The Cybernetics of a Society:

In today’s post, I will be following the thoughts from my previous post, Consistency over Completeness. We were looking at each one of us being informationally closed, and computing a stable reality. The stability comes from the recursive computations of what is being observed. I hope to expand the idea of stability from an individual to a society in today’s post.

Humberto Maturana, the cybernetician biologist (or biologist cybernetician) said – anything said is said by an observer. Heinz von Foerster, one of my heroes in cybernetics, expanded this and said – everything said is said to an observer. Von Foerster’s thinking was that language is not monologic but always dialogic. He noted:

The observer as a strange singularity in the universe does not attract me… I am fascinated by images of duality, by binary metaphors like dance and dialogue where only a duality creates a unity. Therefore, the statement.. – “Anything said is said by an observer” – is floating freely, in a sense. It exists in a vacuum as long as it Is not embedded in a social structure because speaking is meaningless, and dialogue is impossible, if no one is listening. So, I have added a corollary to that theorem, which I named with all due modesty Heinz von Foerster’s Corollary Nr. 1: “Everything said is said to an observer.” Language is not monologic but always dialogic. Whenever I say or describe something, I am after all not doing it for myself but to make someone else know and understand what I am thinking of intending to do.

Heinz von Foerster’s great insight was perhaps inspired by the works of his distant relative and the brilliant philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein proposed that language is a very public matter, and that a private language is not possible. The meaning of a word, such as “apple” does not inherently come from the word “apple”. The meaning of the word comes from how it is used. The meaning comes from repeat usage of the word in a public setting. Thus, even though the experience of an apple may be private to the individual, how we can describe it is by using a public language. Von Foerster continues:

When other observers are involved… we get a triad consisting of the observers, the languages, and the relations constituting a social unit. The addition produces the nucleus and the core structure of society, which consists of two people using language. Due to the recursive nature of their interactions, stabilities arise, they generate observers and their worlds, who recursively create other stable worlds through interacting in language. Therefore, we can call a funny experience apple because other people also call it apple. Nobody knows, however, whether the green color of the apple you perceive, is the same experience as the one I am referring to with the word green. In other words, observers, languages, and societies are constituted through recursive linguistic interaction, although it is impossible to say which of these components came first and which were last – remember the comparable case of hen, egg and cock – we need all three in order to have all three.

Klaus Krippendorff defined closure as follows – A system is closed if it provides its own explanation and no references to an input are required. With closures, recursions are a good and perhaps the only way to interact. As organizationally closed entities, we are able to stay viable only as part of a social realm. When we are part of a social realm, we have to construct reality with reference to an external reference. Understanding is still generated internally, but with an external point of reference. This adds to the reality of the social realm as a collective. If the society has to have an identity that is sustained over time, its viability must come from its members. Like a set of nested dolls, society’s structure comes from participating individuals who themselves are embedded recursively in the societal realm. The structure of the societal or social realm is not designed, but emergent from the interactions, desires, goals etc. of the individuals. The society is able to live on while the individuals come and go.

I am part of someone else’s environment, and I add to the variety of their environment with my decisions and actions (sometimes inactions). This is an important reminder for us to hold onto in light of recent world events including a devastating pandemic. I will finish with some wise words from Heinz von Foerster:

A human being is a human being together with another human being; this is what a human being is. I exist through another “I”, I see myself through the eyes of the Other, and I shall not tolerate that this relationship is destroyed by the idea of the objective knowledge of an independent reality, which tears us apart and makes the Other as object which is distinct from me. This world of ideas has nothing to do with proof, it is a world one must experience, see, or simply be. When one suddenly experiences this sort of communality, one begins to dance together, one senses the next common step and one’s movements fuse with those of the other into one and the same person, into a being that can see with four eyes. Reality becomes communality and community. When the partners are in harmony, twoness flows like oneness, and the distinction between leading and being led has become meaningless.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Consistency over Completeness:

Source – The Certainty of Uncertainty: Dialogues Introducing Constructivism By Bernhard Poerksen

7 thoughts on “The Cybernetics of a Society:

  1. Hello Harish,

    Thank you very much for your insightful posts. I am also a great admirer of Heinz von Foerster (HvF). But out of this admiration, I hope you don’t mind me making one important suggestion to you and the other readers though:

    we humans very likely cannot (neuro-scientifically speaking) compute a “stable reality” (such as Truth/Certainty etc. as absolutes) but rather, because of the very recursive nature of our thinking and acting, which you have also pointed out, we rather compute ‘dynamic stabilities.”

