If I were asked to explain cybernetics, the first thing that would come to my mind would be – error correction. The example that is often used to explain cybernetics is that of the steersman. You have a steersman on a boat moving from point A to point B. Ideally, the boat should move from point A to B in a straight line. However, the wind can change the direction of the boat, and the steersman has to adjust accordingly to stay on course. This negative feedback loop requires a target such that the difference from the target is compensated. In technical terms, there is a comparator (something that can measure) that checks on a periodic or continuous basis what the difference is, and provides this information to make adjustments accordingly. Let’s call this framework as first order cybernetics. In this framework, we need a closed loop so that we have feedback. This allows for information to be fed back so that we can compare it against a goal and make adjustments accordingly. This approach was made famous by one of the main pioneers of Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener. He used this for guided missile technology where the missile could change its course as needed similar to the steersman on the boat. First order cybernetics obviously is quite useful. But it is based on the assumption that there is a target that we can all agree upon. This also assumes that the comparator is able to work effectively and efficiently.
With this background, I would now like to look at second order cybernetics. One of the main pioneers of second order cybernetics was Heinz von Foerster. He wanted to go beyond the idea of just error correction. He wanted to look at error correction of error correction. As I noted earlier, the error correction mechanism assumes that the target is clear and available, and also that the comparator and the correcting mechanism are working appropriately. Von Foerster challenged the notion of an objective reality and introduced the notion of the observer being part of what is observed. The general tendency is to keep the observer out of what is being observed with the underlying belief that the observation is readily available for all those who are interested. Von Foerster pushed back on this idea and said that the observer is included in the observation. One of my favorite aphorisms from von Foerster is – only when you realize you are blind, can you see. We all have cognitive blind spots. Realizing this and being aware of it allows us to improve how we look at things. There is a circularity that we have to respect and understand better here. What we see impacts what we understand, and what we understand impacts what we see. It is an ongoing self-correcting cycle. If the first order error correction is a correcting to a specific problem, then second order error correcting is the error correction of the error correction.
There is a great example that von Foerster gives that might explain this idea better. He talked about the Turing’s test. Turing’s test or the Imitation Game as originally called by the great Alan Turing is a test given to an “intelligent machine” to see if its intelligence is comparable or indistinguishable from that of a human. Von Foerster turned this on its head by bringing up the second order implications. He noted:
The way I see it, the potential intelligence of a machine is not being tested. In actual fact, the scholars are testing themselves (when they give the Turing test). Yes, they are testing themselves to determine whether or not they can tell a human being from a machine. And if they don’t manage to do this, they will have failed. The way I see it, the examiners are examining themselves, not the entity that is meekly sitting behind the curtain and providing answers for their questions. As I said, “Tests test tests.”
One of the main implications from this is that the observer is responsible for their own construction of what they are observing. We are all informationally closed entities that construct our version of a stable paradigm that we call a reality (not THE reality). And we are responsible for our construction, and we are ethically bound to allow others to construct their versions. We come to an eigenvalue for this “reality” when we continue to interact with each other. The more we stay away from each other in our own echo chambers, the harder it becomes to reconcile the different realities. The term “informationally closed” means that information does not enter us from the outside. We generate meaning based on how we are being perturbed based on the affordances of the environment we are interacting with. The main criticism to this approach is that it leads to relativism, the notion that every viewpoint matters. I reject this notion and affirmatively state that we should support pluralism. By saying that we do not have access to an objective reality, I am saying that we need epistemic humility. We need to realize that we do not have the Truth; that there is no Truth out there. As the wonderful Systems Thinker, Charles West Churchman said, “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.” We should be beware of those that claim that they have access to the Truth.
When we understand the second order implications, we realize that although the map is not the territory, the map is all we have. Thus, we have to keep working on getting better at making maps. We have to work on error correction of our error corrections. I will finish with some wise words from von Foerster:
The consciousness of consciousness is self-consciousness. The understanding of understanding is self-understanding. And the organization of organization is self-organization. I propose that whenever this self crops up we emphasize this moment of circularity. The result is this: The self does not appear as something static or firm but instead becomes fluid and is constantly being produced. It starts moving. I would plead that we also maintain the dynamics of this word when we speak of self-organization. The way I see it, the self changes every moment, each and every second.
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 Open Concept of Systems: