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theory of communication and control based on regulatory feedback
Model of cybernetic factory by Stafford Beer in a global perspective.

Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems (such as mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive, and social systems) their structures, constraints, and possibilities. Cybernetics is applicable when a system being analyzed is involved in a closed signaling loop; that is, where action by the system generates some change in its environment and that change is reflected in that system in some manner (feedback) that triggers a system change.



Quotes are arranged chronologically


  • Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine
    • Norbert Wiener, title and subtitle of his groundbreaking 1948 book.
    • In 1956 W. Ross Ashby stated in An Introduction to Cybernetics that "cybernetics was defined by Wiener as the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine." Yet, in his original book Wiener doesn't use this exact phrase. Wiener spoke of cybernetics as "control and communication in the animal and the machine."
  • The concepts of purposive behavior and teleology have long been associated with a mysterious, self-perfecting or goal-seeking capacity or final cause, usually of superhuman or super-natural origin. To move forward to the study of events, scientific thinking had to reject these beliefs in purpose and these concepts of teleological operations for a strictly mechanistic and deterministic view of nature. This mechanistic conception became firmly established with the demonstration that the universe was based on the operation of anonymous particles moving at random, in a disorderly fashion, giving rise, by their multiplicity, to order and regularity of a statistical nature, as in classical physics and gas laws. The unchallenged success of these concepts and methods in physics and astronomy, and later in chemistry, gave biology and physiology their major orientation. This approach to problems of organisms was reinforced by the analytical preoccupation of the Western European culture and languages. The basic assumptions of our traditions and the persistent implications of the language we use almost compel us to approach everything we study as composed of separate, discrete parts or factors which we must try to isolate and identify as potential causes. Hence, we derive our preoccupation with the study of the relation of two variables. We are witnessing today a search for new approaches, for new and more comprehensive concepts and for methods capable of dealing with the large wholes of organisms and personalities.
    • Lawrence K. Frank (1948) "Foreword". In L. K. Frank, G. E. Hutchinson, W. K. Livingston, W. S. McCulloch, & N. Wiener, Teleological mechanisms. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sc., 1948, 50, 189-96.
  • The concept of teleological mechanisms however it be expressed in many terms, may be viewed as an attempt to escape from these older mechanistic formulations that now appear inadequate, and to provide new and more fruitful conceptions and more effective methodologies for studying self-regulating processes, self-orienting systems and organisms, and self-directing personalities. Thus, the terms feedback, servomechanisms, circular systems, and circular processes may be viewed as different but equivalent expressions of much the same basic conception
    • Lawrence K. Frank (1948) "Foreword". In L. K. Frank, G. E. Hutchinson, W. K. Livingston, W. S. McCulloch, & N. Wiener, Teleological mechanisms. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sc., 1948, 50, 189-96.


