A Software Engineer’s Guide to Cybernetics

Marianne Bellotti
Sep 14 · 7 min read

Before ‘cyber’ was a prefix for everything internet and computers, it was how mathematicians were going to conquer the world.

I first encountered the word cybernetics while reading Benjamin Peters’s account of the Soviet Union’s attempts to invent the internet, How Not to Network a Nation (still a little disappointed that MIT didn’t spell it Nyetwork, come on!) At the time my reaction to it was “Ew gross” — anything with the prefix cyber- feels cheesy and passé — followed by confusion. The dates seemed impossible. Cybernetics actually predated both the internet and the rise of the computing industry by decades? Could that be right? Could the word cyber have had another meaning not related to virtual experiences that had been entirely lost?

Prior to WWII the word cybernetics was used occasionally by mathematicians to mean the dynamics of government in society. The idea that society had a set of mathematical rules that governed it the same way physical objects had laws of physics was not much appreciated. But WWII profoundly changed that. On both sides technology was used to orchestrate deployments at scales never seen before. The Nazis used IBM’s tabulating machines to commit genocide on a shocking and unbelievable level. The British used it the crack codes believed to be unbreakable. The US used it to mass produce armaments on short notice post-Pearl Harbor (and also, it’s worth noting, to track down and round up Japanese Americans.) This technology build up demonstrated that nations and their economies could be focused and directed to extreme ends.

The mathematicians who had seen that mobilization firsthand became more and more interested in whether the principals that allowed it to happen were purely human constructions or forces found in the natural world. Politicians who had seen bets on the mobilization payoff began to wonder if society could actually be designed. By 1948, MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener summarized his thoughts on this topic in his landmark book Cybernetics: or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine

What is Cybernetics?

The word cybernetics comes from the greek κυβερνήτης (kybernḗtēs) which means a pilot, governor, someone who steers. Cybernetics, therefore, is the study of control and automation systems. Wiener believed that feedback loops, not intelligence, were the foundation of cognition and that any manner of system behavior from neuroscience to physics to the economy could be understood and possibly programmed in terms of feedback loops. Cybernetics was neither about computers, nor necessarily even government. Horrified by the consequences of the atomic bomb, Wiener wanted to focus the academic discussion on communication between systems and he wanted a broader definition of communication itself. In his follow up to Cybernetics, The Human Use of Human Beings he writes:

From the cybernetic perspective there are multiple sets of communicating pairs in this hypothetical:

  • Human and kitten
  • Nerves and muscles
  • Kitten and spool

The last pair is probably the most important part of the cybernetic philosophy about technology. Even though the spool is an inanimate object and does not think, it communicates with the kitten by receiving input (a swat) and responding by changing its movement. In cybernetics this is also communication. Everything in the universe is a series of feedback loops: some negative, some positive, some reinforcing, some balancing. Cybernetics was the academic study of whether such loops could be measured, quantified and ultimately programmed.

It was how mathematicians were going to engineer the world rather than simply observe and document it.

Cybernetics’s Impact on Computer Science

Cybernetics as an academic discipline burned out fast, but not before fundamentally changing some of the most important figures in the fledgling computer science field.

John von Neumann
Many of Von Neumann’s ideas around computer architecture were based on the assumption that machinery that emulated the communication pathways of the human brain, might be capable of greater intelligence than the current machines.

Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitt
Developed the first computational models of neural networks as part of their research in cybernetics.

Claude Shannon
Proved circuits could solve Boolean algebra problems. Work became the basis of digital chips today.

Alan Turing
Turing’s trip to America during the height of activity in cybernetics marked a complete reversal in his opinions about the potential of artificial intelligence. Determined to flesh out his understanding of neurons in the brain, Turing threw himself into a completely different field, ultimately publishing The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis creating revolutionary models for cell growth as well as Turing machines.

J.C.R. Licklider
Exposed to cybernetics as an MIT student through Wiener’s weekly dinner parties, Licklider would join the SAGE project as an expert in human/computer interfaces. Those interested in computer history probably recognize Licklider’s name from another context: he was eventually hired by the DoD to found their Information Processing Techniques Office which would develop ARPAnet... otherwise known as the internet.

