The Cybernetics of “Here & Now” and “There & Then”:

In today’s post, I am looking at difference. Difference is a big concept in Cybernetics. As Ross Ashby noted:

The most fundamental concept in cybernetics is that of “difference”, either that two things are recognizably different or that one thing has changed with time.

In Cybernetics, the goal is to eliminate the difference. If we take an example of a steersman on a boat, they are continuously trying to correct their course so that they can reach their destination correctly. The course has set the path, and any difference due to environmental conditions or other things will need to be corrected. This is a negative feedback cycle, where the current value is compared against a set value, and any difference will trigger an action from the steersman. If the steersman has enough variety, in terms of experience or technology, they can easily correct the difference.

We can see from the example that there has to be a set value so that the current value can be compared against it. This comparison has to be either continuous (if possible) or as frequent as possible to allow the steersman to be control the external variety. If the steersman is not able to steer the boat to be in a “zone of safety”, they will lose control of the boat. If the feedback is received in long intervals, the steersman will not be effective in steering the boat. This basic idea can be applied to all sorts of situations. Basically, we identify a goal value, and then have processes in place to ensure that the “system” of interest is kept with in an allowable range of the goal value. From this standpoint, we can identify a problem as the difference of the goal value and the current value. When this difference is beyond an allowable value, we have to initiate an action that will bring the system back into the tolerable range.

This discussion points to the importance of maintaining the system between the viable range for selected essential variables. These could be the number of sales or rate of employee retention for an organization. This is about the ongoing survival by keeping the organization viable. We can see that this is a homeostatic type loop about the “here and now” for the organization, where selected essential variables are kept within a tolerance range. As noted before, this loop has to be either continuous if possible, or as frequent as possible.

What we have discussed does not address how an organization can grow. Our discussion has been about how to keep the organization surviving. Now we will look at the cybernetics of growth, which is also an important aspect for viability of an organization. For the growth part, similar to the first loop, we need a second loop where the goal value is an ideal state. This ideal state is “there and then” for the organization. This is a long-term goal for the organization, and unlike the homeostatic loop, this second loop does not have to be continuous or frequent. This second loop utilizes more infrequent comparisons. The emphasis is still keeping the essential variables in check by frequently keeping an eye on what is going on here and now, while at the same time looking out into the near future (“there and then”) infrequently. I encourage the reader to look into Stafford Beer’s VSM model that looks at the “here and now” and “there and then” ideas to ensure viability of an organization. I have written an introduction to VSM here.

For some of the readers, this might remind you of the Roman God, Janus. Janus has two heads, looking in opposite directions. He is viewed as the God of change or transitions sometimes depicted as having one head looking into the past/current, while the other head looking into the future.

This may be paradoxical for some readers. In order to be adaptive, maintaining the status quo is very important. A smaller frequent feedback loop for status quo, and a larger infrequent loop for adjusting the course into the future is needed for viability. The idea of the two self-correcting loops goes back to Ross Ashby. I have written about it here.

A keen reader might see traces of Chris Argyris and Donald Schon’s “double loop” learning here. That is the case because Argyris and Schon were inspired by Ashby. They note the following in Organizational Learning II:

We borrow the distinction between single- and double-loop learning from W. Ross Ashby’s ‘Design for a Brain’. Ashby formulates his distinction in terms of (a) the adaptive behavior of a stable system, “the region of stability being the region of the phase space in which all the essential variables lie within their normal limits,” and (b) a change in the value of an effective parameter, which changes the field within which the system seeks to maintain its stability. One of Ashby’s examples is the behavior of a heating or cooling system governed by a thermostat. In an analogy to single-loop learning, the system changes the values of certain variables (for example, the opening or closing of an air valve) in order to keep temperature within the limits of a setting. Double-loop learning is analogous to the process by which a change in the setting induces the system to maintain temperature within the range specified by a new setting.

Please maintain social distance, wear masks and take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Cybernetics of Bayesian Epistemology:

9 thoughts on “The Cybernetics of “Here & Now” and “There & Then”:

    • Your nice post came at about the same time as I did a work shop About Time, on the Power of Time in facilitating groups. Also nice of you to mention Argyris and Schön.

      In facilitating, one has to be “present”, stay in the “here and now”. With the word “time” one uses “di*”, which one recognizes in “di-vide”, “de-al” and even “du-o” and “du-al”. Dividing one into two. With time – “actual time”, I call this metaphor-in-use – one divides past from future.

