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The cybernetics movements

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Cybernetics as a field of scientific activity in the United States began in the years after World War II. Between 1946 and 1953 the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation sponsored a series of conferences in New York City on the subject of “Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.” The chair of the conferences was Warren McCulloch of MIT. Only the last five conferences were recorded in written proceedings. These have now been republished (Pias, 2004). After Norbert Wiener published his book Cybernetics in 1948, Heinz von Foerster suggested that the name of the conferences be changed to “Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.” In this way the meetings became known as the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics.

In subsequent years cybernetics influenced many academic fields – computer science, electrical engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, management, family therapy, political science, sociology, biology, psychology, epistemology, music, etc. Cybernetics has been defined in many ways: as control and communication in animals, machines, and social systems; as a general theory of regulation; as the art of effective organization; as the art of constructing defensible metaphors; etc. The term “cybernetics” has been associated with many stimulating conferences, yet cybernetics has not thrived as an organized scientific field within American universities. Although a few cybernetics programs were established on U. S. campuses, these programs usually did not survive the retirement or death of their founder.

Relative to other academic societies the meetings on cybernetics tended to have more than the usual controversy, probably due to the wide variety of disciplines represented by those in attendance. Indeed Margaret Mead wrote an article, “Cybernetics of Cybernetics,” in the proceedings of the first conference of the American Society for Cybernetics, in which she suggested that cyberneticians should apply their knowledge of communication to how they communicate with each other. (Mead, 1968)


Not everyone originally connected with cybernetics continued to use the term:

  1. The cybernetics of Allen Turing and John von Neumann became computer science, AI, and robotics. Turing formulated the concept of a Universal Turing Machine – a mathematical description of a computational device. He also devised the Turing test – a way of determining whether a computer program displays “artificial intelligence.” The related professional societies are the Association for Computing Machinery and the American Association for Artificial Intelligence.

  2. Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics became part of electrical engineering. This branch of cybernetics includes control mechanisms from thermostats to automated assembly lines. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, including the Systems, Man, and Cybernetics Society, is the main professional society. The principal concern is systems engineering.

  3. Warren McCulloch’s cybernetics became “second order cybernetics.” McCulloch chaired the Macy Foundation conferences. He sought to understand the functioning of the nervous system and thereby the operation of the brain and the mind. The American Society for Cybernetics has continued this tradition. It is the only one of the three groups that seeks to promote cybernetics as a transdisciplinary field.

Other, smaller groups can also be identified. For example, a control systems group within psychology was generated by the work of William Powers (1973). Biofeedback or neurofeedback is a subject of investigation by researchers in medicine and psychology. The Santa Fe Institute has developed simulation methods based on the idea of cellular automata.

This paper recounts about sixty years of the history of the cybernetics movement in the United States, divided into five year intervals. The focus will be on the third group, McCulloch’s cybernetics.


In 1943 two landmark papers were published. Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts wrote, “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.” (McCulloch and Pitts, 1943) This article sought to understand how a network of neurons functions so that we experience what we call “an idea.” They presented their explanation in mathematical form.

Arthuro Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow published, “Behavior, Purpose, Teleology.” (Rosenblueth, et al., 1943) They observed behavior, which they interpreted as purposeful, and then sought to explain how this phenomenon could happen without teleology, using only Aristotle’s efficient cause. Also in the early 1940s Wiener worked on a radar-guided anti-aircraft gun.

LATE 1940S

In the late 1940s the early Macy Conferences were held in New York City. They were attended by scientists including Norbert Wiener, Julian Bigelow, John von Neumann, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson., Ross Ashby, Grey Walter, and Heinz von Foerster. By 1949 three key books were published: Wiener’s Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Von Neumann’s and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, and Shannon’s and Weaver’s, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. These three books defined a new science of information and regulation.


In the early 1950s more Macy conferences were held. This time proceedings were published with Heinz von Foerster as editor. Meanwhile the first commercial computers were manufactured.

LATE 1950S

In the 1950s the CIA was concerned about the possibility of brain-washing and mind control. Under the code name MKUltra experiments with LSD and other drugs were conducted at Harvard University and elsewhere. (Marks, 1978) Some of the money for this research was channeled through the Macy Foundation. In one incident, a CIA employee was given LSD without his knowledge. Apparently he thought he was going mad and dove out a window of a hotel in New York City. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, when he was a student at Harvard, was an experimental subject of these mind control experiments. (Chase, 2003)

Early checkers-playing programs were written and raised the possibility of artificial intelligence. In 1956 at a conference at Dartmouth University people interested in studying the brain and people interested in creating computer programs parted ways. Thereafter the people interested in cybernetics and the people interested in artificial intelligence had little interaction.

Following a sabbatical year working with Arthuro Rosenblueth and Warren McCulloch, Heinz von Foerster founded the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois.


In the early 1960s several conferences on self-organizing systems were held, one of them at the University of Illinois’s Allerton Park. (von Foerster and Zopf, 1962) As a result of an invitation made at this conference, Ross Ashby moved from England to Illinois. The work on self-organizing systems was a forerunner to the field of study now called “complexity.”

