isolated or unique. That out there in the world of the superstars (our own teacher, because he was our teacher, we mistakenly did not recognise as a superstar) there were serious and major people who shared our concerns: with circularity; with problems of completeness (how could the autopoietic system contain its own self-description). Indeed, how – theoretically – can any genetically driven system contain its own self description, which it must so that it can reproduce itself, as it so manifestly does.
I don’t think Heinz used the forms of words “cybernetics of cybernetics” or “second order cybernetics” that day, but for me that was when I realised that the world had changed, there was a new insight and a new interpretation: what, I suppose, Kuhn would call a paradigm shift. That day I recognised what later became known under the sobriquets:
“cybernetics of cybernetics”, “second order cybernetics” and the “new cybernetics”.
So what are the characteristics[Note 8] of this version of cybernetics?[Note 9] It may appear surprising, after all the fuss I made above, that Gödel’s problem is not at the heart of it. Gödel’s problem was one of the drivers that lead to it, but the cybernetics of cybernetics transcends it and relegates it to a corner because it belongs to the class of phenomena that, while logically impossible, actually seems to happen. My position is that we must therefore change logic, not what we find to be actual.
The crucial characteristics that have been understood include the following:
The observer is included in the system (famously, von Foerster’s aphorism in his amazing source book which gave us the name “The Cybernetics of Cybernetics” is “the cybernetics of observing, not observed, systems”). Unless the observer is included, there is no observing. All knowing presumes the active participation of an observer.Systems are seen as circular. Circularity is taken to be the general case. Cutting circularity leads to hierarchy and suchlike, ie to chains and cause. A metaphor is a wheel and its trace/track. In other words, the circular form of feedback is taken seriously and is not dismissed as a minor physical variant acceptable only because the energy required is insignificant.Thus, the preoccupation is with process rather than object. Objects become apparently stable embodiments of their own (internal) processes (hence self-description), ie autonomous. And the difference between internal and external (within the system and without it, particularly vis-à-vis the observer) is appreciated, especially in relation to stability. Descriptions made from outside may lead to an apparent object-ness, but that object-ness comes from the act of observing. This also influences how we can understand the notion of goal, so central in early cybernetics.Herein lies the interest in that most diabolical of local arrangements, self-reference. In a universe of reference, stable entities (objects) must be taken as referring to themselves, if they are to be taken to be autonomous objects in this universe and to be based in reference.Under such circumstances, communication (exchange) is possible, but only if we abandon the lexicographical concepts of meaning encoded in word, of rightness in communication, and allow instead negotiation through conversation, which is a circular form. This “means” that no one’s meanings are the same as any other’s. Within such a conversation, all entities must be considered to be circular, as the conversation is, for all knowledge of them is of them in and through circularities.Under these circumstances, notions such as sameness and difference, identity, and the origins of logic require reinterpretation. In fact, there is a whole universe of concepts to be thought through again.[Note 10] Second order cybernetics is constructivist. It always talks of how the observer sees. But it is not without values: there are still “better” and “worse” views: argument has value.
Behind these characteristics lies a notion of distinction. Pask and von Foerster discovered, as the sea change was in progress, an extraordinary text that seemed to transcend the conventions of logical discourse and give rise to dramatic and beautiful new ways of accounting for the world. The text, by a neighbour and acquaintance of Gordon’s, became central to all of us involved, whether in the intricacies of its mechanisms of logical manipulation or the rallying call “Draw a Distinction” with which the argument begins (and which von Foerster used as the abstract of his paper “On Constructing a Reality”).[Note 11] This text was the “Laws of Form”, its author the mathematician and logician George Spencer Brown. It was privately published in 1968, the same year as Löfgren’s paper with which I began this account.
Sometimes I am asked what is the value of this way of describing the world we construct and thus find ourselves in. My answer is often taken to be odd. Most expect some comment about its usefulness, or, perhaps, its truth. But for me what matters, what talks to and moves me, is its staggering beauty. The fact that we have become unused to talking of the products of our thinking in such terms is, to me, a tragedy. Nevertheless, it is, part of the triumph of second order cybernetics that it permits and even encourages this sort of comment and valuation, and that I can say this, honestly, without fear of ridicule.
