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Cybernetics and Systems Science and Academic Work

Researchers in cybernetics and systems science work in a sometimes difficult academic environment. In many ways both the subject matter and methodologies of cyberneticians are in direct conflict with the methods and products favored by the academy. The methods of traditional academic and scientific work cannot and do not reflect the properties of cybernetic systems, and thus cybernetics and systems science are in conflict with the nature of traditional academic work and development.

Traditional analytic methods tend to focus on individual, simple subsystems in isolation, while only occasionally (and frequently inaccurately) extrapolating to group traits. Temporal and physical levels of analysis are abstracted and isolated, and disciplinary divisions cut off consideration of their interaction.

This inadequacy is reflected in the actual products of academic and scientific work, the books, papers, and lectures which are the coin in trade for academic workers. Such works (like all traditional publications) have a linear structure, ranging from long treatises to collections of short paragraphs or sections (e.g. the work of Aristotle \cite{AR43} or Wittgenstein \cite{WIL58}). Various indexing and other methods are available to gain "random access" within documents. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference works partially introduce nonlinear structures through internal references (e.g. \cite{EDP67,KRK84,FLA79}). Some authors have made halting efforts in the direction of nonlinear documents \cite{MIM86}; others have used pictures and graphical notation to aid in understanding \cite{VOH81,ABRSHC85,VAF75,HAD88}. And certainly the use of formal systems (mathematics and logical notations) have given the ability to construct large, complex linguistic systems.

Nevertheless, over the years the fundamental linear textual form has been maintained. Works are produced by single or at most small groups of authors. Collaborative work among more than two people remains next to impossible. Work proceeds almost entirely in natural language. The development of large, complex systems of philosophical thought in non-formal domains has been difficult. Once published, the works sit on library shelves in mute inactivity. They are not even open to revision except through further publications and errata. The connections among and within works are revealed only through laborious reference searches and synthetic works by diligent authors. Tracing the historical development of ideas is as laborious as that of bibliographical relation. The physical form of texts required that the products of one author or the writings on one subject be physically scattered throughout a vast published literature, leading to a cacophonous din of argument and discourse.

The disciplinary divisions of academic work also place a regimented, linear, and highly specific structure to the categorization of published books and papers. Cybernetics and systems science researchers, on the other hand, typically utilize a great deal of the library shelves, including mathematics, all the traditional sciences, psychology and sociology, philosophy, linguistics, etc. In fact, ultimately there can be little doubt that cybernetics and systems science are not "academic disciplines" at all in the traditional sense of the word. As the trans- (inter-, meta-, anti-) disciplinary studies of general systems and information systems, cybernetics and systems science has long fought against the traditional disciplinary divisions of intellectual specialization.

This critique can be extended to the ultimate reflexivity of cybernetics and systems science, in which the academic milieu in which they operate is regarded as another cybernetic system, and therefore an object of study which itself should be understood through cybernetic principles.(Similarly, Turchin \cite{TUV77} describes the ultimate end of science as the reflexive study of the scientific process.)

Copyright© 1993 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

C. Joslyn,

Aug 1993


Reference material

Cybernetics and Systems Theory

What are Cybernetics and Systems Science?

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