Second-order cybernetics (also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics, and the New cybernetics ) was developed between 1968 and 1975 in recognition of the power and consequences of cybernetic examinations of circularity. It is cybernetics, when cybernetics is subjected to the critique and the understandings of cybernetics. It is the cybernetics in which the role of the observer is appreciated and acknowledged rather than disguised, as had become traditional in western science: and is thus the cybernetics that considers observing, rather than observed systems. In this article, the rationale from and through the application of which, second-order cybernetics was developed is explored, together with the contributions of the main precursors and protagonists. This is developed from an examination of the nature of feedback and the Black Box both seen as circular systems, where the circularity is taken seriously. The necessary presence of the observer doing the observing is established. The primacy of, for example, conversation over coding as a means of communication is arguedone example of circularity and interactivity in second-order cybernetic systems. Thus second-order cybernetics, understood as proposing an epistemology and (through autopoietic systems) an ontogenesis, is seen as connected to the philosophical position of Constructivism. Examples are given of the application of second-order cybernetics concepts in practice in studies of, and applications in, communication, society, learning and cognition, math and computation, management, and design. It is asserted that the relationship between theory and practice is not essentially one of application: rather they strengthen each other by building on each other in a circularity of their own: the presentation of one before the other results from the process of explanation rather than a necessary, structural dependency. Finally, the future of second-order cybernetics (and of cybernetics in general) is considered. The possibility of escalation from second to third and further orders is considered, as is the notion that second-order cybernetics is, effectively, a conscience for cybernetics. And the popular use of “cyber-” as a prefix is discussed.
In this paper, the origins of second-order Cybernetics are sketched, and are particularly identified with circularity: a quality that was at the basis of the studies that lead to the creation of the field of Cybernetics. The implications of the new analysis that second-order Cybernetics (Cybernetics treated cybernetically: that is, Cybernetics when circularity is taken seriously) gives rise to are considered in terms of the two qualities that Wiener gave to Cybernetics in his eponymous book – control and communication. Finally, the analysis is applied to that other proto-cybernetic concept, purpose. It is shown that (and in consequence how) the notion of goal and purpose must be radically reconsidered in second-order Cybernetic systems.
This paper examines the grounding of George Spencer Brown’s notion of a distinction, particularly the ultimate distinctions in intension (the elementary) and extension (the universal), It discusses the consequent notions of inside and outside, and discovers that they are apparent, the consequence of the difference between the self and the external observer. The necessity for the constant redrawing of the distinction is shown to create “things”. The form of all things is identical and continuous. This is reflected in the distinction’s similarity to the Möbius strip rather than the circle. There is no inside, no outside except through the notion of the external observer. At the extremes, the edges dissolve. The elementary and.the universal thus re-enter each other. “Your inside is out and your outside is in.”
For some of us, the attraction of cybernetics is the very idea of it, the idea that the search for transdisciplinary truths is both possible and valuable. Many would accept that cybernetics has helped unify the first-order study of observed systems. In this paper, I explore ways in which second-order cybernetics may unify debates and discussions in the vast range of disciplines concerned with the observer, his experiences and his accounts of those experiences. The first part of the paper is deliberately first person and anecdotal, in the spirit of von Foerster’s dictum, life is studied in vivo not in vitro. The second part re-examines the classic cybernetic concepts of self-organisation and circular causality from the perspective of the constructivist epistemology of second order cybernetics and, by making the metaphorical status of the concepts explicit, shows how second order cybernetics may serve as a methodology for exploring modes of being. A major aim of the paper is to seek ways of navigating or building bridges between the praxes of rational science and the discourses of phenomenology and poetics.
In 1974, Heinz von Foerster articulated the distinction between a first- and second-order cybernetics, as, respectively, the cybernetics of observed systems and the cybernetics of observing systems. Von Foerster’s distinction, together with his own work on the epistemology of the observer, has been enormously influential on the work of a later generation of cyberneticians. It has provided an architecture for the discipline of cybernetics, one that, in true cybernetic spirit, provides order where previously there was variety and disorder. It has provided a foundation for the research programme that is second-order cybernetics. However, as von Foerster himself makes clear, the distinction he articulated was imminent right from the outset in the thinking of the early cyberneticians, before, even, the name of their discipline had been coined. In this paper, the author gives a brief account of the developments in cybernetics that lead to von Foerster’s making his distinction. As is the way of such narratives, it is but one perspective on a complex series of events. Not only is this account a personal perspective, it also includes some recollections of events that were observed and participated in at first hand.