A Personal Contribution
At this point I have also to talk a little, and I hope not immodestly, about my work, for that was a major element in the brief set me by Maj-Britt and Anja.
I have already mentioned the handed universe. This serves more as an indicator of involvement than a serious contribution.
So how, then, do I see my contribution? I will try to fit it in to the picture I have painted.
Firstly, I (with many others) was actively involved in the debate – in the Pask corner. I have already explained that I think Gordon’s contribution was the result not only of his individual creativity and genius, but was also a collective effort in which his colleagues and students took part, questioning and arguing. Many of the points I heard argued with Gordon in class were accepted by him immediately. Others eventually made it; for instance, the insistence that the number of distinctions drawn over what he called topics was indefinitely large rather than, as he at first insisted, infinite (this reflects a difference in how you conceive of the relationship between observer and observed).
Secondly, my main personal contribution was to examine what sort of structure we would have to assume when we believe that we all observe distinctly (differently), yet believe we can talk as if we observe the same (Object: to use my technical term, indicated with a capital initial O). I began this in my PhD, unofficially called “The Object of Objects; the Point of Points – or, Something about Things”, which was rejected at first because of this title! The gist of the argument was that if we inhabit a universe of observation, of knowables, then if we believe some Object exists so that we can observe it, we must assume it observes its self. (This assumes that exist and know map, and that we are talking as if the Object existed beforehand and outside of our observing so that we could observe it: an assumption I have recently revisited in the paper “Acts Between and Between Acts”.)
The structure I developed is self-observing and therefore circular and thoroughly cybernetic. The structure also generates many interesting qualities such as a relational logic based in times of observation and can, for instance account for memory, representation and consciousness. See “What is Memory.”, “All Thoughts of Things”, “Consciousness, and soon” and “The same is Different” All done with an immensely simple calculus (its simplicity continues to astonish me) that the external examiner, Heinz von Foerster, at the time asserted was the calculus of Piaget’s notions of child development.
The other special value of this work is its generality. It is so abstracted that it is capable of providing a framework within which the other forms belonging to and originating second order cybernetics can co-exist, a background against which they can be viewed. Since it is designed to permit different viewpoints, this is hardly surprising. It even accommodates and predicates Spencer Brown’s dictum (“The Self and the Other…” is a recent, modified exploration). It is a true product of that unsung hero whose thoughts are precursor to second order cybernetics, the educator Fredrich Froebel (yes, I went to a Froebel Kindergarten). Gordon Pask used, with the typical generosity that marked the man, to say that there was an isomorphisms between this “Theory of Objects” and all the other second order cybernetic theories, but that the “Theory of Objects” was simpler, and more elegant.
I am still finding out about this work – what it means to me – and understanding the implications and subtleties that I had no idea of when I developed it. (Ernst von Glasersfeld picked this up immediately and challenged me in a way I found at the time incomprehensible but now value for the impetus it gave me.) It is this impetus, and the desire to reduce, simplify and eventually totally clear (back to the zen state) that is what makes the notion of “Mechanical Trees” “that grow to their full height/and chop themselves down” (Laurie Anderson) so insistently appealing to me. I have to admit I still love and am surprised by that work, work that I look at as a parent looks at a child, wondering how on earth they even had anything to do with making it. To me, it is the work that gives space for the work of others in the field: in a manner, it gives permission. It is the generalisation of observer dependent systems – which, in today’s understanding, means all systems.
Pask always talked of von Foerster as his mentor, and, indeed, his dying efforts went into producing a paper for von Foerster’s festschrift. Maturana and von Foerster were and still are very close. Von Foerster talks of his admiration for and feeling of closeness to Maturana. Part of the closeness had to do with the tragic story of Chile. Maturana, Varela and Uribe were Chilean. The time we are considering coincides with the time just after the CIA murdered Salvatore Allende, the world’s first freely elected communist president, and installed yet more authoritarian and right wing South American Generals in his place. There was a connection between the cybernetics community and Chile. It took two forms.
The first was the specific involvement of Maturana, Varela and Uribe. They developed Autopoiesis, they were Chilean, and it was necessary to extract them in the aftermath of the CIA coup, for they were seen as revolutionaries and a threat. Consequently, they were liable to be disappeared. One day, this story will be written, and the efforts of and personal risks taken by von Foerster, Stafford Beer and Pask (amongst others) will also become clearer.
