You Are Governed by Cybernetic Systems

James Murphy
Aug 30, 2019 · 5 min read

How to use cybernetic principles to achieve your goals

Starting Out After Rail — Thomas Eakins [Public domain]

The title of this post probably would have been more appropriate if I were directing it toward people living in California from 2003–2011. You know, when they were governed by The Terminator

If this quote sounds familiar to you, you probably listen to the Tim Ferriss podcast.

(Yes, the reason for the title of this post was to make that lame joke about Arnold. Sorry.)

Jokes aside, when I say “cybernetic system” to people I can see in their eyes that they’re thinking about the Terminator. That makes sense, because the Terminator is a cybernetic system. But that’s not (usually) what I’m referring to.

Cybernetics

Before I dive in I’ll mention three key resources which have shaped my understanding of cybernetics.

I first came across the idea of cybernetics when I was reading a book by Charles Carver and Michael Scheier called On the Self-Regulation of Behavior. It’s a book which describes human behaviour using cybernetic terms and mentions the source of all things cybernetics, Norbert Wiener. That’s where I went next.

Norbert Wiener was a mathematician and philosopher who founded cybernetics, formalising his ideas in a book called Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. It’s a great book that’s influenced a number of disciplines and domains of knowledge.

Another fortunate encounter I’ve had with cybernetics came from reading a paper by Colin DeYoung about personality psychology — his theory of personality as a cybernetic system, actually.

The reason I’m mentioning these three sources is that they’ve each shaped how I’m going to discuss the subject below.

How cybernetic systems operate

So, what is a cybernetic system? It’s a goal-directed, self-organising system. That might sound a bit abstract. But let me explain.

Cybernetic systems contain the following:

  • a representation of the current state (what they’re like right now)
  • a representation of a goal state (what they’d like to be like)
  • a strategy for action to move from their current state to their goal state

Knowing this, it becomes easier to understand how a cybernetic system operates. Because the system has an understanding of where it is, and an understanding of where it wants to be, it can compare the two to see whether they match. If the system is not where it wants to be, it has to perform some sort of action or set of actions to get there. It tries something, evaluates any change to understand where it is now after the action, and does another comparison to see whether it is now where it wants to be. If it hasn’t achieved its goal, it self-corrects, changes course or picks a new action, and the cycle repeats when it selects another action, performs it, and evaluates again. When the system does achieve its goal, it can now select a new goal and work toward that.

Some examples of cybernetic systems

The simplest and most relatable example of a cybernetic system I can think of is using a smartphone to get directions. When you open Maps, it knows where you are right now. Once you’ve input your desired destination, it has a place that it wants to be, and it comes up with a strategy for how to get there. As it makes progress toward the destination it does a check to compare where you are to where you’re going, and if necessary, it updates its strategy accordingly — which you’ll know if you’ve ever made a wrong turn while following its directions.

Another example would be the thermostat and the cooling/heating system in a house. It has a thermometer to measure the temperature, so it knows how warm things are at any given moment. If you’ve set your target temperature, it knows where you want the temperature to be. As long as the current temperature is different from the desired temperature, it will implement some action (either warming or cooling the house) until the two are the same and it has achieved its goal.

The utility of cybernetics

Using the language of cybernetics, at the very least as a heuristic, is a powerful way to talk about any goal-directed system. And guess what: you’re a goal-directed system.

We all have many different goals all the time, most of which we aren’t consciously aware of at any particular moment. Some goals are big, some goals are small. Some are abstract and intangible, and some are very specific and very tangible. We have short-term goals and long-term goals. We even have goals nested within other superordinate goals (smaller goals which are necessary steps for achieving more lofty goals).

A goal is, pretty simply, a desired state. It’s a change from your current situation that you want to occur, or a change in the world around you that you’d like to see manifest. Warm up your body temperature, satiate your hunger, make it to work on time, live a life according to your values, don’t do anything embarrassing, gain social status, earn respect, earn money, be a creative person, save the planet, be a good person; all of these are different types of goals.

Ultimately, a goal is what you’re aiming your behaviour at.

Understanding how cybernetic systems operate helps you understand how you operate. It’s useful to know that you operate this way because it helps you understand yourself and allows you to make a conscious effort to direct your behaviour toward goals that you know are important to you.

Having the ability to articulate your goals and pursue them deliberately with conscious effort is powerful. It’s especially powerful if you decide to reflect, evaluate your progress, and make thoughtful changes as you act in the world to achieve them. This ability is a cognitive superpower that is worth taking advantage of.

This is one of the reasons for founding Hero Labs and creating the Exploratory Hero app. The app takes this abstracted process and uses it as a framework to guide you toward achieving your goals. You can see a video of the app in action here, but you don’t need to use the app to do this — it can be done on your own with some time and effort.

The takeaway

  • You can make a conscious effort to articulate your goals and decide what to aim your behaviour at.
  • Once you know what you’re aiming at, you can come up with ideas for how to get there.
  • As you try out your ideas, you should reflect on how well they’re working.
  • Depending on how well your ideas are working, you can choose what to do next: continue along the same path or change your course to achieve your goal.

With a little time, thought, and effort, you can use these cybernetic principles to achieve your goals.

Good luck!

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