Although the Macy Foundation Conferences ended in 1953, the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) was not founded until 1964. This seems rather late. Actually the founding of the ASC was in part the result of the Cold War. During the Presidential campaign in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, there was talk about a “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not long thereafter there began to be talk of a “cybernetics gap.” Some people in the Soviet Union thought cybernetics would provide the theory they needed to operate their centrally planned economy. Consequently the Soviet government generously funded cybernetics research. Some people in the U.S. government then feared that the U.S. might fall behind in a critical area of research, if this country did not also fund cybernetics research.

In Washington, DC, a cybernetics luncheon club was meeting. The participants included Paul Henshaw, Atomic Energy Commission; Carl Hammer, Univac; Jack Ford, CIA; Douglas Knight, IBM; Walter Munster; Bill Moore, lawyer. This group founded the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC). The founding ceremony was held at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC. A grant from the National Science Foundation helped the Society to establish the Journal of Cybernetics. A conference on the social impact of cybernetics was held at Georgetown University in 1964. (Dechert, 1966) The first conference arranged by the ASC was held at the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg, MD. (von Foerster, et al., 1968)

LATE 1960S

Social movements in the United States – against the Viet Nam war and for civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental protection – produced a time of student activism on campuses. In terms of research it was a productive period for the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois.


At a meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics in 1974 in Philadelphia, Heinz von Foerster introduced the term “second order cybernetics.” (Von Foerster, 1979) The Mansfield Amendment, which was an attempt to reduce campus unrest caused by the Viet Nam War, cut off government funds for research that was not related to a military mission, including research at BCL. (Umpleby, 2003b) The Biological Computer laboratory closed, and Heinz von Foerster retired and moved to California.

There was an argument between the officers of ASC and the publisher of the Journal of Cybernetics. The dispute was submitted to arbitration and the publisher won. Thereafter the journal continued to be published, but without ASC involvement. The journal published articles primarily in engineering. However, the field of cybernetics was increasingly emphasizing biology and the social sciences.

LATE 1970-S

In the late 1970s no meetings of the American Society for Cybernetics were held. The people connected with BCL attended meetings of the Society for General Systems Research, which a few years later changed its name to the International Society for the Systems Sciences.

Stuart Umpleby, who graduated in 1975 and moved from the University of Illinois to The George Washington University in Washington, DC, received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for an Electronic Information Exchange for Small Research Communities (EIES). The BCL group moved into cyberspace. (Umpleby, 1979; Umpleby and Thomas, 1983) This group, discussing General Systems Theory, was one of nine academic groups using EIES, supported by NSF. For three years in the late 1970s cyberneticians and systems scientists across the United States and a few in Europe communicated with each other using email and computer conferencing via dumb terminals and, initially, 300 baud modems. The long distance telephone charges were paid by Umpleby’s EIES grant. When the grant ran out, there was disappointment that universities would not pay the communications charges. Indeed, it took almost fifteen years before costs declined sufficiently to permit regular email communication among academics.

For a few years, due to a conflict with the ASC officers in Washington, DC, there was a rival organization, the American Cybernetics Association (ACA), in Philadelphia. The two organizations came back together a few years later through the efforts of Barry Clemson, Doreen Steg, Klaus Krippendorff and others. The reorganized society used the ASC name and the ACA by-laws. But the society remained small, usually having fewer than 400 members.

EARLY 1980-S

As a result of being the moderator of the on-line discussion group, Umpleby was elected president of ASC. A planning conference in 1980 charted a new direction for the Society. (Umpleby, 1981) ASC began holding conferences again and reestablished connections with its former journal, now called Cybernetics and Systems.

A series of meetings with Soviet scientists was started as a way to bring leading American scientists together to review fundamentals, in particular to discuss second order cybernetics. (Umpleby, 1987b; Umpleby and Sadovsky, 1991) The meetings were funded by the American Council of Learned Societies and the Soviet Academy of Sciences. These meetings were quite productive for exchanging views; however, a controversy with the Soviet side arose over the participation of Vladimir Lefebvre, a Soviet émigré. Prior to glasnost and perestroika Lefebvre’s theory (1982) of two systems of ethical cognition was disapproved of by the Soviet government. However, during the unraveling of the USSR Lefebvre’s work was used by people in the governments of both the United States and the Soviet Union to prevent miscommunication. (Umpleby, 1991) Lefebvre’s work is now being further developed through annual conferences organized by the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Lefebvre’s theory of reflexive control is being used by psychologists and educators to help with the psychological and cultural issues involved in the social, political, and economic transition in Russia.