    HvF typically used the terms eigen-behavior/-function/-value/-solution, etc. instead of ‘dynamic stability.’ I just found the term dynamic stability to be more accessible (almost self-explanatory) to more people, instead of trying to explain the academic term eigenbehavior etc. every time.

    Hope that helps. 🙂


    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. My inspiration for the post Heinz’s 1973 AUM talk “Computing a Reality.” I do find the term dynamic stability quite interesting due to its “opposing” nature (stable vs dynamic).


  2. I see. I say to myself: ‘observing:
    “Humberto Maturana said – anything said is said by an observer. Heinz von Foerster, one of my heroes (mine too – JCL), expanded this and said – everything said is said to an observer.”
    looks like a recursion.’
    Recursion (see “The Invented Reality”, edited by Paul Watzlawick (one of my hero’s whom I’ve actually met)) is the sure sign of paradox. Only when observed, is something being said. (Thank you for reading this).

    I would add: “anything said is said to a listener (‘heard by an observer’)”. What is being said is not what’s being read said. In Dutch this is a famous line of poetry: “Lees maar wat er staat, er staat niet wat er staat” – Nijhof Translation says: Read what it states, it doesn’t state what it states. In Dutch, “Waterstaat” – water management – is also an actual organisation, even more ancient then the Dutch state itself.

    In communication theory it’s (implicitly) prescribed that the sender determines the meaning of what’s being said. (In ICT this is the so-said “Helsinki Principle”). In my MBA thesis I show that a user or listener – and this one only – determines the meaning of what’s being “said”. To “solve” this, one usually hides in every message a request (rather a command) to comply to the meaning as specified (intended) by the sender; who also hides that (s)he doesn’t know what’s being said (as an observer). For instance, one says: “if you see what I mean”, and doesn’t verify.

    In theory there is no difference between what’s being said and what’s being meant (heard). As our language has a command-and-control-structure. For instance, using a word like “observer” also may indicate that one should “observe” what’s being said as being said by the observer. (I assume that might not be the case and that this happens tacitly).

    Humanity invented language to coordinate actions and – one of the most ignored principles voiced by Darwin – evolution works by “shifting” the use of inventions, applying them in other uses. For instance, feathers to keep dinosaurs warm evolved into wings for flying. So we were using a command-and-control language and now use this to communicate meaning. Like the proverbial man with the hammer, we still use language to command and control meaning. This works for us in simple situations – emergencies – but breaks down in complexes – emergent systems – , like a society. Any dialogue then turns into a debate.

    In practice there’s a difference between theory and practice. In communication practice (or pragmatics, as Paul calls it) meaning is being established by relationships, based on behaviour, interpunction, intentions (feed forward) and correcting misunderstanding feed back). For instance:
    – The consultant says, the client is not committed
    – The consultant, says the client, is not committed.

    You can now observe, that a command-and-control structure of language, induces a double bind. Both observer (Humberto) and observer* (Heinz) assume what’s being said by either observer, is what’s being said (= meant). And their (unequal) relationship may prevent them from saying so they’re assuming. We’ve only got access to what’s being said.

    This is why i now usually introduce myself as a facilitator who disrupts conversations. Somebody has to make the implicit explicit.

    Now, rules of engagements are determined by (one’s) society. One has to observe the rules of engagements to belong to one’s society. Extending what Wittgenstein noticed: the meaning of a word is your correct use of it, as “observed and corrected” by society. This is why one usually starts with defining one’s definitions and inducing a paradigm. Disregarding the behavioural (practical) aspects of meaning.

    An interesting example is football and soccer. football is being called soccer in the US because both rugby and football (and American Football) where called “football”, so the association of football which determined the rules decided to call football ‘association (= society) football’, which became soccer for short. The popularity of the games made football the standard in British (and Dutch) and football* in American societies.

    I’m currently inventing other grammatical structures (paradigm shift) when communicating, shifting grammars of engagement. Like: “I see; things being said by observing are seen as one observes”. One of the changes is using verbs (observing) when one usually uses a noun (observer). Another one is not using definitions with “is”.

    Gut Yuletide,


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