  • Norbert Wiener of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a brilliant mathematician who recently won fame with his invention of cybernetics, a new science of communications... His prolonged studies of the striking analogies between the control systems in animal bodies and those in complex machines became the basis of his newly created cybernetics, a science of communications.
  • CYBERNETICS. Catch on to this word now. It's a new coined to label the fast-growing electronic brain system of industry which mat have more effect on the way we live than will atomic energy.
  • The celebrated physicist and mathematician A.M. Ampere coined the word cybernetique to mean the science of civil government (Part II of "Essai sur la philosophic des sciences", 1845, Paris). Ampere's grandiose scheme of political sciences has not, and perhaps never will, come to fruition. In the meantime, conflict between governments with the use of force greatly accelerated the development of another branch of science, the science of control and guidance of mechanical and electrical systems. It is thus perhaps ironical that Ampere's word should be borrowed by N. Wiener to name this new science, so important to modern warfare. The "cybernetics" of Wiener ("Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the animal and the Machine," John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1948) is the science of organization of mechanical and electrical components for stability and purposeful actions. A distinguishing feature of this new science is the total absence of considerations of energy, heat, and efficiency, which are so important in other natural sciences. In fact, the primary concern of cybernetics is on the qualitative aspects of the interrelations among the various components of a system and the synthetic behavior of the complete mechanism.
    • Hsue Shen Tsien (1954) Engineering cybernetics. p. vii: About the Origin of the Word 'Cybernetics'.
  • Cybernetics is likely to reveal a great number of interesting and suggestive parallelisms between machine and brain and society. And it can provide the common language by which discoveries in one branch can readily be made use of in the others... [There are] two peculiar scientific virtues of cybernetics that are worth explicit mention. One is that it offers a single vocabulary and a single set of concepts suitable for representing the most diverse types of system... The second peculiar virtue of cybernetics is that it offers a method for the scientific treatment of the system in which complexity is outstanding and too important to be ignored. Such systems are, as we well know, only too common in the biological world!
  • Cybernetics is one of the youngest sciences in the world. Generally speaking, it was born in 1948, when the American mathematician Norbert Wiener, the pioneer of modern cybernetics, published a book under that title. The name soon became a fashion in the West, where even science is an object of fashion. Cybernetics, as such, is a concept that dates back many, many centuries. In ancient Greece it meant the art of steering, the skill of sailing ships — a skill so highly esteemed in that land of seafaring people that there were special festivities in its honour. In 1834 the famous French scientist Andre Ampere classified 128 branches of science, among which he named cybernetics as the science of steering, alongside with others for which he invented names. Wiener, thus, did not think up a new name. He simply applied the old one to a modern science.
    • "The international Congress on Cybernetics" in: New times. (1956) Nr. 27-52. p. 62.
  • [Cybernetics is] the art of ensuring the efficacy of action.
  • The word 'cybernetics' is still new to many people, even though it has now been an accepted word of our language for some ten or fifteen years. Speaking generally, cybernetics is the scientific study of control and communication. It is an attempt to give an integrated account of both physical and biological systems in terms of their capacity to communicate between different points of the system, and in terms of their control.
    There has been considerable research into general methods of communication in recent years, and this has been primarily the work of communication engineers, who are trying to discover in general terms what they themselves are doing.
    • Frank Honywill George (1958) "Cybernetics and biology" in: M.L. Johnson Ed. New biology. Ns 26-31. p. 106.
  • Cybernetics is the science of the process of transmission, processing and storage of information.
    • Sobolew (1958) Woprosy Psychology, cited in T. C. Helvey (1971) The Age of Information. p. 6.


  • All this (the early excitement of Cybernetics) is now history, and in the decade which elapsed since these early baby steps of interdisciplinary communication, many more threads were picked up and interwoven into a remarkable tapestry of knowledge and endeavour: Bionics. It is good omen that at the right time the right name was found. For, bionics extends a great invitation to all who are willing not to stop at the investigation of a particular function or its realization, but to go on and to seek the universal significance of these functions in living or artificial organisms.
    The reader who goes through the following papers which constitute the transactions of the first symposium held under the name Bionics will be surprised by the multitude of astonishing and unforeseen connections between concepts he believed to be familiar with. For instance, a couple of years ago, who would have thought to relate the reliability problem to multi-valued logics; or, who would have thought that integral or differential geometry would serve as an adequate tool in the theory of abstraction? It is hard to say in all these cases who was teaching whom: The life-sciences the engineering sciences, or vice versa? And rightly so, for it guarantees optimal information flow, and everybody gains...
  • Cybernetics is still headline news, and increasingly we hear about its applications to new fields of scientific and industrial endeavour. Stafford Beer's new book Cybernetics and Management is an admirable account on the relation that exist between cybernetics and the problems of management in industry [and]... covers a range of applications that have not previously been dealt with in print.
  • Cybernetics is the general science of communication. But to refer to communication is consciously or otherwise to refer to distinguishable states of information inputs and outputs and /or to information being processed within some relatively isolated system.
  • Cybernetics is concerned primarily with the construction of theories and models in science, without making a hard and fast distinction between the physical and the biological sciences. The theories and models occur both in symbols and in hardware, and by 'hardware* we shall mean a machine or computer built in terms of physical or chemical, or indeed any handleable parts. Most usually we shall think of hardware as meaning electronic parts such as valves and relays. Cybernetics insists, also, on a further and rather special condition that distinguishes it from ordinary scientific theorizing: it demands a certain standard of effectiveness. In this respect it has acquired some of the same motive power that has driven research on modern logic, and this is especially true in the construction and application of artificial languages and the use of operational definitions. Always the search is for precision and effectiveness, and we must now discuss the question of effectiveness in some detail. It should be noted that when we talk in these terms we are giving pride of place to the theory of automata at the expense, at least to some extent, of feedback and information theory.
  • A great deal of the thinking [in Organizational Development] has been influenced by cybernetics and information theory, though this has been used as much to extend the scope of closed-system as to improve the sophistication of open system formulations. It was von Bertalanffy (1950) who, in terms of the general transport equation which he introduced, first fully disclosed the importance of openness or closedness to the environment as a means of distinguishing living organisms from inanimate objects.
    • Fred Emery and Eric Trist (1963) "The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments". In: Human Relations, 18: p. 22.
  • In 1946, a Macy Foundation interdisciplinary conference was organized to use the model provided by "feedback systems," honorifically referred to in earlier conferences as "teleological mechanisms," and later as "cybernetics," with the expectation that this model would provide a group of sciences with useful mathematical tools and, simultaneously, would serve as a form of cross-disciplinary communication. Out of the deliberations of this group came a whole series of fruitful developments of a very high order. Kurt Lewin (who died in 1947) took away from the first meeting the term "feedback". He suggested ways in which group processes, which he and his students were studying in a highly disciplined, rigorous way, could be improved by a "feedback process," as when, for example, a group was periodically given a report on the success or failure of its particular operations.
    • Margaret Mead (1964) Continuities in Cultural Evolution p. 272-273.
  • Cybernetics is the science or the art of manipulating defensible metaphors; showing how they may be constructed and what can be inferred as a result of their existence.
    • Gordon Pask (1966) The Cybernetics of Human Performance and Learning. Cited in: George J. Klír (2001) Facets of Systems Science. p. 429.
  • As an anthropologist, I have been interested in the effects that the theories of Cybernetics have within our society. I am not referring to computers or to the electronic revolution as a whole, or to the end of dependence on script for knowledge, or to the way that dress has succeeded the mimeographing machine as a form of communication among the dissenting young. Let me repeat that, I am not referring to the way that dress has succeeded the mimeographing machine as a form of communication among the dissenting young.
    I specifically want to consider the significance of the set of cross-disciplinary ideas which we first called “feed-back” and then called “teleological mechanisms” and then called it “cybernetics,” a form of crossdisciplinary thought which made it possible for members of many disciplines to communicate with each other easily in a language which all could understand.
  • Perhaps the most important single characteristic of modern organizational cybernetics is this: That in addition to concern with the deleterious impacts of rigidly-imposed notions of what constitutes the application of good "principles of organization and management" the organization is viewed as a subsystem of a larger system(s), and as comprised itself of functionally interdependent subsystems.
  • The theory of information became the cornerstone of cybernetics because the latter deals with "the study of systems of any nature that are capable of receiving, storing and processing information and utilizing it for control".


