Principia Cybernetica Web

History of the Principia Cybernetica Project

Origin of the Project

The Principia Cybernetica project was conceived by Valentin Turchin, a physicist, computer scientist, and cybernetician, whose political activity and antitotalitarian views led to his forced emigration from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1977. He had developed a cybernetic philosophy based on the concept of the "metasystem transition" with implications for human evolution, political systems, and the foundations of mathematics. He further wanted to develop an integrated philosophical system with a hierarchical organization, and involving multiple authors.

In 1987, Turchin came into contact with Cliff Joslyn, a systems theorist, software engineer, and proponent of Turchin's philosophy. After discussing Turchin's ideas for a collaboratively developed philosophical system, Joslyn suggested a semantic network structure using hypertext, electronic mail, and electronic publishing technologies as a viable strategy for implementation, maintenance, and production of such an ambitious project. Together they founded the Principia Cybernetica Project and formed its first Editorial Board. They wrote a first general proposal, and a document they called "The Cybernetic Manifesto" in which the fundamental philosophical positions were outlined. Joslyn began publicizing Principia Cybernetica by posting the relevant documents on the CYBSYS-L electronic mailing list in the autumn of 1989.

This generated a fair amount of response, including that of Francis Heylighen, a physicist, cognitive scientist, and systems theorist. He reacted with detailed comments on the content of the Project (the evolutionary philosophy), its form (the hypermedia organization of knowledge), and the link between the two. Heylighen had been developing a very similar philosophy to Turchin's and had been thinking along the same lines of creating a network of people interested in the domain of complex, evolving systems who would communicate with the help of various electronic media. He started an active correspondence with Turchin and Joslyn, and finally joined them as the third member of the editorial board in spring 1990.

First Public Activities

Other reactions to Principia Cybernetica were more contentious. The strong tone of the "Manifesto", which was intended to provoke reaction, engendered a sometimes heated debate on the CYBSYS-L list, where several fundamental criticisms were made, leading the PCP-editors to carefully evaluate the wording of the project. The Manifesto became the first of many publications devoted to PCP, written by the editors and other contributors.

The first official activity of PCP was the sponsorship of a forum on Cybernetics and Human Values at the 8th Congress of the World Organization of Systems and Cybernetics at Hunter College in New York in July of 1990. The Editorial Board were joined by B. Lichtenstein and D. White in a forum which introduced PCP and discussed many of the relevant issues.

Following this forum the editors not only forged coherent working relationships, but were able to come to considerable consensus not only about issues of philosophical content, but also of management and organization.

The publication of the Principia Cybernetica Newsletter # 0 followed, which was widely distributed to members of the cybernetics and systems community by postal mail and computer networks. The Newsletter garnered many favorable and some critical responses from our colleagues, and the Editors proceeded to organize the 1st Principia Cybernetica Workshop, held at the Free University of Brussels during 5 days in July, 1991. This gathering was very successful and well attended, resulting in the publication of the Workbook containing extended abstracts of the papers presented at that meeting; and the Newsletter # 1.

1991 also saw the establishment of the PRNCYB-L electronic mailing list. PRNCYB-L is now used as a discussion medium for over 100 project participants.

Grants, Awards and Conferences

PCP is very pleased to have received several grants. Three of them were awarded by the Belgian "National Fund for Scientific Research": one in 1992 for a collective project on Knowledge Development, one in 1993 for the individual project of F. Heylighen devoted to the network support for PCP, and another one in 1994, extending the previous project on Knowledge Development. The latter grant included a contract for a full-time research assistant to support the project. That position was given to Johan Bollen, who started to work for PCP in January 1994. F. Heylighen also received a grant specifically for his PCP-research in 1993 from the "Cultural Support Fund" of the Free University of Brussels. A paper by Heylighen on PCP, entitled "Principles of Systems and Cybernetics", received a "Best Paper Award" for the Symposium on "General Systems Methodology" at the 11th European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research in Vienna, 1992.

Following the success of the 1991 Workshop, PCP organized several other conferences, starting with a one-day symposium at the 13th International Congress on Cybernetics in Namur, Belgium in August 1992. A symposium on "Cybernetic Principles of Knowledge Development" was held at the 12th European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research in Vienna, in April 1994 (at the same congress, the Principia Cybernetica Web was publically demonstrated). A very well-attended 3 day Symposium on "The Evolution of Complexity" was organized in Brussels at the "Einstein meets Magritte" conference, in June 1995, and a symposium on "Theories and Metaphors of Cyberspace" was organized in Vienna in April 1996.

(Electronic) Publications

1993 is the year in which PCP first realized its aim of world-wide electronic publication of its material (sound). First, in March, an anonymous FTP-server was established at the Free University of Brussels, followed in July by a World-Wide Web distributed hypertext server (which turned out to be the first one in Belgium). Since then, the use of the Web server has been steadily growing, from a few dozen to some 8000 requests a day. In 1994, the Web was enhanced with several new tools: a searchable index, color photographs, a clickable map, a permanent menu bar, and the possibility to make annotations. This resulted in very positive reviews, including a "Honorable Mention" in the Best of the Web competition. September 1994 saw the first experimental application of PCP principles: an adaptive semantic hypertext. The "recent changes" provide a detailed chronology of the different additions and changes in the Web.

1994 was the year in which PCP had been active for five years, leading us to produce a Progress Report. It concluded that, in spite of the great initial ambitions and rather limited means of the project, quite a lot had been achieved. In 1995, a special issue of "World Futures" was published on "The Quantum of Evolution". This collection of invited papers, edited by the PCP board, provided the first extensive overview of the theoretical framework developed by PCP.

In the autumn of 1995, a second electronic mailing list, PCP-news, was installed for the distribution of announcements and a two monthly newsletter. The digest of news sent to that list provides a detailed account of the developments since then, such as the different "spin-off" groups that PCP helped start up, which include the Global Brain Group, the Journal of Memetics and the study group on Progress.

Copyright© 1998 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

Heylighen, Joslyn, Turchin,

Jun 19, 1998 (modified)
Nov 1990 (created)


Introduction to Principia Cybernetica

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First public introduction of PCP

Heylighen's initial comments to PCP

Progress Report: 5 years of PCP

The Cybernetic Manifesto

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