New Order From Old:
The Rise of Second-Order Cybernetics
Its Implications for Machine Intelligence
Copyright (c) Paul Pangaro 1988
[The following text was written as a book proposal . A previously-written
sample was the rough model,
but it was not followed exactly. It should not be confused with
a manuscript with the same title.
References and illustrations are omitted.
This text has been OCR converted and is probably not be perfect;
Cybernetics is simultaneously the most important science of
the age and the least recognized and understood. It is neither
robotics nor freezing dead people. It is not limited to computer
applications and it has as much to say about human interactions
as it does about machine intelligence. Today's cybernetics is
at the root of major revolutions in biology, artificial intelligence,
neural modeling, psychology, education, and mathematics. At last
there is a unifying framework that suspends long-held differences
between science and art, and between external reality and internal
Cybernetics as a named field began in this century; its foundations
go back to the Greeks. When Norbert Wiener and his collaborators
worked in the 1940s, it was a new idea to hold that information
and control could be studied in the abstract. Here was a science
they named cybernetics, based not on cells versus atoms or biology
versus physics, but on the way a system is studied. Indeed, cybernetics
starts from the simple declaration that a system exists.
This point is key, for it reveals the stance that is cybernetics.
The declaration that a system exists to be studied is an act
of human psychology, and all things follow from it: the questions
posed, the answers obtained, the nature of the descriptions generated.
All descriptions emanate from the definition of the system under
All descriptions are a function of the goal of the describer
as much as they are of some possible, underlying "reality."
This problem could be ignored in the early applications of cybernetics.
Ballistic control and industrial processes, with their deterministic
components, yield to simple examination in terms of decomposition,
flows of information, and "feedback" (a term which
was born in cybernetics). But the fundamental subjectivity of
any process of scrutiny haunted the field. If our descriptions
flow fundamentally from ourselves, how is science to be done?
And if the systems under scrutiny are us, namely our own psychology,
how do we survive this self-reflexion with some sense of "objectivity"
These issues, old as philosophy itself, came to the fore in the
1950s and 1960s. The outcome, while still evolving, is called
"second-order cybernetics". In the 1980s, it is a framework
for thought and enquiry that unifies philosophy, science, arts
and humanities, and presents a context for understanding the
history of these human activities. For the next century, the
importance of cybernetics can be seen in many places:
- Popular interest in "New Age" topics is large,
though sorting out the valid scientific approaches from mere
exploitation requires incisive tools that cybernetics provides.
- Biology and ecology are evolving in how they describe systems.
The structure of interaction and language is seen in ways different
from conventional science, yet the results are more powerful
in this new context created by cybernetics.
- Machine intelligence remains an unsolved problem and past
failures have fueled renewed interest in cybernetic approaches
(witness the recent republication of classic works in response
to this demand). Cybernetics has a profound impact on both the
approach and the implementation for "smart machines."
- Psychotherapy now encompasses a major movement that relies
on the ability of cybernetics to formalize the self-reflexive
conversations that occur in the process of therapy. This technique
is now applied in many centers around the world.
- After 30 years of the same philosophy, computer-aided instruction
is being revolutionized by cybernetic theories of conversation
- In mathematics, the logic of expert systems and knowledge
structures are extended by cybernetic research and the resulting
software procedures are simpler and more powerful than conventional
New Order From Old is the story of cybernetics: its history,
philosophy, and application. Concepts and their practice are
illustrated visually and described in non-technical terms. A
carefully woven argument encompasses the related history of human
thought, as well as the contemporary works of Wiener, Ashby,
McCulloch, von Foerster, Bateson, Mead, Maturana, Pask, Piaget,
Brun, Minsky, Paperr, Negroponte, and Winograd. Concepts such
as feedback, variety, recursion, self-reflexion, closure, language,
conversation, conflict, resolution, and learning are explicated
by example and metaphor. Related works, such as from the fiction
of Calvino, are used for amplification.
The working title, New Order From Old, is a direct reference
to how the field has evolved from its limited origins, and how
that evolution was inherent (and inevitable) in the philosophical
bases of the field. The title is also a metaphor for how any
current science may seem new, though its roots are contained
in the history of culture and in our origins as a species. In
this sense, our lives recapitulate those of our ancestors in
a never-ending recursion of action and self-reflexion and description,
and this too is the realm of cybernetics.
Each paragraph in this section represents the topic of a chapter.
The book as a whole is divided into 2 parts.
Investment in Notions I: Reality, Intelligence and Inside/Outside.
