The Citroën DS, an automobile (meaning “self-mover”) that I have owned for twenty years, was characterized by the French semiotician Roland Barthes as “proceeding from the category of propulsion to that of spontaneous motion, from that of the engine to that of the organism.”
This also characterizes the science of cybernetics, proceeding from explanations of simple causal relationships, to those of self-directed systems—systems that have goals and that respond to feedback to achieve them. Feedback and response are required by self-directed systems to maintain viability when conditions change.
Cybernetic systems have purpose, whether they are alive or not; whether we think of them as alive or not. Citroëns and cybernetic systems are, again quoting Barthes,“messenger(s) from a world above that of nature.”
As the science of feedback and goals, cybernetics offers models for understanding existing systems and for designing new ones, whether mechanical, electrical, personal, social, organizational, or a hybrid. A new system may be an artifact or a process, a product or a service. The rigor of cybernetics provides measures of a system's capacity to fulfill the intentions of the designers. Cybernetics helps answer: How is this system purposeful? How may it fail? How is it artful?
From foundational conversations of the 1940s to this day, practitioners of cybernetics have come from many specialties—electronics and mathematics, yes—and psychiatry, psychology, neurophysiology, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, architecture, and design. This list often surprises. Even before the term 'cyberspace' encouraged an erroneous connection to the Internet, cybernetics had often been confused with robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). While AI arose from the theoretical side of cybernetics, AI moved away from the primacy of actions and interactions as the means of understanding and achieving intelligence. With this perspective, cybernetics is unique.
When actions are taken by humans, their reasons and reasonings must be available to scrutiny in order to effectively describe human goals. From the 1950s, practitioners of cybernetics took this seriously and studied human-to-human, human-to-machine, and machine-to-machine interactions in real-time, in the context of learning, playing, and collaborating. As a result, Conversation Theory emerged in the 1970s as a major branch of cybernetics. As a discipline of interaction, the theory provides formal models with insight and direction for design of products, software, web services, and interactive art.
Participation and design have the same form in every social interaction whether person-to-person, or within families, teams, organizations, political parties, or economic markets. Complex coördination requires explicit definitions of participation and design. The curators of Institute Itaú Cultural want to address the question, how can understanding of interaction go beyond an explanation of responsive art and afford guidance for re-design of a social fabric? Can cybernetics help the complex, seemingly intractable problems in our global ecologies and economies?
Twenty years after buying my Citroën DS and a few months before this symposium, I sold it. Despite its brilliant capabilities, it had become a lot of trouble. I knew only one mechanic who could repair it. Replacement parts were unavailable, or used and unreliable. This automobile required a lot of maintenance, it seemed better to let it go. Can cybernetics be maintained? Is it useful? Is it necessary?
My thanks to Guilherme Kujawski, Marcos Cuzziol, and the staff of Instituto Itaú Cultural for their support.