  • The meaning of the term "cybernetics" is today somewhat different from that used when Wiener, McCulloch, Rosenblueth, Bigelow and others used the Greek word "Kybernetes," or helmsmen, to describe an automatic computer... the definition, which I first gave in 1966:
    "Cybernetics describes an intelligent activity or event which can be expressed in algorithms. Algorithms, in turn, refer to a system of instructions which describes unambiguously and accurately an interaction which is equivalent to a given type of flux of intelligence and a subsequent, controlled activity. The development of cybernetics aims, among other things, at the design and reproduction of functions which are peculiar to intelligent organism."
    • T. C. Helvey (1971) The Age of Information: An Interdisciplinary Survey of Cybernetics. p. 6.
  • The essence of cybernetic organizations is that they are self-controlling, self-maintaining, self-realizing. Indeed, cybernetics has been characterized as the “science of effective organization,” in just these terms.
    But the word “cybernetics” conjures, in the minds of an apparently great number of people, visions of computerized information networks, closed loop systems, and robotized man-surrogates, such as “artorgas” and “cyborgs.”
  • Now "cybernetics" is the term coined by Wiener to denote "steersmanship" or the science of control. Although current engineering usage restricts it to the study of flows in closed systems, it can be taken in a wider context, as the study of processes interrelating systems with inputs and outputs, and their structural-dynamic structure. It is in this wider sense that "cybernetics" will be used here, to wit, as system-cybernetics, understanding by "system" an ordered whole in relation to its relevant environment (hence one actually or potentially open).
    • Ervin László (1972) Introduction to Systems Philosophy: : Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought. p. 38.
  • The main object of cybernetics is to supply adaptive, hierarchical models, involving feedback and the like, to all aspects of our environment. Often such modelling implies simulation of a system where the simulation should achieve the object of copying both the method of achievement and the end result. Synthesis, as opposed to simulation, is concerned with achieving only the end result and is less concerned (or completely unconcerned) with the method by which the end result is achieved. In the case of behaviour, psychology is concerned with simulation, while cybernetics, although also interested in simulation, is primarily concerned with synthesis.
    Most of the major developments in models and theories of artificial intelligence have taken place in the western world — mostly, indeed, in the US and Britain — and it was only relatively recently that "core developments", as opposed to more peripheral developments and applications, have spread over Europe and the Soviet Union.
    • Frank George (1973) "Soviet Cybernetics, the militairy and Professor Lerner" in: New Scientist (March 15, 1973). Vol. 57, nr. 837. p. 613.


