Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

“Getting” Heinz

In which the author, having reconstructed conversations from twenty-nine years ago pleads with the reader to indulge him this liberty to peer at some yet to be resolved issues of science and the teaching of science...


June 21, 1971 was not a good day. I arrived in Cuernavaca, Mexico after a bumpy Mexicana non-stop from Kennedy and a bus driver who pumped the clutch during the fifty minute ride from Mexico City as if he were making wine. Padré Francois, my host, eagerly showed off my dormitory quarters and the communal kitchen before pointing me in the direction of the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion (CIDOC), where I had come to attend the seminar entitled "Interpersonal Relational Networks," organized and facilitated by Heinz Von Foerster.

I did not know Heinz, nor did I know the other seminar participants, save one, Gordon Pask, a "cybernetician," whom I had heard lecture in New York two months earlier. I can blame June 21 on cybernetics, for it was cybernetics that lured me, caught me and beached me on the Mexican plateau.

"You're a day late."

I was listening to my other Cuernavaca host, Ivan Illich, with whom I had corresponded briefly and who suggested I attend this seminar.

"You printed the wrong day in the catalog," I countered, pointing to the catalog, which read, "Interpersonal Relational Networks, June 22." Ivan Illich shrugged me off and launched an "annoying-and-at-the-same-time-charming" non sequitur, "We have something for everybody."

He did. As co-founder of CIDOC, Ivan Illich brought preeminent thinkers from across the globe, writers, artists, designers, philosophers, theologians, anarchists and teachers to Cuernavaca each summer for dialogues on social and economic change, the sacred and the profane, the "deschooling" of America. Now it was cybernetics.

"So I start the seminar a day late." I could see Illich was too enrapt in his thoughts to resume playing host. I was wrong."Its okay. You come." Illich smiled and then frowned slightly. "I am not pleased with the first day (of the seminar)." He explained, "How am I as someone who does not KNOW science not be excluded from the benefits OF science?" It was a moral and economic and educational question all rolled into one. Ivan Illich is like this: his mind crosses boundaries like a trapeze artist.


From the patio surrounding the oval shaped room where the seminar met, the "Sala Pescadoes", named for the lithographs of fish on the walls, one could see on the distant western horizon, Popocatepetl, "El Popo," Mexico's slumbering volcano. Over the next six days I would reflect on "El Popo": on some days, the volcano seemed so close your eyes could grab it; on other days, so far, your mind could barely make out its shape. "El Popo's" appearances matched my understanding of cybernetics: some days, so nascent; other days, so distant, so intangible.

As mercurial were Ivan Illich's thought swings, Heinz Von Foerster, by comparison, was effulgent. If the Seminar on Interpersonal Relational Networks seemed at times like intellectual opera at its best then Heinz Von Foerster was the seminar's Verdi. Heinz the intellectual impresario, a party-thrower at the playground of ideas. Heinz didn't have to use a heavy baton to keep the voices singing in tempo: a little pull here, a tug there and each seminar-participant was free to fulfill his/her individual insights on communication and control in animal and machine.


"We have a newcomer," Heinz announced to the group.

Earlier before the seminar convened for its second day, I had approached Heinz and apologized for my twenty-four hour tardiness. He quickly pulled me aside and lowered his voice to a whisper. "You are very valuable, because you see, you can be an observer." I felt as I were a party to a subterfuge. I was the self-organizing system in situ; the ready and willing specimen, the walk-on.

On the first day the opening remarks imploded into a discussion on determinism versus "free" will, scientific fundamentalism against scientific orthodoxy. How is an observer freed from his/her observations? Or the inverse of this question, how do we demonstrate that we know? What makes us so sure?

At the root of the discussion was the claim of cybernetics to be a science. "El Popo" was getting distant. Cybernetics champions choice, so the traditional notion that an observer can act independently of his/her observations could be refuted because such observations were irrefutable. Cybernetics, which proposes to place the observer, "observed in his/her observations," in a system of observations, is not a science, but a science "of science."

"El Popo" was getting close. I was "getting" Heinz. Because I missed the first day, I became the "fall guy." Was I an attendee or not? Traditional science said no; Heinz and cybernetics said yes. In the Sala Pescadoes, clockwise from Heinz's left sat...Ivan Illich, Herbert Brun, Manny Brun, several students, Gordon Pask, more students, Humberto Maturana. In the presence of the world's top minds of cybernetics, I was being asked to ask and be asked.

"We have a newcomer," Heinz repeated, in case I, or anyone, were asleep and had missed the verbal pun.

"Now I would like to ask our newcomer, and I would like to ask our participants to ask our newcomer, what he thought happened yesterday."


It is often said, perhaps not enough, I feel, that the best teachers are those who free the student to demonstrate learning. I came to Mexico looking for cybernetics and discovered in my looking that teaching is a moral affair, an affair of the heart and mind. And Heinz was there, present at my discovery.

We became friends.

I attempted, vicariously, like the party guest who wouldn't leave, to chronicle the Seminar on Interpersonal Relational Networks and to record for others the "Proceedings." "El Popo" got fogged in. Heinz advised against this, offering that unlike a formal "Call for Papers" variety seminar, "Interpersonal Relational Networks" was a work in progress. Without papers, it would be unfair to the participants to "report" on their discourse.

Along the way, though I would not have anticipated this in June, 1971, the energy hatched during the CIDOC seminar would resurface with The Cybernetics of Cybernetics, published as a Biological Computer Laboratory document. Many student participants at the CIDOC seminar contributed to, designed, organized and produced The Cybernetics of Cybernetics.

I was privileged to attend both events. My friendship with Heinz grew, as did my interest in cybernetics. For me cybernetics and Heinz Von Foerster are fused: Heinz, a scientist of science, a teacher of teaching.

Rodney Clough

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift