In today’s post, I am looking at the fascinating world of second order cybernetics. If first order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, then second order cybernetics (SOC) is the study of observing systems. If first order cybernetics is a hard view of modeling systems, then second order cybernetics is a soft view of modeling the modeling. From my viewpoint, one of the basic notions of second order cybernetics is that we are informationally closed. This means that information does not enter us from the outside. Instead, we generate meaning based on the perturbations we encounter from the outside world. One of the pioneers of SOC was Heinz von Foerster. I will be relying on his wisdom a lot for this post.
SOC teaches us that observer must be included as part of the observation. Objective observations are not possible because the observer is part of the observation. We do not have access to the external world. What we observe depends upon our interpretative framework. What we are really experiencing is not the external world in all its wonderful variety or richness. Instead, what we experience is the constraints we encounter in the world; the constraints that our interpretative framework can afford to experience. If we think about it, we can only sense a sliver of the light spectrum, we experience only a sliver of the audible spectrum, we experience only a sliver of the “tactile spectrum”, and so on. We depict a three-dimensional world because that is what we are accustomed to. As von Foerster noted, the environment contains no information, it is exactly as it is. The information regarding the environment comes from us within. No information comes from outside into us. This is after all, the meaning of the phrase “informationally closed.”
Von Foerster said the following about objectivity:
“Objectivity in the traditional sense,” as Heinz von Foerster has remarked, “is the delusion that it is not a delusion. It is the cognitive version of the physiological blindspot: we do not see what we do not see. Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him. Invoking objectivity is abrogating responsibility, hence its popularity.”
First Order Cybernetics →The map is not the territory.
Second Order Cybernetics → The map is the territory:
Alfred Korzybski’s famous dictum “The map is not the territory” is very apt here. We can say that this represents the first order cybernetics. What this dictum means is that we should not mistake the word for the real object; we should not mistake the map for the territory. To do so will be a first-order mistake. From a second-order standpoint, however, we will have to challenge this. If we do not have access to the real world, the territory, saying the map is not the territory is not useful. Von Foerster explained this brilliantly in a lecture:
Heinz began his lecture with the following words: “I have the feeling that the title of this conference was stimulated by a famous statement of Alfred Korzybski, which is: ‘The map is not the territory’. The underlying idea of this statement has always been used to find out if someone was schizophrenic or not. Schizophrenics apparently mix up the map with the territory by taking the symbol for the object. For example, they might eat the menu, because it says ‘soup’, ‘meat’ and ‘dessert’ on it. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am glad that you are all seated, for now comes the Heinz von Foerster theorem: ‘The map is the territory’ because we don’t have anything else but maps. We only have depictions or presentations – I wouldn’t even say re-presentations – that we can braid together within language with the other. But if one were to say this statement epistemologically correctly one would have to say:
‘The map of the map is not the map of the territory.’ We only have maps; we don’t know anything about a territory. We only know the map of the territory and we know the map of the map and we know that the two are not the same. But the map is always the territory because we don’t have anything else.”
It is important note here that von Foerster will not even use the word “representation”. What we have are stable constructions that stand-in for the constraints that we routinely experience in our encounters. Von Foerster would say that what we experience as ‘objects’ in the world out there are actually ‘tokens’. These are the stable behaviors we expect as a result of repeat interactions. For example, when we lift an object, we anticipate how our experience of the object will be like. The experiential reality of that object becomes ‘real’ to us based on our past interactions with the object. We re-cognize the stable behavior of the ‘object” based on our interaction. In order to understand or know the object, we have to interact with it. Our interactions result in a stable behavior that we can come to recognize on an ongoing basis. Von Foerster stated this as – there is a behavior between the perceiver and the object perceived and a stability or repetition “that arises between them”.
We are simply made aware of the constraints that are meaningful to us. I am using the word “constraints”, inspired by another great mind, Ernst von Glasersfeld. When we walk around a path, we are actually guided by the constraints, we look out for the things we should stay away from, such as the tree on the side or the big stone on the path. Our experience is essentially defined by the constraints. Even if we are moving towards a goal, we are still guided by the constraints. The constraints define our path.
It is a common notion that we create a representation of the external world in our mind. SOC would clarify this and say that we do not create representations, instead we construct or invent an experiential reality based on our closed interpretative framework. Paraphrasing Humberto Maturana, the activity of the nervous system is determined by the nervous system itself, and not by the external world. Our nervous system is a result of evolution, and not a design by an intelligent designer. The traits that were successful got passed onto us from our ancestors, while the ones that were not successful did not. One could say that these were so successful that we have come to accept that “objective” nature of our experiential reality. When these are not viable, we are not able to cope with our environment.
My main takeaway from SOC is in how I interact with others. SOC teaches us that the properties of the observed are inputted by the observer. Therefore, in order to understand what is being observed, we should observe the observer, understand the distinctions they make, and how they describe their observations, rather than what is being observed. This is an important insight that is missed from the discussions of representations or mental models. This is the starting point for Systems Thinking. As West Churchman said, the systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. Our worlds collide and we come to realize a stable social realm through repeat interactions. We correct/adjust and modify as applicable to make each other’s worlds more viable from these interactions. As the cheesy cliché goes, we ‘complete’ each other’s worlds.
This is further explained by Bruce Clarke and Heinz von Foerster:
How is it that we can agree on the world outside of us?
We are inventing it(the world) for ourselves all the time… In traditional approach, one would say that the world is full of objects and they present themselves to us and we simply are aware of their existence because our nervous systems represent them to us or give the objects to us; then there is no problem. But if you are going to be rigorous about a constructivist epistemology, then you should not talk about objects because we do not know them… the objects present “tokens for eigenbehaviors,” which we can establish.
We are both in this world, both in each other’s world. You are in mine, and I am in your world; therefore, we establish our eigenbehavior for each other. And we may not agree, but we are caught in the same loop.
I will finish with an excellent quote from von Glasersfeld:
Whenever something is characterized by the particular interrelation of several elements, it is difficult to describe. Language is necessarily linear. Interrelated complexes are not. Each one of the scientists who have initiated, shaped, and nourished this new way of thinking would describe cybernetics differently, and each has defined it for himself. Yet they are all profoundly aware of the fact that their efforts, their methods, and their goals have led them beyond the bounds of the traditional disciplines in which they started, and that, nevertheless, there is far more overlap in their thinking than individual divergence.
Stay safe and always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Cybernetics of Kindness: