Principia Cybernetica Web

Progress Report: 5 years of PCP

PCP was publically introduced in December 1989 with a first general proposal, containing a list of goals. Since these objectives were formulated rather explicitly, point by point, it is easy to now check in how far they have become reality. Although these goals sounded very ambitious at the moment, the funny thing is that most of them have effectively been realized.

We have a lot of it to thank to the World-Wide Web system becoming available in the meantime, solving most of our technical problems. We certainly must give credit to Cliff Joslyn for so well anticipating a system which at that moment did not exist, except in the mind of its inceptor, Tim Berners-Lee, who wrote his first, privately circulated, proposal for WWW at about the same time.

We will now review each goal separately, by quoting each of the 12 points from the original document, noting "YES" it it has been achieved, "NO" if we aren't there yet, and "MAYBE" if it has been achieved partially.

The following is a partial list of desiderata for the "Principia Cybernetica" project:

1. For a group of researchers, perhaps not all geographically close, to collaboratively develop a system of philosophy, where philosophy is taken in the general sense of clear and consistent language about ideas and concepts

YES. The system of philosophy is there (albeit far from finished), partially implemented over the WWW server, and its developers have been working collaboratively in spite of large geographical obstacles (the Atlantic Ocean among other things).
2. To allow these researchers different levels of access to the system according to their role in the project development
YES. The present WWW server allows editors to read and edit all material via passwords, the different contributors to read most material, and to make annotations. Soon they will be able to edit their own annotation (but not other people's)
3. To produce a system of philosophy that can develop dynamically over time, with continuing refinement and expansion
YES. The quasi-hierarchical hypertext structure of linked nodes makes it easy to add or refine concepts and principles, while maintaining a stable core.
4. For the system of philosophy to fully reflect and incorporate the semantic relations inherent among the terms being explicated
Mostly NO. Some semantic relations have been made explicit in a system of typed links for certain nodes, but this is basically an unfinished experiment.
5. To allow the explication of terms and senses of terms, and to unify and synthesize notations and terminology among researchers in different disciplines
Mostly NO. There is some explication of terms and senses of terms (e.g. in the Glossary), but it is far from systematical, and we certainly haven't as yet achieved any terminological unification.
6. To support the process of argument and dialog among experts toward the end of consensus at the level of the meanings of words and the relations among those meanings
MAYBE. PRNCYB-L and the annotations on the server, as well as more traditional meetings and publications can certainly be said to "support" argument and dialog, but the end of consensus is still quite far away.
7. To support the publication of intermediate and final stages of parts or the whole of the philosophical system
YES. Several papers have already been published, and the hierarchical organization of the conceptual network should make it relatively easy to take out parts or the whole and publish them as a book, paper or report.
8. To support bibliographical and historical reference
YES. In a hypertext system this is almost trivial. Just make a link to a node with a historical review or a list of publications. The actual lists of publications and historical overviews are virtually non-existent though.
9. To support mathematical notation and the easy movement among natural language, formal language, and mathematics
Mostly NO. A shortcoming of the HTML markup language for WWW is that as yet it does not provide easy ways to express mathematical notations, though that should be facilated in the future (e.g. by automatic HTML<->TEX conversions). The "easy movement" is rather vague, so it is difficult to conclude in how far it has been achieved.
10. To allow researchers to develop or read the philosophical system in various orders and in various degrees of depth or specificity
YES. The Principia Cybernetica Web can be read in many different orders, and readers can go in depth, or remain more on the surface while still getting a basic picture. More work needs to be done to fill in all the different levels, though.
11. To allow access to the system for both participants who wish to author and users who wish to read, browse, or study
YES. WWW now allows both reading of text and entering of new text through annotation.
12. To support the publication of various special-purpose documents, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, texts on a subject, reference pages, essays, dialogs on a subject, or "streams of consciuosness"
MAYBE. Several of these types of texts have been published, and as stated earlier it should be easy to take out parts of the Web, but it is not clear in how far the generation of these special purpose documents is really "supported".
13. To allow the representation and utilization of knowledge in both its breadth and its depth.
Probably YES. Representation in breadth and depth is certainly supported, but the rest is rather vague. It sounds well but it is not clear in how far PCP knowledge is being "utilized". If the number of people consulting the Web is a measure, it is certainly not being ignored, though one can doubt whether much is retained by the readers.

The overall score seems pretty impressive: if we give 1 for a YES, 0 for a NO and 0.5 for a MAYBE, we get 9 out of 13, that is: 69 %, after less than 5 years of development.

Note, however, that these are objectives mostly about the "form" or organization of the Project. The goals for the "content" or philosophy were never stated as explicitly, apart from building a "complete and consistent philosophical system", including metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Our system is definitely not complete, though its reach is quite broad, and few fundamental issues are left untouched. Its consistency is debatable but there are no obvious contradictions.

Taking into account that the original proposal described PCP as a "very long term" project, we may conclude that there is reason to be proud of what we have achieved in a rather short term existence.

Copyright© 1994 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn,

Oct 11, 1994 (modified)
Oct 10, 1994 (created)


Introduction to Principia Cybernetica

History of the Principia Cybernetica Project

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