The common notion of "reality" prevalent in culture
and science implies in turn that "intelligence" exists
as a commodity that can be stored, transferred like a substance,
or hoarded. This implies that cognition is contained "in
the head", and that the outside world is separable from
it. How the culture imposes and perpetuates the argument that
holds these notions is shown.
Investment in Notions II: Subjectivity, Agreement and Experience.
Beginning from how we know what we know (our epistemology), a
different argument is constructed from first principles. If it
is given that all we know comes from our selves, there is no
need for "reality", and stability and growth come from
agreement. The process of agreement and the distribution of intellect
across brains and actions and environments places an emphasis
on the dynamic of experiencing and away from an artifact called
Cybernetics Informs: A Shift from Absolute (outside) to relative
(inside), from "what" to "when". Any
question beginning with "What is .... ?" invests in
notions of objectivity, for it implies that things can exist
independent of context and the observer. The descriptive power
of cybernetics begins by substituting the question "When
is .... ?", thus forcing the inclusion of context and the
observer into any question and into every answer. This shifts
the focus from an imposed, outside "absolute", to an
inside, willful "relative."
"When is Cybernetics?": A three-fold answer
is given in the course of the book, as the question can be answered
from the perspective of history, application, and philosophy.
This chapter is the first perspective, an historical sweep starting
from questions currently under scrutiny in the world's scientific
community, and moving back in time to the origins of "first-order"
The Rise of Second-Order Cybernetics: How the origins
of the field have engendered a revolution in social and psychological
sciences as fundamental as that of relativity and uncertainty
in 20th century physics. The simple fable of the thermostat destroys
the conventional wisdom about science as a giver of truth about
the world. The historical trace now sweeps forward again, showing
the revisions brought by "second-order."
Adding the Self: When the observed is also observing (and
is "Us"). To be useful, a descriptive method in
psychology must be able to be about, and simultaneously consist
in, human discourse- The loss of objectivity (read: innocence)
about such enquiry leads not to despair or avoidance (viz. mathematics)
but rather to a revision that also unifies science and art as
Validated Subjectivity: How science can be done within a subjective
existence. The scientific method can be described consistently
in a subjective world and yet with no loss of the capacity for
verification and prediction. The shocker is that "the world"
need not exist for science to be done, even (especially?) as
it is today with its complex instrumentation and theories.
The Shift of Value and Rise of Ethics: When absolute truth
is displaced by agreement, the role and responsibility of the
individual changes. This affects the relationship of corporations,
politics and the scientific community to each human being.
Closure and Closedness of the Nervous System: Input/output
and domains of interaction. New biological theories that have
emerged from the cybernetic approach show the paucity of past
interpretations of the nervous system as an "input/output"
system, and propose an alternative.
Representation: A World Outside versus a World Among.
Though the goal of artificial intelligence has been to represent
the external world in an internal form for machine interpretation,
cybernetics holds that this is not how intelligence is composed.
Implementation: A World Inside versus a World Through.
The means for making intelligent machines is clear but requires
a major change in approach. What is required can be easily specified,
though less easily made with current technology-
Embodiment: The Micro-Structure of Concepts. Much can
be said about how concepts need to be modeled, in order to have
the stability and resiliency we experience every day. A detailed
model of the structure and interaction of concepts is diagrammed.
Interaction: The Architecture of Language. The relationship
of individuals in discourse must allow certain structural richness
to achieve true conversation and allow for evolution (alias learning)
among individuals. The "individual", however, may be
a single person, a group or persons, or a repertoire of perspectives
within one person.
The Technology of Intelligence: Summary and comparison
of cybernetic approaches to present-day artificial intelligence
(AI). A review of where current AI research is, how it is converging
on cybernetics, and where cybernetics will afford new and necessary
changes of approach.
The Intelligence of Technology: Implications for networking
and social and corporate change. Computer supported cooperative
work is concerned with work activities (including design, coordination,
and management) that are performed by a human work team connected
via computer terminals. To succeed, the field will require analysis
and application of tools of the sophistication provided by cybernetics.
Implementation will lead to new relationships between workers
and corporations, as well as refine the concept of machine intelligence
and cooperative support.
