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cybernetics studies organization, communication and control in complex systems by focusing on circular (feedback) mechanisms

Cybernetics, deriving from the Greek word for steersman (kybernetes), was first introduced by the mathematician Wiener, as the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine (to which we now might add: in society and in individual human beings). It grew out of Shannon's information theory, which was designed to optimize the transmission of information through communication channels, and the feedback concept used in engineering control systems. In its present incarnation of "second-order cybernetics", its emphasis is on how observers construct models of the systems with which they interact (see complex systems to maintain, adapt, and self-organize. Such circularity or self-reference makes it possible to make precise, scientific models of purposeful activity, that is, behavior that is oriented towards a goal or preferred condition. In that sense, cybernetics proposes a revolution with respect to the linear, mechanistic models of traditional Newtonian science. In classical science, every process is determined solely by its cause, that is, a factor residing in the past. However, the behavior of living organisms is typically teleonomic, that is, oriented towards a future state, which does not exist as yet.

Cybernetics has discovered that teleonomy (or finality) and causality can be reconciled by using non-linear, circular mechanisms, where the cause equals the effect. The simplest example of such a circular mechanism is feedback. The simplest application of negative feedback for self-maintenance is homeostasis. The non-linear interaction between the homeostatic or goal-directed system and its environment results in a relation of control of the system over the perturbations coming from the environment.

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Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Feb 17, 1997 (modified)
Aug 1993 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

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