A life in cybernetics

Bernard Scott (pictured, then and now) with a look back.

Between 1964 and 1968, I was an undergraduate at Brunel University, studying psychology. I was on a sandwich course, where periods of study were interspersed with work placements. In my first three years of study, I accrued very mixed feelings about psychology as a scientific discipline. Only behaviourists claimed to be fully scientific. Psychology was a ragbag of disparate topics, studied and theorised about in a wide variety of ways. I attended courses of lectures on learning theory, perception, social psychology, individual differences, psychopathology, organisational psychology, and developmental psychology. There were also lectures on biology, sociology, and social anthropology, taught as separate subjects. There was an early mention of cybernetics in Robert Borger’s lectures on learning theory but nothing substantial was covered. I was an indifferent and poorly motivated student in the midst of what I saw as a mess of a discipline. My teachers, espousing different paradigms, were incapable of constructive conversations with one another. It was cybernetics that eventually enabled me to make sense of this mess and inspired me to become an enthusiastic scholar.  

A unifying transdiscipline

In 1966, I took a course on cybernetics given by David Stewart, a newly appointed lecturer in the Department of Psychology (and now a Trustee of the UK’s Cybernetics Society). I had previously read W. Grey Walter’s (1963) The Living Brain and Wladyslaw Sluckin’s (1954) Minds and Machines. Both helped me appreciate the larger philosophical tradition in which problems of mind and body, freewill and determinism have been debated. Sluckin reported on developments in cybernetics and related disciplines but was not committed to cybernetics as a unifying transdiscipline. David Stewart’s stimulating presentations helped me be aware of that possibility.  

I was attracted to that thesis of cybernetics is a transdiscipline, one that brings together other disciplines in a unifying and enlightening way. (Jean Piaget was to describe cybernetics, in 1977, as ‘the most polyvalent meeting place for physicomathematical sciences, biological sciences, and human sciences’ (p.136)). It made sense that there should be unity in diversity. It made sense that there should be a discipline as important and as general as physics but which was complementary to it. I grasped this as the aphorism “Physics is about matter and energy; cybernetics is about control and communication”.

Thanks to David Stewart, I had the opportunity to work with the cybernetician, Gordon Pask (1928-1996). At that time, Pask was Research Director of System Research Ltd., a non-profit research organisation in Richmond, Surrey, UK. I had a six month work placement there as a research assistant. Pask was the most obviously intellectually brilliant person I have ever met. I was awed just to be in his presence. I obtained a preprint of Pask’s most recent paper and studied it in detail. To make sense of it, I spent many hours looking up the references and reading Pask’s earlier papers. From this, I gained what had eluded me thus far: an overarching conceptual framework that allowed me to make sense of the biological, the psychological, and the social in a coherent and enlightening way. I was becoming a cybernetician.

A single vocabulary

Following graduation, I was invited back to work at System Research Ltd and I enrolled as a postgraduate student in cybernetics at Brunel University. In due course, I read Norbert Wiener’s (1948) Cybernetics and Ross Ashby’s (1956) Introduction to Cybernetics. I drew inspiration from Ashby’s bold declaration that, “The truths of cybernetics are not conditional on their being derived from some other branch of science. Cybernetics has its own foundations” (p.1); “Cybernetics … takes as its subject-matter the domain of ‘all possible machines’” (p.2); and, “Cybernetics, might, in fact, be defined as the study of systems that are open to energy but closed to information and control – systems that are ‘information-tight’” (p.4). Ashby uses the terms ‘machine’ and ‘system’ as synonyms, both terms referring to ‘things that persist’. He is reflecting cybernetics’ concern with circular causality and anticipating later emphases on ‘autopoiesis’ (self-creation).

Ashby highlights two primary uses of cybernetics: “It offers a single vocabulary and a single set of concepts for representing the most diverse types of systems” and, “It offers a method for the scientific treatment of the system in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored” (pp.4-5).

Further reading showed me that cyberneticians were not naive in their epistemologies. There was a deep sense of metadisciplinary self-awareness in their enterprise. Cybernetics is a discipline that studies other disciplines (a metadiscipline); it is also a discipline that studies itself. There was an informal collegiate that included, amongst others, Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch, Heinz von Foerster, Gordon Pask, Stafford Beer, and Humberto Maturana. There appeared to be a tacit understanding that, whatever their differences, they all had a reflexive sense of responsibility for their being in the world and were united in their commitment to a common good. 

Seeing the power

The concerns with the epistemology of the observer and her responsibilities as a constructor of theories, including self-referential, reflexive theories, were made explicit in a coming together of ideas in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have alluded to some of these events in more detail elsewhere (Scott, 1996, 2004). What I have in mind are Spencer-Brown’s (1969) Laws of Form, and the primacy of the act of drawing a distinction; Gordon Pask’s conversation theory (Pask, 1975); von Foerster’s distinction between first order cybernetics (the study of observed systems) and second order cybernetics (the study of observing systems) (von Foerster et al, 1974, p. 1); and Maturana and Varela’s (1970) work on autopoiesis and the biology of cognition.