"MACHINE NARCISSUS" [title copyright (c) Paul
Pangaro 1987]: Intelligence and the naming of concepts. Considered
to be the highest faculty of human beings, intelligence is at
the center of our history and achievements. Efforts to amplify
human intelligence find their greatest expression in the medium
called the computer. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection,
not realizing he was seeing himself. So too in seeking to reproduce
intelligence we think we see the universals of intelligence,
independent of human life; but we really see only our own cultural
view of what it means to think. Our insides project into the
cosmos, and the cosmos reflects how we conceive. We project into
ourselves, and our mind reflects back the cosmos. The nested
reflections of science and culture, our world and ourselves,
are the primary cycle of human endeavor. At the center is what
we name as intelligence. Our naming makes it ours, until such
time as machine intelligence can also name, drawing the distinctions
of the world in its own language Just as the old story says Man
and Woman were commanded to do-
Epilogue: Cybernetics as Synthesis in the 20th Century.
Recognizing oneself ("one as a self") is central to
intelligence. The spaces we inhabit invite the distinctions we
make to survive (our culture), and allow a capacity for further
distinctions to create (our inventions). To view ourselves outside,
in the universe, we model the cosmos. To view ourselves, inside,
we model intelligence. Everywhere between these extremes, our
language and society attempts to unify experience, to smooth
its edges and to create a seamless flow of description from inside
to outside, macro to micro, within to among. After centuries
of specialization and particularization in science, the movements
of science converge: physics becomes computation, mathematics
becomes reckoning, and conversation becomes epistemology. Cybernetics
is the nexus of this unification because it emanates from ourselves.
New Order From Old is unique in that no available work presents
an analysis of the concepts of cybernetics and a synthesis of
the important scientific fields that have adopted (or are increasingly
solely for experts in the field.
Goedel Esher, Bach, Hofstadter: Very successful seller
which popularized formal and scientific ideas through the use
of metaphor and illustration. However the density of the book
and rarefied contents caused its real success to be questioned-
With the same goal of popularization and the same techniques
of illustration and metaphor, New Order From Old presents the
concepts of cybernetics by showing their relation and sympathy
with everyday experience.
Society of Mind, Minsky: Deals with questions of intelligence
and possible machine embodiments, written for the educated layperson
in a large format with many figures- Minsky presents an intelligent
and influential but intentionally idiosyncratic view, in a consciously
rambling style. Although for much the same audience, New Order
From Old is about the international field of cybernetics, displaying
the unity that it provides to many other disciplines and describing
specific research to support its claims, including those in the
area of Minsky's discussion of psychology and machine intelligence.
Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings, Norbert
Wiener: The former is a complex mathematical work that is commonly
known in the scientific community; however, only the introduction
is accessible to non-mathematicians. The latter book was written
as a response to requests for a layperson's account, though the
result is a social discussion more than an account of the science.
New Order From Old gives the layperson access to that previous,
as well as the current, revolution that cybernetics is precipitating
(and hence its scientific content), while also defining its social
Paul Pangaro received a BSci in Humanities and Computer Science
from MIT, where as an undergraduate he worked with Jerry Lettvin
on neural modeling, Nelson Max on computer visualization and
film, and Joseph Everingham in drama. His undergraduate thesis
was a comparative analysis of Keaton and Chaplin. He was a member
of the Research Staff at the Research Lab of Electronics and
then the Architecture Machine Group, where he did research on
human/machine interfaces for color graphics, animation, and simulation
software for Negroponte. Pangaro then traveled to England to
study at Brunel University and work with Gordon Pask, one of
the foremost researchers in cybernetics. He completed his PhD in cybernetics under Pask, applying Conversation Theory to innovative
approaches to human/computer interaction, computer-based instruction,
user modeling and neural modeling approaches to knowledge representation.
In 1981 Pangaro formed twin consultancy companies with offices
in Washington, DC and London, England. Under contract to such
clients as the Admiralty Research Establishment, Niagara Mohawk
Power Corporation, Symbolics, Inc., and Pacific Telephone, the
companies perform research and development contracts in the applications
of cybernetics to problems of complex decision making, training,
and software engineering- Pangaro is also Chairman of SOLITON,
Inc., a new venture dedicated to the commercialization of cybernetic
approaches to intelligent tutoring systems.
Pangaro has lectured widely on his research activities and the
general topic of cybernetics for varied audiences, including
the Society for General Systems Research, many conferences of
the American Society of Cybernetics, the MIT Media Laboratory,
the Human Factors Society, National Endowment of Humanities,
and the UK Seminar in Applications of Machine Intelligence to
Defense. He has participated in the Gordon Research Conferences
in Cybernetics, and was appointed Vice-Chair for the 1988 and
Chair for the 1989 conferences. Pangaro is Associate Editor for
Cybernetic, the publication of the American Society for Cybernetics.
New Order From Old is an expansion of material from his recent
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