      With the word “difference” one uses “di*” also. And the Latin “facere”, or “to make”. So difference is made by you. And one “recognizes” one’s differences by making a second difference, judging the difference made against one-self. “Men is the measure of all things” (Protagoras of Abdera (l.c. 485-415 BCE)).

      One does this implicitly, tacitly. Through language one is able to translate these differences into sounds and written words and make them explicit. In doing so, one needs to make two more differences: the language or jargon one uses and the actual words. I call this the metaphor-espoused.

      I could have written “distinction”, “distinguished”, “dissimilarity”, “define”, “contrast”, “variation”, … Different words, differing meaning, but do words “make the difference”? I don’t think so, as the difference has already been made. I’m now refering to the actual observation and recognition of the distinction.

      What difference do the words make? Two. A distinction between “me” and “you” – I’m using these words – and “us” and “them”, – using words from a vocabulary associated with a group of people; people who “define” the uses of words (meaning) and themselves as a group of people. Words don’t make a difference, (human) beings do.

      Now, Spencer-Brown showed that making a difference (he actually used the word, “distinction”, I suppose to distinguish between and an actual difference – like the contrast between these letters and their back-ground – and observing that difference; or perhaps because he sensed that “making a difference” uses “to make” twice…) leads to paradox and time (or vice versa). Paradoxes are like energy, conserved.

      Time, one of the participants in my latest work shop said this – “time is fictious”-, is a fiction, or “made-up”. In the very act of distinguishing, observing a distinction, one “makes time”. And – I like to say, “time ‘makes’ us”. Time – attributed both to Einstein and a toilet door in Texas – prevents things from happening “at the same time”, or here and now. Time exists only as an idea, in our mind, a fiction. One uses “time” to make sense of a situation.

      Time is a real fiction. As Vaihinger (The Philosophy As-If) proposes, real fictions are inherently paradoxical. We use these ideas to construct models, useful models. But usefulness doesn’t make them (really) true. In any model, one also “makes up” time. Time, however, remains a fiction.

      Time has always been with me :-). The very first meeting in my first job after university (1984), was about “lead-time divided by two”. The lead time of producing telephone switches had to be cut in halve. It was considered an ambitious goal. I just asked, “How long is the lead time now?”.
      “Fourteen months”.
      “And how long does it actually take to acquire components, assemble and test a switch?”
      “About 24 weeks”.
      So I said: “all your time parameters stand too large in the information system, cut them in halve. Next project please”. [This is like setting a thermostat “too high”].
      The then Chief Operations Officer said: “we can’t do that. Now the factory takes 6 months to produce a switch; when we cut it into three months, the factory will have no work for three month”. [Keeping the heat on: people will get cold]
      I said: “they have now too, they just smear it out over six months”.
      COO: “Mr Lelie, six minus three equals six”.
      “No sir,” – I did make a mistake here in using his first name, I shouldn’t have done that -, ” with things it does, but not with time. Time is a variable, not an observable”.

      Off course, I wasn’t listened too and a year later, the lead time hadden’t moved an inch. And I was taken off the project. Five years later – when I had become manager production – I had reduced the lead time to any time you want (I used to say 12 weeks, not to scare people). I was fired when aiming at “negative” lead times”. (Defining lead time as the quotient of Output and Inventory, – two observables – expressed in money and paying for components only after delivering the final product.)

      The difference – distinction – between an observable and a variable is that every one can observe an observable, irrespective of one’s model-in-use; a variable depends on one’s model-espoused. As Argyris showed, our real problem is in our tendency to maintain that there’s no difference between our model-in-use and model-espoused AND covering-up when the difference becomes manifest. It’s the source of all our current day problems, including climate change.


      In my work shop I just make participants more aware about their “time making”. Using Parkinson’s Law: “work fills the time available for its completion”. This is all I’ve had time for. Thanks for making time to read this.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ha, ha. Non existant. At that time I had predicted that the factory would be closed within 10 years (it actually took 15, things go slower in a first phase and faster in the last). I always said that the telecom-factory of the future would be in two containers: one with the materials and one with the machines and they would be located at the site of the client. It’s called VOIP Voice over IP – internet protocol (it was just introduced around that time in the labs.

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