I understood from Ashby that the abstract principles and concepts of cybernetics can be applied to any category of system. From Pask, Stafford Beer, Frank George, and others, I understood the role of models and analogies in cybernetics. I saw the power to be found in formal concepts and studied formal logic, and the theory of computation. I acquired new concepts and new terminology: hierarchy and heterarchy; object language and metalanguage; programming and meta-programming; process and product; serial, parallel, and concurrent processes; circularity and recursion; self-organisation and autopoiesis; variety and information; structure and organisation ... and more.

As a transdiscipline, cybernetics empowered me to cross disciplinary boundaries. This was exhilarating. I understood that other transdisciplines (general systems theory, general semantics, synergetics) to be cognate with cybernetics and, at a high enough level of abstraction, homomorphic with it.

I was inspired, eventually, to regard myself as being a cybernetician. Louis Couffignal (1960, p.1) defines cybernetics as “L’art d’assurer l’efficacité de l‘action” (the art of assuring the efficacy of action). Heinz von Foerster states that “Life cannot be studied in vitro, one has to explore it in vivo,” (von Foester 2003, p.248) and “At any moment we are free to act towards the future we desire,” (von Foerster 2003, p.206). I took these ideas to heart. There was a coming together of my professional life and my personal life, which had previously been lived in separate compartments. I became reflexively aware that I was living my theories and my lived experiences were helping my theorising.

A cybernetic shaman

My 20s and 30s, as for many in the 1960s and 1970s, were an intense period of intellectual and personal exploration in which I was sustained, sometimes tenuously, by the faith in God that I had acquired as a child and my deepening understanding and appreciation of cybernetics. Second-order cybernetics tells us that anything said is said by or to an observer (von Foerster, 2003, p.283) and that there are undecidable questions, answers for which are the choice of the observer (op. cit., pp. 291-295). This gives a pragmatic immediacy to what is being said and what is the intention of the communicator. I became a cybernetic shaman, a ‘warrior of the spirit’, a child of the living God, who aspires to know the true and the good and to be impeccable. I was particularly inspired by the writings of Lao Tsu and Confucius. At heart, I remained a Christian. It has taken a lifetime to appreciate that, however well one understands ancient teachings, one has to learn how to practice them.

Cybernetics provided foundations for my work as an experimental psychologist (Scott, 1993), my later work as a practitioner in educational psychology (Scott, 1987), and my work in educational technology (Scott, 2001). I summarise these foundations in Scott (2014) and provide an extended account of the relevance of cybernetics for the social sciences in Scott (2021). 

After some 50 years of involvement with cybernetics, I am more than ever persuaded of its value for understanding how the world works and as an aid for self-steering. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety (“Only variety can destroy (control) variety”) makes clear in the simplest terms that if a system is to survive in a changing environment it must manage the variety that it faces. I see a need for what I refer to as ‘education for cybernetic enlightenment’. I have outlined the curriculum for such an education in Scott (2011). Cybernetic understandings of educational processes should be used to help educate for cybernetic enlightenment. I also believe that cybernetic understandings of the human condition reveal how vital it is that those same understandings are promoted, universally, as part of the ‘global conversation’.

- From 2016-2019, Bernard Scott held the honorary position of Gordon Pask Professor of Sociocybernetics at the International Center for Sociocybernetics Studies, a virtual institute with headquarters in Bonn, Germany, now closed. Previously he was Head of the Flexible Learning Support Centre, UK Defence Academy, and Reader in Cybernetics, Cranfield University, UK. He is a Fellow and founder member of the Cybernetics Society, an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a Fellow of the American Society for Cybernetics and an Academician of the International Academy of Systems and Cybernetics Sciences.

References

Ashby, W. R. (1956). Introduction to Cybernetics. New York: Wiley.

Couffignal, L. (1960). “Essai d’une definition generale de la Cybernetique”, Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Association for Cybernetics, Paris: Gauthier-Villars. 

Maturana, H. R. & Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel.

Pask, G. (1975). Conversation, Cognition and Learning. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Piaget J. (1977). Psychology and Epistemology. Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin.

Scott B. (1987). “Human systems, communication and educational psychology”. Educational Psychology in Practice, 3, 2, pp. 4–15. 

Scott B. (2001) “Conversation theory: A dialogic, constructivist approach to educational technology”. Cybernetics & Human Knowing, 8, 4, pp. 25–46. 

Scott B. (2004). “Second order cybernetics: An historical introduction”. Kybernetes 33, 9/10, pp. 1365–1378. 

Scott B. (2011). “Education for cybernetic enlightenment”. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 21,1/2, pp. 199-205. 

Scott B. (2016). “Cybernetic foundations for psychology”. Constructivist Foundations, 11, 3, pp. 509–517.

Scott, B. (2021). Cybernetics for the Social Sciences. Boston, MA: Brill.

Sluckin, W. (1954). Minds and Machines. Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin Books.

Spencer-Brown, G. (1969). The Laws of Form. London: Allen and Unwin.

Von Foerster, H. (2003) Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition. Springer, New York.

Von Foerster, H. et al (eds.) (1974). Cybernetics of Cybernetics. BCL Report 73.38, Biological Computer Laboratory, Dept. of Electrical Engineering, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois.

Walter, W. Grey (1963).  The Living Brain. New York: Norton & Co.

Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

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