LATE 1980-S

Members of the American Society for Cybernetics began offering tutorials on first and second order cybernetics prior to systems conferences). They were seeking to make a scientific revolution (Umpleby, 1974). The second Soviet-American conference was held in Estonia. Due to glasnost and perestroika the original topics (epistemology, methodology, and management) were expanded to include large-scale social experiments. At a conference in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in 1987 the members of the American Society for Cybernetics decided to focus their attention almost exclusively on advancing second order cybernetics. (Umpleby, 1987a)

EARLY 1990-S

In 1990 two symposia on “Theories to Guide the Reform of Socialist Societies” were held in Washington, DC, and Vienna, Austria (Umpleby, 1991). These meetings were the beginning of a multi-year effort both to understand the changes occurring in the former Soviet Union from the perspective of social theory and to use knowledge of social systems to guide the transitions.

The work on second order cybernetics was also changing. The members of the ASC had worked almost twenty years on developing and promoting the point of view known as second order cybernetics or constructivism. Some people wanted to move from a period of revolutionary science to a new period of normal science. (Umpleby, 1990) One way to understand the change is to say that the period of engineering cybernetics lasted from the mid 1940s to the mid 1970s. The period of biological cybernetics or second order cybernetics lasted from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s. And the period of social cybernetics began in the mid 1990s.

LATE 1990-S

Symposia on the transitions in the former Soviet Union continued to be held as part of the European Meetings on Cybernetics and Systems Research. These meetings are held every two years in Vienna, Austria. The symposia bring together scientists from East and West.

In Washington, DC, a series of meetings on the Year 2000 Computer Problem were held with the support of The Washington Post. These meetings were based on the idea that “y2k” could be regarded as an experiment which would reveal the amount of interconnectedness in our increasingly cybernetic society. (Umpleby, 2000)

Niklas Luhmann’s writings in sociology introduced ideas such as constructivism and autopoiesis to social scientists in Europe. (Luhmann, 1995) A Socio-Cybernetics Working Group within the International Sociological Association was established by Felix Geyer and others.

EARLY 2000-S

In the early years of the 21st century large conferences on informatics and cybernetics were organized by Nagib Callaos and his colleagues in Orlando, FL. One result has been organizing efforts in Latin America stimulated by the conferences in Orlando. Annual conferences on reflexive control began to be held in Moscow and may lead to the founding of a Russian Association in the field of cybernetics and systems.

In the International Society for the Systems Sciences there is growing interest in group facilitation and participation methods (Bausch, 2004). An increasing number of books about cybernetics appear, frequently by German authors. A Heinz von Foerster Society has been established in Vienna to further develop the ideas explored at the Biological Computer Laboratory. A new biography of Norbert Wiener has been published. (Conway and Siegelman, 2005).

The “global university system” created by the Internet and the Bologna process is not only greatly facilitating communication among scientists around the world but is also leading to a new metaphor for the social implications of cybernetics, an alternative metaphor to the “global brain.” (Umpleby, 2003a)


Given the promising and exciting beginnings of cybernetics, the outstanding scientists involved, and the subsequent impact of cybernetics on many disciplines, it is curious that the term “cybernetics” is not widely known or used today, even though most professional people spend several hours a day in “cyberspace.” Margaret Mead commented on the development of cybernetics at the first ASC conference in 1968:

We were impressed by the potential usefulness of a language sufficiently sophisticated to be used to solve complex human problems, and sufficiently abstract to make it possible to cross disciplinary boundaries. We thought we would go on to real interdisciplinary research, using this language as a medium. Instead, the whole thing fragmented. Norbert Wiener wrote his book Cybernetics. It fascinated intellectuals and it looked for a while as if the ideas that he expressed would become a way of thought. But they didn’t. (Mead, 1968)

Why did the cybernetics movement break up following the Macy Conferences? Actually it never came together. People stayed in their home disciplines. Many very thought-provoking meetings were held under the label of cybernetics, but the educational programs that were established did not survive in discipline-oriented universities. When their founders retired, the programs were closed. One consequence of the lack of educational programs at universities is that key ideas tend to be reinvented. One example is the work on complex adaptive systems centered at the Santa Fe Institute. These writers rarely refer to the early work in cybernetics and systems theory.

What prevented unity? There was never agreement on fundamentals. Eric Dent in his doctoral dissertation at The George Washington University provides an explanation of the continuing heterogeneity of the field of cybernetics and systems science. (Dent, 1996) Dent claims that after World War II the systems sciences dramatically expanded the scientific enterprise. Specifically, they expanded science along eight dimensions -- causality, determinism, relationships, holism, environment, self-organization, reflexivity, and observation. (Dent, 2001) However, not all of the various systems fields chose to emphasize the same dimensions. Indeed, each field chose a unique combination. This meant that the various systems fields did not agree on what the key issues were. As a result each subfield developed its own language, theories, methods, traditions, and results.

These eight dimensions have both united and divided the systems sciences. The dimensions unite the systems sciences because each of the subfields of systems science uses at least one of the new assumptions, whereas classical science uses none. The dimensions divide the systems sciences because each subfield emphasizes a different dimension or set of dimensions. Hence, issues that are very important in one subfield are less important or do not arise in other subfields. Given different questions, the answers in theories and methods have been different. (Umpleby and Dent, 1999) Perhaps in the 21st century the progress made in developing the field of cybernetics in many disciplines will be successfully integrated.


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