The cybernetics movements (141085)

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Cybernetics as a field of scientific activity in the United States began in the years after World War II. Between 1946 and 1953 the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation sponsored a series of conferences in New York City on the subject of “Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.” The chair of the conferences was Warren McCulloch of MIT. Only the last five conferences were recorded in written proceedings. These have now been republished (Pias, 2004). After Norbert Wiener published his book Cybernetics in 1948, Heinz von Foerster suggested that the name of the conferences be changed to “Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems.” In this way the meetings became known as the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics.

In subsequent years cybernetics influenced many academic fields – computer science, electrical engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, management, family therapy, political science, sociology, biology, psychology, epistemology, music, etc. Cybernetics has been defined in many ways: as control and communication in animals, machines, and social systems; as a general theory of regulation; as the art of effective organization; as the art of constructing defensible metaphors; etc. The term “cybernetics” has been associated with many stimulating conferences, yet cybernetics has not thrived as an organized scientific field within American universities. Although a few cybernetics programs were established on U. S. campuses, these programs usually did not survive the retirement or death of their founder.

Relative to other academic societies the meetings on cybernetics tended to have more than the usual controversy, probably due to the wide variety of disciplines represented by those in attendance. Indeed Margaret Mead wrote an article, “Cybernetics of Cybernetics,” in the proceedings of the first conference of the American Society for Cybernetics, in which she suggested that cyberneticians should apply their knowledge of communication to how they communicate with each other. (Mead, 1968)


Not everyone originally connected with cybernetics continued to use the term:

  1. The cybernetics of Allen Turing and John von Neumann became computer science, AI, and robotics. Turing formulated the concept of a Universal Turing Machine – a mathematical description of a computational device. He also devised the Turing test – a way of determining whether a computer program displays “artificial intelligence.” The related professional societies are the Association for Computing Machinery and the American Association for Artificial Intelligence.

  2. Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics became part of electrical engineering. This branch of cybernetics includes control mechanisms from thermostats to automated assembly lines. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, including the Systems, Man, and Cybernetics Society, is the main professional society. The principal concern is systems engineering.

  3. Warren McCulloch’s cybernetics became “second order cybernetics.” McCulloch chaired the Macy Foundation conferences. He sought to understand the functioning of the nervous system and thereby the operation of the brain and the mind. The American Society for Cybernetics has continued this tradition. It is the only one of the three groups that seeks to promote cybernetics as a transdisciplinary field.

Other, smaller groups can also be identified. For example, a control systems group within psychology was generated by the work of William Powers (1973). Biofeedback or neurofeedback is a subject of investigation by researchers in medicine and psychology. The Santa Fe Institute has developed simulation methods based on the idea of cellular automata.

This paper recounts about sixty years of the history of the cybernetics movement in the United States, divided into five year intervals. The focus will be on the third group, McCulloch’s cybernetics.


In 1943 two landmark papers were published. Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts wrote, “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity.” (McCulloch and Pitts, 1943) This article sought to understand how a network of neurons functions so that we experience what we call “an idea.” They presented their explanation in mathematical form.

Arthuro Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow published, “Behavior, Purpose, Teleology.” (Rosenblueth, et al., 1943) They observed behavior, which they interpreted as purposeful, and then sought to explain how this phenomenon could happen without teleology, using only Aristotle’s efficient cause. Also in the early 1940s Wiener worked on a radar-guided anti-aircraft gun.

LATE 1940S

In the late 1940s the early Macy Conferences were held in New York City. They were attended by scientists including Norbert Wiener, Julian Bigelow, John von Neumann, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson., Ross Ashby, Grey Walter, and Heinz von Foerster. By 1949 three key books were published: Wiener’s Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Von Neumann’s and Morgenstern’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, and Shannon’s and Weaver’s, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. These three books defined a new science of information and regulation.


In the early 1950s more Macy conferences were held. This time proceedings were published with Heinz von Foerster as editor. Meanwhile the first commercial computers were manufactured.

LATE 1950S

In the 1950s the CIA was concerned about the possibility of brain-washing and mind control. Under the code name MKUltra experiments with LSD and other drugs were conducted at Harvard University and elsewhere. (Marks, 1978) Some of the money for this research was channeled through the Macy Foundation. In one incident, a CIA employee was given LSD without his knowledge. Apparently he thought he was going mad and dove out a window of a hotel in New York City. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, when he was a student at Harvard, was an experimental subject of these mind control experiments. (Chase, 2003)

Early checkers-playing programs were written and raised the possibility of artificial intelligence. In 1956 at a conference at Dartmouth University people interested in studying the brain and people interested in creating computer programs parted ways. Thereafter the people interested in cybernetics and the people interested in artificial intelligence had little interaction.

Following a sabbatical year working with Arthuro Rosenblueth and Warren McCulloch, Heinz von Foerster founded the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois.


In the early 1960s several conferences on self-organizing systems were held, one of them at the University of Illinois’s Allerton Park. (von Foerster and Zopf, 1962) As a result of an invitation made at this conference, Ross Ashby moved from England to Illinois. The work on self-organizing systems was a forerunner to the field of study now called “complexity.”

Although the Macy Foundation Conferences ended in 1953, the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) was not founded until 1964. This seems rather late. Actually the founding of the ASC was in part the result of the Cold War. During the Presidential campaign in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, there was talk about a “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not long thereafter there began to be talk of a “cybernetics gap.” Some people in the Soviet Union thought cybernetics would provide the theory they needed to operate their centrally planned economy. Consequently the Soviet government generously funded cybernetics research. Some people in the U.S. government then feared that the U.S. might fall behind in a critical area of research, if this country did not also fund cybernetics research.

In Washington, DC, a cybernetics luncheon club was meeting. The participants included Paul Henshaw, Atomic Energy Commission; Carl Hammer, Univac; Jack Ford, CIA; Douglas Knight, IBM; Walter Munster; Bill Moore, lawyer. This group founded the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC). The founding ceremony was held at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC. A grant from the National Science Foundation helped the Society to establish the Journal of Cybernetics. A conference on the social impact of cybernetics was held at Georgetown University in 1964. (Dechert, 1966) The first conference arranged by the ASC was held at the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg, MD. (von Foerster, et al., 1968)

LATE 1960S

Social movements in the United States – against the Viet Nam war and for civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental protection – produced a time of student activism on campuses. In terms of research it was a productive period for the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) at the University of Illinois.


At a meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics in 1974 in Philadelphia, Heinz von Foerster introduced the term “second order cybernetics.” (Von Foerster, 1979) The Mansfield Amendment, which was an attempt to reduce campus unrest caused by the Viet Nam War, cut off government funds for research that was not related to a military mission, including research at BCL. (Umpleby, 2003b) The Biological Computer laboratory closed, and Heinz von Foerster retired and moved to California.

There was an argument between the officers of ASC and the publisher of the Journal of Cybernetics. The dispute was submitted to arbitration and the publisher won. Thereafter the journal continued to be published, but without ASC involvement. The journal published articles primarily in engineering. However, the field of cybernetics was increasingly emphasizing biology and the social sciences.

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