the discipline, not the hype:
its history and applications
Running Title: "CyberWired"
- Paul Pangaro
(c) Copyright Paul Pangaro 1993. All Rights Reserved.
[The following proposal for an article was sent to WIRED magazine
in October 1993 but it was not accepted for publication.]
Cybernaut, cyberpunk, cyberspace; "cyber" is the badge
of techno-cool. Where did this "cyber" stuff come from?
And what does "cyber" really mean?
Cybernetics is a science dedicated to understanding the roles
of information and purpose in both mechanical and living systems.
When first conceived in the 1940s, the ideas were so revolutionary
that a new word was necessary to represent them. "Cybernetics"
was derived from the Greek word "kubernetes", meaning
"steersmanship": the art and craft of guiding a system
under changing circumstances. Originating in notions of feedback
and circularity, cybernetics has matured into a science of describing
and has a lot to say about our daily experience. It says that
the content of reality is a social construct; in contrast to
being "true" or objective, "reality" is already
Although it began with an abstraction called "systems",
without regard to what the systems are made of, cybernetics has
evolved into a discipline of the subjective and a philosophy
of technology. It qualifies and quantifies conversations, with
computers or people, individuals or societies.
Understanding cybernetics is relevant to readers of "Wired"
beyond the origin of a prefix. The application of cybernetics
has a practical impact on the effectiveness of computing, communication
and media. At one level it provides detailed guidance for the
design of hardware/software interfaces for multimedia. At another
level it affords the most effective tools for maintaining a human-centered
(as opposed to technologically-centered) direction for the social
future that is being constructed empirically. Its philosophy
(that "our world" is as at least as much cognitive
construction as it is physical) and its ethics (the primacy of
individual responsibility) are tools to understand as well as
to influence the social matrix now under construction.
It is mistakenly said that cybernetics is about feedback, and
control servomechanisms, and building robots. That is where it
first became publicized in the science fiction of the 1950s.
But why it started, and how its ethics and philosophy emerged,
is a fascinating, unavoidable story. It is also the story of
our global information culture.
- Why the question "What is cybernetics?" is to be
- Question reformulated: cybernetics is when the subjectivity
of the describer is contained explicitly in the answer
- Some history of the coinage of the term
- Trans-disciplinary nature of the field
- Early participants and conferences
- Control, feedback, thermostats, stability
- First 20th century application (you guessed it): war
- Systems: the figment of observers
- "In the beginning was the interaction....."
- Describing is always relative to purpose, and
- Purpose includes the perspective of an individual, so
- Descriptions are always subjective
- Embracing subjectivity in science: it's not so bad as it
sounds (it's that way already anyhow)
- Soft sciences are becoming harder while hard sciences are
- From observing the observed, to observing the observing:
- Applications, from family therapy to software design to organizational
- Machines to computers to livings systems: the evolving metaphor
for brains and societies
- The unavoidable future: cybernetics of culture
So we see how cybernetics is
about control but in service of interacting
less about nouns and more about verbs
less about communication more about conversing
less about bit streams more about meaning
less about "absolute truth" more about agreement
less about reality more about consensus
less about being more about becoming
Other Potential Topics
- "Information": discovery or invention?
- Data, information and meaning: that awkward tango
- Personal and impersonal computing: why e-mail stinks, and
other indisputable truths
- Causality means control, while intervention means interaction:
designing a usable interface
- Purpose, action and agents: how will we master all this computing
- Similarities and differences: identity, conversation and
- How do our minds touch when our nervous systems do not?
- Cybernetics of art and the art of cybernetics
- The new corporation modeled as a living system
- Birth, growth and death in the cognitive domain: all about
- Great figures of the field: eccentrics, gurus, and geniuses
- Great devices of the field, including artificial turtles
and evolving ears
Paul Pangaro was graduated from MIT with a BSci in Computer
Science and Humanities (Drama). He worked on the Research Staff
of the MIT Research Lab of Electronics (on contracts with Jerry
Lettvin, on computer simulations of neural models) and then the
MIT Architecture Machine Group, the predecessor to the Media
Lab (on contracts with Nicholas Negroponte, on color computer
graphics and user interfaces for animation by simulation). He
then collaborated with British cybernetician Gordon Pask, the
celebrated developer of Conversation Theory, a theoretical framework
that provides programmable approaches to hypertext, computer-aided
learning, and conversational media. Their collaboration culminated
in research projects funded by the US and UK government agencies,
and Pangaro being awarded PhD in cybernetics from Brunel University
Since 1981 Pangaro has directed his own consulting firm specializing
in the application of cybernetics to complex, "real-world"
problems, including formal approaches to, and software development
of, systems for strategic planning, training, and organizational
modeling. Clients have included the Admiralty Research Establishment
(UK), the US Army and US Navy, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation,
NYNEX, Du Pont, Lotus and Xerox.
Pangaro is active in the American Society for Cybernetics, contributing
to conferences on a regular basis, and he is a past Associate
Editor of one of their publications, Cybernetic Magazine. In
1988 he was Vice Chair for the Gordon Research Conference on
Cybernetics. In addition to Pask, Pangaro has a personal rapport
with other greats of the field including Heinz von Foerster,
Jerome Y Lettvin, Stafford Beer, Humberto Maturana. Continually
interested in the history of cybernetics, Pangaro maintains a
sizable archive of papers and unique artifacts.
Pangaro has given lecture/performances on his work frequently
over the years, including at the MIT Media Lab, Washington Philosophical
Society, Society for General Systems Research, the Harvard Graphics
Conference, ACM SIGGRAPH, the National Educational Computing
Conference, the Human Factors Society, Conference on Computers
in Education (Wales) and Machine Intelligence in Defence (England).
He wrote the entry on cybernetics for the Encyclopedia of Science
published by Macmillan. His articles have appeared in Data Training
and Creative Computing and his work has been reported in InfoWorld,
Seybold Reports, IEEE and many other reviews of computer-aided
Unwilling to lose the edge associated with live performance,
Pangaro is an accomplished cabaret singer and appears regularly
in Boston and Washington, DC.