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Cybernetics and Systems Science in Academics

The fundamental concepts of cybernetics have proven to be enormously powerful in a variety of disciplines: computer science, management, biology, sociology, thermodynamics, etc. Cybernetics and Systems Science combine the abstraction of philosophy and mathematics with the concreteness of dealing with the theory and modeling of "real world" evolving systems. Since they are inherently interdisciplinary, Cybernetics and Systems Science work between and among standard theories, usually pairwise (e.g. biophysics, sociobiology) but sometimes across more than two types of systems.

Some recent fashionable approaches have their roots in ideas that were proposed by cyberneticians many decades ago: e.g. artificial intelligence, neural networks, complex systems, human-machine interfaces, self-organization theories, systems therapy, etc. Most of the fundamental concepts and questions of these approaches have already been formulated by cyberneticians such as Wiener, Ashby, von Bertalanffy \cite{V L56}, Boulding, von Foerster, von Neumann, McCulloch, and Pask in the 1940's through 1960's.

But since its founding, Cybernetics and Systems Science have struggled to find a degree of "respectability" in the academic community. While little interdisciplinary work has prospered recently, cyberneticians especially have failed to find homes in academic institutions, or to create their own. Very few academic programs in Cybernetics and Systems Science exist, and those working in the new disciplines described above seem to have forgotten their cybernetic predecessors.

What is the reason that cybernetics does not get the popularity it deserves? What distinguishes cyberneticians from researchers in the previously mentioned areas is that the former stubbornly stick to their objective of building general, domain independent theories, whereas the latter focus on very specific applications: expert systems, psychotherapy, thermodynamics, pattern recognition, etc. General integration remains too abstract, and is not sufficiently successful to be really appreciated.

As an interdisciplinary field, Cybernetics and Systems Science sees common concepts used in multiple traditional disciplines and attempts to achieve a consensual unification by finding common terms for similar concepts in these multiple disciplines. Thus sometimes Cybernetics and Systems Science abstracts away from concepts, theories, and terminologies in specific discipline towards general, and perhaps idiosyncratic, usages. These new conceptual categories may not be recognizable to the traditional researchers, or they may find no utility in the use of the general concepts.

Clearly the problem of building a global theory is much more complex than any of the more down-to-earth goals of the fashionable approaches. But we may also say that the generality of the approach is dangerous in itself if it leads to being "stuck" in abstractions which are so far removed from the everyday world that it is difficult to use them, interact with them, or test them on concrete problems; in other words, to get a feel for how they behave and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Although there are many exceptions, researchers in Cybernetics and Systems Science tend to be trained in a traditional specialty (like biology, management, or psychology) and then come to apply themselves to problems in other areas, perhaps a single other area. Thus their exposure to Cybernetics and Systems Science concepts and theory tends to be somewhat ad hoc and specific to the two or three fields they apply themselves to.

Copyright© 1992 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

C. Joslyn, F. Heylighen,

Jan 1992


Reference material

Cybernetics and Systems Theory

What are Cybernetics and Systems Science?

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