How ‘Cyber’ Became About the Internet

Wiener’s and Von Neumann’s frenemy status was the stuff of legend. One time collaborators, they would intermittently promote and sabotage each other’s work and reputation. Wiener would show up to Von Neumann’s talks and loudly snore through them. Von Neumann would sit in the front row of Wiener’s talks and make a show of flipping through that day’s edition of The New York Times instead of listening.

At the root of it was a significant political divide. While WWII had brought so many great mathematicians into the same network of research institutions and professional connections, the question of what should be learned from that period ensured the collaboration didn’t last. Von Neumann was very anti-Soviet and supported the development of more advanced nuclear weapons as a deterrent to war. Wiener was horrified by this, deeply pessimistic about the impact of technology on society, and sympathetic to the socialist cause. He encouraged Soviet cyberneticists who attempted to implement his ideas on a grand social engineering scale. This drove cybernetics into the hands of propaganda fueled futurism right about the same time the personality conflicts between its founding scholars were slowing its momentum in academia. The fact that Wiener was married to an unapologetic Nazi didn’t help.

The popularity of Wiener’s books and the interdisciplinary nature of cybernetics meant artists and social scientists began using its language throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. Susanne Ussing read The Human Use of Human Beings and created a series of sensory art experiences dubbed cyberspaces. Doctor Who called their new half man half machine monsters cybermen in 1966. The Wall Street Journal discussed “cybertrons.” The Chilean government built a high tech computerized command center for their planned economy they called CyberSyn. Without an academic community to ground it, cybernetics drifted into buzzword territory and was referenced by anyone who wanted to invoke some vague notion of a future utopia. The fact that so many visions of that future involved computers or robotics and that so many of the early personalities around cybernetics had made major contributions to the development of computers helped effectively erase cybernetics’s politically unattractive past.

By the time the internet begun to break into consumer society, the futurism of the 1960s cyber was retro and nostalgic. It seemed to match the personalities of early hackers: a little bit esoteric, a little bit counter-cultural with idealistic communal-if-not-socialist leanings. The fact that it was also associated with computers made it the perfect slang for the digital world developing in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Pillaging of Cybernetics

Even without the personality conflicts, cybernetics struggled to develop a body of work firmly and completely attributed to pursuing cybernetics. Instead it was the bridge in which experts in one field would explore other fields. When a significant advancement was published, it became the seminal work of a sub-discipline of one of the host fields, not key work advancing cybernetics itself.

Over time, cybernetics’s contributions were stripped away and reclassified as something else. Early work on feedback loops in cognition became AI. Models of the format of feedback loops became information theory. Work on feedback loops around production became part of economics. Work on mathematical representations of complex systems became system dynamics. Work on feedback loops in behavior moved over to sociology and psychology. Cybernetic theory practically founded anthropology and cognitive science. Recent work in human computer interaction can be seen as retracing much of Wiener’s original philosophical debates about the ramifications of cybernetics.

As a philosophy about technology and framework with which to think about complex systems, cybernetics may be worth pulling out of the intellectual dust bin. Automated systems are taking root everywhere. The digitalizations of bureaucracies is calling on policy makers to shift from writing laws to designing control systems. Whereas cyberneticists in the 1930s and 1940s could only really write about feedback loops in hypothetical ways and speculate about their impacts, the average day of a modern software engineer is overwhelmed by them.

Software Safety

Because software is eating the world

Marianne Bellotti

Written by

Lover of legacy systems and complex system failure. Opinions my own.

Software Safety

How do we build software that is safe? Exploration of formula specifications, safety science and algorithm ethics. Header art courtesy of Freepik.com

Marianne Bellotti

Written by

Lover of legacy systems and complex system failure. Opinions my own.

Software Safety

How do we build software that is safe? Exploration of formula specifications, safety science and algorithm ethics. Header art courtesy of Freepik.com

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