The second lies in Stafford Beer, himself. I have not discussed his significant contribution because it was not a part of my experience. Others will, I hope, make up for this. Allende invited Stafford, as a sympathetic and serious manager (a cybernetician) to help him develop the new Chile. Stafford’s work is almost entirely about the inclusion of the observer within the observations made, and how this can lead to effective actions (his definition of cybernetics). He was well aware of the Chileans’ work on Autopoiesis. But he had another role. As a major advisor to Allende, he developed concepts of real time information, effective think tanks etc and brought them “rough” information, quickly and through these means a degree of connection with the people, which involved and interacted with the senior politicians in Allende’s Government.[Note 12] These were the other people who had to be extracted from Chile. They included Finance Minister Fernando Flores, whose more recent work with Terry Winograd is well known and respected.
This account is selective. It is personal, it is my account of my discovery of second order cybernetics. Certainly, those who populate my version are not the only ones who might be cited. Some would want to emphasise the contributions of Stafford Beer and of Ernst von Glasersfeld. Others would point to a German School, with Gotthard Günther and Niklas Luhmann, or to members of the Dutch Systems Group. Francisco Varela would insist on a French presence with DuPuy and his colleagues in Paris. Many would find precursors in Ross Ashby and Gregory Bateson. And there will be others I have left out even of this list.
Perhaps some of those critics and others would like to add to this account. To enrich it with further accounts and references, and populate it with other people. As noted earlier, the editor and I would be glad to receive any such offerings, and to co-ordinate their assembly, perhaps into another column in this series.
I once asked Gordon, the only person I knew intimately who had known Wiener well, what Wiener would have thought of second order cybernetics. Would he have felt betrayed? Without a second’s hesitation, Gordon insisted he would not. Gordon said that Wiener knew full well that the ideas the early cyberneticians introduced were only the beginning. That they knew the ideas had to be developed much further, that they would have consequences that were even more radical when they were examined in depth in the fullness of time, but that they didn’t know how to do this themselves. Gordon told me Wiener would have been delighted and excited. And that is the reason I have never felt the need to look back, apologise, or to ask whether, in my pursuit of second order cybernetics, I am undermining the first order, acting with arrogant insensitivity and lack of respect, and destroying the subject that is my discipline.
In the title, I give the dates for the gestation of second order cybernetics as 1968 to 1975. Why? Because 1968 saw the appearance of Spencer Brown’s “The Laws of Form” (the privately published first edition) and Löfgren’s paper. And 1975 saw Pask’s Conversation Theory books published, and Autopoiesis had finally already found a publisher. And in 1975 I graduated, my PhD accepted.
Ashby, R. and Conant, R. (1970) “Every Good Regulator of a System Must be a Model of that System”, International Journal of Systems Science 1(2): 89–97.
Beer, S. “Platform for Change”, Chichester, John Wiley and Sons
Glanville, R. (1975) “A Cybernetic Development of Theories of Epistemology and Observation with reference to Space and Time as seen in Architecture” (PhD Thesis, unpublished) Brunel University, also known as “The Object of Object, the Point of Points, – or Something about Things”
Glanville, R. (1976) “What is Memory, that it can remember what it is?” in Trappl, R. et al (eds) “Recent Progress in Cybernetics & Systems Research, Volume 7” (Proceedings 3 European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research) Washington DC, Hemisphere Press
Glanville, R. (1980) “All Thoughts of Things” in Trappl, R. et al (eds) “Progress in Cybernetics & System Research” vol 8, Washington DC, Hemisphere Press.
Glanville, R. (1980) “Consciousness, and so on” Journal of Cybernetics 10: 301-312
Glanville, R. (1980) “The Same is Different” in Zeleny M. (ed) “Autopoiesies” New York, Elsevier.
Glanville, R. (1990) “The Self and the Other: the Purpose of Distinction” in Trappl, R. “Cybernetics and Systems ‘90” the Proceedings of the European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research, Singapore, World Scientific.