  • During the 1950s and 1960s most of the work which was called cybernetics tended to focus on control systems in engineering or on applications of the concept of feedback in fields ranging from mathematics to sociology. At the 1970 meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics in Philadelphia Heinz von Foerster sought to redirect attention to the original interests which had led to the founding of the field of cybernetics. In a paper titled "Cybernetics of Cybernetics" he made a distinction between first order cybernetics, the cybernetics of observed systems, and second order cybernetics, the cybernetics of observing systems.
    • Stuart A. Umpleby (1991) "Strategies for Winning Acceptance of Second Order Cybernetics." In George E. Lasker, et al. (eds.) Advances in Human Systems and Information Technologies. Windsor, Canada: International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics, 1992. pp. 97-196. (paper).
  • The cybernetics phase of cognitive science produced an amazing array of concrete results, in addition to its long-term (often underground) influence:
    • the use of mathematical logic to understand the operation of the nervous system;
    • the invention of information processing machines (as digital computers), thus laying the basis for artificial intelligence;
    • the establishment of the metadiscipline of system theory, which has had an imprint in many branches of science, such as engineering (systems analysis, control theory), biology (regulatory physiology, ecology), social sciences (family therapy, structural anthropology, management, urban studies), and economics (game theory);
    • information theory as a statistical theory of signal and communication channels;
    • the first examples of self-organizing systems.
      This list is impressive: we tend to consider many of these notions and tools an integrative part of our life...
    • Francisco Varela (1991) The Embodied Mind p. 38.


  • An opportunity for cybernetics to change the course of the philosophy of mind was missed when intentionality was misinterpreted as "the providing of coded knowledge".
    • Igor Aleksander (2001) in: New scientist. Vol. 169. p. 56 cited in: Jacques Vallée (2003) The Heart of the Internet. p. 8.
  • Many of the core ideas of cybernetics have been assimilated by other disciplines, where they continue to influence scientific developments. Other important cybernetic principles seem to have been forgotten, though, only to be periodically rediscovered or reinvented in different domains. Some examples are the rebirth of neural networks, first invented by cyberneticists in the 1940's, in the late 1960's and again in the late 1980's; the rediscovery of the importance of autonomous interaction by robotics and AI in the 1990's; and the significance of positive feedback effects in complex systems, rediscovered by economists in the 1990's. Perhaps the most significant recent development is the growth of the complex adaptive systems movement, which, in the work of authors such as John Holland, Stuart Kauffman and Brian Arthur and the subfield of artificial life, has used the power of modern computers to simulate and thus experiment with and develop many of the ideas of cybernetics. It thus seems to have taken over the cybernetics banner in its mathematical modelling of complex systems across disciplinary boundaries, however, while largely ignoring the issues of goal-directedness and control.
    • Francis Heylighen & Cliff Joslyn (2001). "Cybernetics and Second-Order Cybernetics". Encyclopedia of Physical Science & Technology, 3rd ed. R. A. Meyers. New York, Academic Press. p. 5.
  • Cybernetics is the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves.


  • For me, as I later came to say, cybernetics is the art of creating equilibrium in a world of possibilities and constraints. This is not just a romantic description, it portrays the new way of thinking quite accurately. Cybernetics differs from the traditional scientific procedure, because it does not try to explain phenomena by searching for their causes, but rather by specifying the constraints that determine the direction of their development.
  • In the late 1950s, experiments such as the cybernetic sculptures of Nicolas Schöffer or the programmatic music compositions of John Cage and Iannis Xenakis transposed systems theory from the sciences to the arts. By the 1960s, artists as diverse as Roy Ascott, Hans Haacke, Robert Morris, Sonia Sheridan, and Stephen Willats were breaking with accepted aesthetics to embrace open systems that emphasized organism over mechanism, dynamic processes of interaction among elements, and the observer’s role as an inextricable part of the system. Jack Burnham’s 1968 Artforum essay “Systems Aesthetics” and his 1970 “Software” exhibition marked the high point of systems-based art until its resurgence in the changed conditions of the twenty-first century.

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