the study of communication and control, typically involving regulatory
feedback, in living beings and machines, and in combinations of
The term cybernetics stems from the Greek "kybernetes"
- meaning steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder. It became a powerful
vogue idea from 1948 to the 1960s; but since the 1970s use of the
term has decreased for a number of reasons, in part because it went
out of fashion among devotees of artificial intelligence,
with which it differs philosophically.
A more philosophical definition, suggested in
1958 by Louis Couffignal, one of the pioneers of
cybernetics in the 1930s, considers cybernetics as "the
art of assuring efficiency of action."
The modern study of cybernetics began at the intersection
of neurology, electronic network theory
and logic modelling around the time of WWII. The
name 'cybernetics' was coined by Norbert
Wiener to denote the study of "teleological
mechanisms" and was popularized through his book Cybernetics,
or Control And Communication In The Animal And Machine,
The word cybernetics (' cybernétique')
had, unknown to Wiener, also been used in 1834 by the physicist
André-Marie Ampère (1775-1836) to
denote the sciences of government in his classification
system of human knowledge. It was also used by Plato
in The Republic to signify the governance of people.
The word governor and govern is also derived from the same Greek
The study of "teleological mechanisms"
("teleos" is Greek for "end"
in the sense of "purpose for") in machinery (i.e. machines
with corrective feedback) dates back at least to the late 1700s
when James Watt's steam engine was equipped with
a governor. In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell published
a theoretical article on governors. In 1938 the Romanian scientist
Stefan Odobleja published in Paris Psychologie
Consonantiste describing many cybernetic principles. In
the 1940s the study and mathematical modelling
of regulatory processes became a continuing research effort and
two key articles were published in 1943. These papers were "Behavior,
Purpose and Teleology" by Arturo Rosenblueth,
Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow;
and the paper "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent
in Nervous Activity" by Warren McCulloch
and Walter Pitts.
Cybernetics as a discipline was firmly established
by Wiener, McCulloch and others, such as W. Ross Ashby
and W. Grey Walter. Together with the US and UK,
an important geographical locus of early cybernetics was France
where Wiener's book was first published.
In the spring of 1947, Wiener was invited to a
congress on harmonic analysis, held in Nancy, France
and organized by the bourbakist mathematician, Szolem Mandelbrojt
(1899-1983), uncle of the world famous mathematician Benoit
During this stay in France, Wiener received the
offer to write a manuscript on the unifying character of this part
of applied mathematics, which is found in the study of Brownian
motion and in telecommunication engineering.
The following summer, back in the United States, Wiener decided
to introduce the neologism cybernetics into his
Wiener popularized the social implications of
cybernetics, drawing analogies between automatic systems such as
a regulated steam engine and human institutions in his best-selling
The Human Use of Human Beings : Cybernetics and Society
In scholarly terms, cybernetics is the study of
systems and control in an abstracted sense — that is, it is
not grounded in any one empirical field.
The emphasis is on the functional relations that
hold between the different parts of a system, rather than the parts
themselves. These relations include the transfer of information,
and circular relations (feedback) that result in emergent phenomena
such as self-organization, and, (expressed as a term coined much
later by Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela
and Ricardo Uribe), autopoiesis.
The main innovation of cybernetics was the creation of a scientific
discipline focused on goals: an understanding of goal-directedness
or purpose, resulting from a negative feedback loop which minimizes
the deviation between the perceived situation and the desired situation
(goal). As mechanistic as that sounds, cybernetics has the scope
and rigor to encompass the human social interactions of agreement
and collaboration that, after all, require goals and feedback to
Cybernetics is somewhat erroneously associated
in many people's minds with robotics, due to uses such as Douglas
Adams' Sirius Cybernetics Corporation
and the concept of a cyborg, a term first popularized
by Clynes and Kline in 1960. Additional confusion
arose when terms such as 'cyberspace', 'cybercrime', and many others
Ampère's earlier use of the term echoes
in the development of second-order cybernetics, which includes observers
as part of whatever system is being studied. A primary force behind
second-order-cybernetics was Heinz von
Foerster, an Austrian trained in physics and magic, who
was appointed by Warren McCulloch as the editor
of the Macy Meetings, a series of meetings held
between 1946 and 1955, involving Gregory Bateson,
Margaret Mead, F.S.C. Northrop,
John von Neumann, Claude Shannon,
Conrad Lorenz, Warren McCulloch,
W. Grey Walter, and Norbert Wiener.
(Wiener is usually considered the “father of cybernetics”
because of his authorship of the book Cybernetics, published in
1948, but this is an oversimplification that Wiener would be the
first to point out.) These meetings were originally called “Circular
Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems”.
From this original title, as well as the breadth of fields represented
by the attendees, the scope and depth of second-order cybernetics
is dramatically apparent.
Machine Augmented Intelligence
Project Cybersyn - a Chilean attempt to implement
a planned economy using the principles of cybernetics.
Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics or Control and Communication
in the Animal and the Machine, (Hermann Editions in Paris; Cambridge:
MIT Press,Wiley & Sons in NY 1948),
Ashby, W. R. (1956) Introduction to Cybernetics.
Methuen, London. (electronically republished at ).
Heylighen F. & Joslyn C. (2001): "Cybernetics
and Second Order Cybernetics", in: R.A. Meyers (ed.), Encyclopedia
of Physical Science & Technology (3rd ed.), Vol. 4, (Academic
Press, New York), p. 155-170.
Pangaro, Paul (1990): "Cybernetics—A
Definition", available at 
von Foerster, Heinz (1995): Ethics and Second-Order
Cybernetics, available at 
Manfred E. Clynes, and Nathan S. Kline, (1960)
"Cyborgs and Space", Astronautics, September, pp. 26-27
and 74-75; reprinted in Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, eds.,
The Cyborg Handbook, New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 29-34.
Heims, Steve J.: John von Neumann and Norbert
Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death,
3. Aufl., Cambridge 1980.
Heims, Steve J.: Constructing a Social Science
for Postwar America. The Cybernetics Group, 1946-1953, Cambridge/London
Ilgauds, Hans Joachim: Norbert Wiener, Leipzig
Masani, P. Rustom: Norbert Wiener 1894-1964, Basel
Bluma, Lars: Norbert Wiener und die Entstehung
der Kybernetik im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Münster 2005.
B.C.Patten and E.P.Odum
(1981) 'The Cybernetic Nature of Ecosystems', The American Naturalist,
Vol. 118. pp. 886-895.
Cybernetics Related Resources