About Cybernetics

The formal birth of the subject of Cybernetics was the publication in 1948 of the book Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener, with the subtitle: “Communication and Control in the Animal and the Machine” (published by Wiley, New York). By the same time it was published by Hermann et Cie in Paris, France (1949).  This book was the beginning of cybernetics as a transdiscipline. The term control is a loaded one and the term communication needs much clarification. Wiener’s book encapsulated the outcome of discussions about feedback loops and circular causality in self-regulating systems. The name comes from the Greek for steersman (the equivalent in Latin is gubernator), a term that Plato used to describe the art of steering ships; much later, in the nineteenth century, the French scientist Ampere, used it in reference to the science of government. In the second edition of his book, Wiener added a few chapters showing the relevance of cybernetics to learning, artificial intelligence, adaptation and language. Today feedback mechanisms are ubiquitous; they happen whenever part of the output of a system returns as its input, which is thereby changed. This is the case of a normal heating system and any servo-mechanism ranging from missiles to robots. It is also the case of complex systems, which depend on memory to learn; feedback is happening when input information is affected by the output of the previous observation. As for communication we understand it as coordination of actions, going beyond making sure that the message has been received; only when we manage to produce coordinated actions we can claim that communication has been achieved.

Wiener’s book arose from his collaboration with Warren McCulloch and others. McCulloch was acknowledged by Stafford Beer and many others as their mentor. After his death in 1969, his wife compiled a set of “Collected Works” which unfortunately has not been widely distributed because of the financial failure of the publisher. A Contents list can be seen here.

N. Warren McCulloch 1898-1969

The picture of Warren McCulloch is from the cover of the book: Brain Processes, Theories and Models: An International Conference in Honor of W.S. McCulloch 25 years after His Death, edited by R. Moreno-Diaz and J. Mira-Mira, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1996

Another major contributor to the field, and a friend of Warren McCulloch, was Donald MacKay and a list of references to his early work is attached. Professor Heinz von Foerster was also a major contributor to this early group.