Are you asking the right question? What question might lead you to unexpected answers?
To help you to answer these questions I have to take you back to the very first days of my Ph.D. studies in Cybernetics. And, I hear you say, as many have said before, ‘What is Cybernetics?’
Cybernetics, as a discipline, started between the two world wars. Three people were having a conversation and they realised that they had important ideas that they could not share because they were using mutually exclusive language, which is to say, words and ideas that each other could not understand. The three were: a mathematician, a telecommunications engineer and a neurophysiologist.
They said, ‘we must form a language that will enable us to talk across the disciplines’. They called it ‘Cybernetics’ using a word that Plato had used, almost in the same way that Plato had used it.
Fortunately, the word turns up twice in the Bible. Once where in the letter to the Ephesians, there are ‘gifts to the churches’. Unfortunately, in the UK, but not in Germany for example, we totally devalue it. The word is usually translated to ‘administrators’ or ‘helps’. If you think about it, without good administrators, nothing much would be able to happen!
The other time it turns up it is much more instructive. The Bible says that Paul talked to the ‘kuberneis’ of the ship. He was the ‘kuberneis’ of the ship in two respects. First, he was the manager of the people on the ship. He did not provide them with their energy and motivation, they came with that. His role was to monitor all that; damp it down and provide negative feedback to get them to do what he wanted them to do.
Secondly, he was the steersman of the ship, and this is more informative. As steersman, the wind, the waves, the people rowing and the currents provided the energy. His job was to monitor all that and then steer providing force in the opposite direction, providing negative feedback, to get the ship to go in the direction that he wanted.
The examples are useful in understanding how Cybernetics is such a valuable discipline. It can be applied to something mechanical like steering a ship, or to something much more nebulous like people management. Indeed, it can even be used with disciplines that involve values and justifications such as economics or theology. That makes Cybernetics unique among the sciences.
Cybernetics is uniquely a multi-disciplinary discipline, that one can use to analyse huge complex problems, when all other forms of analysis have failed. Cybernetics has indeed supplied the ‘black box analysis‘ for problems like that. Another Cybernetics analysis may be applied to a complex problem that has resisted analysis by all other means. To do the analysis, first, one tries to describe the problem in the best possible way and then one looks around all the other disciplines to see if there is anything that resembles it in any way or see if it reminds of something about it.
Without cybernetics we would have some form of computers, robotics and artificial brains, but they would probably be very different. The Russian space programme was run on a very mathematical form of Cybernetics.
So, that has not answered the original question. The answer will come soon!
Note: The Wikipedia article on Cybernetics is excellent, as are the references in it.
Look out for part 2 of Genevieve’s blog on Cybernetics coming next week.
Genevieve M Hibbs former: nurse (general and occupational health), midwife, Christian missionary, lecturer, elected councillor, mayor and a member of the Lucidity Network. To connect with Genevieve and the other wonderful members of the Lucidity Network join our free Lucidity Facebook community for clearer thinking and better results.