Glanville, R. (1993) “On becoming Gordon’s Student” in Glanville, R. (ed), “Gordon Pask, a Festschrift”, Systems Research vol 10, No 3
Glanville, R. (1995) “The Cybernetics of Value and the Value of Cybernetics: the Art of Invariance and the Invariance of Art” in Glanville, R. and de Zeeuw, G. /eds) “Problems of Values and (In)variants” (conference Proceedings), Amsterdam, Thesis Publishers.
Glanville, R. (in press) “Acts Between an Between Acts”, Proceedings of Consciousness Reframed ’98.
Löfgren, L. (1968) “An Axiomatic Explanation of Complete Self-Reproduction”, Bulletin of Mathematical Biology Vol. 38 No 3
Pask, G. (1975) Conversation Theory, London, Hutchinson
Pask, G (1975) Conversation, Cognition and Learning London, Hutchinson
Pask, G. (1979) “Artificial Intelligence – a Preface and a Theory” in Negroponte N. (1973) Machine Intelligence in Design Cambridge, MIT Press, later (1979) Soft Architecture Machines
Pask, G., Scott BCE. and Kallikourdis, D. (1973) “A Theory of Conversations and Individuals (Exemplified by the Learning Process on CASTE” International Journal of Man Machine Studies, vol 5.
Spencer Brown, G (1969) Laws of Form London, George Allen and Unwin
Varela, F., Maturana, H. and Uribe, R. (1974) “Autopoiesis“ Bio Systems Vol. 5
von Foerster, H (1972) “Noteson an Epistemology for Living Things”, BCL fiche 104/1, University of Illinois at Urbana
von Foerster, H. “On Constructing a Reality” in W. Preiser (ed.) Environmental Design and Research Vol. 2, Stroudsburg, Dowden Hutchinson and Ross, 1973
von Foerster, H. et al (1973) The Cybernetics of Cybernetics, Champaign-Urbana, Biological Computer Laboratory, University of Illinois.
This is why, in my recent web piece on Pask (see under “Luminaries” at www.isss.org) I referred to the contribution of his students amongst the collaborators who had contributed to the creation of Conversation Theory.
Gödel’s Theorem is difficult even for logicians. There are some simple introductions, however. For instance, Nagel and Newman’s “Gödel’s Theorem” and the appropriate section of Andrew Hodges’ book on Alan Turing, “The Enigma of Intelligence”.
I am not sure that Löfgren agrees with this interpretation of his work.
Another, more competent person will one day explain the origins of this work of both von Foerster and Maturana et al in studies of the neurology of cognition and consciousness, and will point to the significance of the contributions of Warren McCulloch (whom von Foerster claims as his mentor), Walter Pitts and Jerome Letvin (with whom a youthful Maturana collaborated) all of whom worked at MIT and had early connections with the Cybernetics Group (see Steve Joshua Heims’ book of that title).
As I argued in the Festschrift I edited in his honour-see Systems Research Vol. 10, No 3, 1993.
I believe there is something about cybernetics that gives its practitioners this ability. I remember, on first meeting Pask, being astounded, and considering that though the man was obviously a genius, the subject must also have played a major part in his abilities. Now that I have students voicing similar opinions, I am more than ever convinced of the power of the subject.
I would prefer the word qualities. Qualities are attributed by an observer to an object (or, more exactly, to an observation). Characteristics are taken to be of an object. Turing clearly understood this in his classic paper on AI which invented the Turing test, which makes spurious and superfluous the Gödel type arguments in AI: intelligence is not a characteristic belonging to an object (a property of that object): it is a quality attributed through observing.
Although the differentiation of second order cybernetics from first was important at the time, I am now inclined to drop the wording of the differentiation. For me there is no conceivable cybernetics that does not benefit from the developments of second order cybernetics: those insights were what cybernetics was waiting for to reach maturity. So to talk of cybernetics without assuming these discoveries is, in my view, not to talk of cybernetics at all.
This is what I try to do in my research, and constitutes my continuing research programme.
Francisco Varela worked on various extensions and elaborations of this text for several years, especially as it affected self-reference. I have written about its assumptions.
See his “Fanfare for Effective Freedom”, his prophetic and immensely brave Richard Goodman Memorial Lecture, in “Platform for Change”.
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