Interview on Cybernetics with Stuart A. Umpleby

Arantzazu Saratxaga Arregi (ASA): Dear Mr. Umpleby, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for my own blog. I am delighted to have you as a contributor.

Let me to introduce you briefly: Stuart A. Umpleby is a North American cybernetician. He was a Professor in the Department of Management and Director of the Center for Social and Organizational Learning in the School of Business at George Washington University. He has served as the President of the American Society of Cybernetics (ASC) and as associate editor of Cybernetics and Systems. Some of his publications include  „A History of the Cybernetics Movement in the United States“ (2005), „The Design of Intellectual Movements“ (2002), „Knowledge Management from the Perspective of Systems Theory and Cybernetics“ (2000), „Cybernetics of Conceptual Systems“ (1994), and „The Science of Cybernetics and the Cybernetics of Science“, in: Cybernetics and Systems (1990). He has extensively published on cybernetics and systems thinking topics.

First experiences and memories of your first encounters with the BCL

ASA: In 1967, you worked in the Computer-Based Education Research Laboratory (PLATO) and the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. Prior to that, you worked. at the Institute of Communications Research.

SU:  Yes, The University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) was among the few US universities that had created a communication curriculum at the doctoral level. At UIUC students have the option to pursue a major in behavioral science, cultural studies, or cybernetics.

The cybernetics program maintains affiliations with both the Institute for Communications Research in the College of Communications and the Biological Computer Laboratory in the College of Engineering. During the 1940s, multiple universities across the United States established Institutes for Communications Research. Other universities such as the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, and Stanford University also established multidisciplinary programs in the social sciences.

ASA:  Heinz von Foerster participated in the Macy Foundation Conferences (1946-1953). In 1958, he founded BCL to continue work on the topics he learned about at the Macy conferences.  One of their most important contributions was the successful interdisciplinary research effort that brought together fields from the natural, social, and engineering sciences. The Macy Conferences greatly influenced Heinz’s thinking and his teaching and research.  And the opportunity to study communications from a cybernetics point of view continued in the College of communication. Most students in the communications program chose to study the field through the behavioral science or cultural studies tracks, rather than cybernetics.   Heinz von Foerster continued to work on the ideas discussed at the Macy Conferences.  He conducted Special Problems courses on topics like heuristics or cybernetics that attracted students from a wide range of departments. But he approached these courses not as part of a fixed curriculum in a course catalogue.  Instead, he treated each course as a research endeavor, not as part of a curriculum that would be repeated each semester.

SU: Yes, self-organization, particularly Ross Ashby’s explanation of it, was discussed at BCL.  But more important than the concept of self-organization was the interest in epistemology that had been discussed at the Macy conferences and continued to motivate most of the work in BCL.

ASA:  You collaborated with Heinz von Foerster and Ross Ashby at BCL during the early 1970s. You earned your PhD in communications under the supervision of Heinz von Foerster. Two monographs, published in Austria, „An Unfinished Revolution“ (edited by Albert Müller and Karl Müller), and the „History of BCL“ by Albert Müller pay tribute to the work conducted over 16 years at BCL. The institution was a research site for self-organization and facilitated fruitful exchanges between scientists, providing an ideal environment for knowledge acquisition. Additionally, Heinz von Foerster, following Warren McCulloch’s lead, was interested in epistemology. Von Foerster embarked on an epistemological shift, referred to as second-order cybernetics or later constructivism.

 Your career was very much shaped by your doctoral studies at BCL. One could say that you were dedicated to promoting cybernetic approaches and extending them towards the social sciences and management.  Could you discuss how BCL impacted your career path and sparked your interest in this field? What specifically intrigued you about BCL, and could you recount your most significant experience during your time there?  

SU:  Students who pursue engineering begin by studying physics. I really liked the style of thought in physics—the way it was organized and investigated. However, my interest was in social systems. I wanted to study social systems using a style of thought similar to physics.  BCL’s practice of cybernetics offered exactly what I was seeking.

Second Order Cybernetics

A Scientific Revolution

ASA: Could you briefly explain your view of „cybernetic orders“?

SU: Sure. Let me explain my views on „higher orders of cybernetics.“

Early cybernetics focused on engineering problems, for example an automatic pilot or an automatic assembly line. Examples of control included biological processes in homeostasis and accounting activities in businesses.

Second Order Cybernetics (SOC) was developed by Heinz von Foerster.  It was his way of drawing attention to the biology of cognition, a subject of interest to him and McCulloch and Maturana and Varela.  This was known as „biological cybernetics,“ quite different from the early engineering work in cybernetics and quite different from artificial intelligence (AI).  SOC aimed to understand human cognition, while AI aimed to create computer systems replicating human cognition. These are two separate objectives.

Current AI has created machine intelligence that can replace some instances of human cognitive activity, for example producing summaries of literature or writing classroom papers, also generating vast quantities of „personalized“ propaganda.

SOC called attention to the role of observers in producing any description.  Contrary to early scientific practices, cyberneticians claimed that observers could not be eliminated from science.  Not only did observers design, conduct, and interpret experiments, but their intentions, values, and purposes were also integral to the scientific process and must not be ignored.

ASA: Beautiful, true.

ASA:  Second order cybernetics was characterized as a paradigm shift, in the words of Thomas Kuhn. Numerous monographs and books appeared in the 1960s and 1970s during the discussions of self-organization.

SU:  A leading scholar in cybernetics at UIUC was Ross Ashby. Ashby formulated two laws: 1.  The law of requisite variety (the amount of regulation that can be performed is limited by the amount of information available), and 2. the principle of self-organization (every isolated, determinate, dynamic system obeying unchanging laws, will develop organisms that are adapted to their environments).  His goal was to create a theory explaining how the brain engages in adaptive behavior.

ASA:  You mentioned 2nd order cybernetics, a field that focused on experimental epistemology. To that end, you mention the McCulloch’s research on brain functionality. It’s very interesting that this work led to a second-order epistemic turn, exploring how to describe brain functionality since science is conducted using the brain.Warren McCulloch’s work is not widely known, but it is fundamental.  Consider the titles of some of his articles, “What is in the brain that ink may character?” “A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous activity.” (cite more article titles) For me, the turn from the first to the second order is that experimental epistemology or neurophysiological research is not limited to describing brain activity through mapping theories but ventures into metalanguage in an attempt to describe brain activity.

SU:  Yes, second order cybernetics involves paradox.  This approach is, of course, made possible by the introduction of observers into the description of brain activity. The disciplinary basis of second order cybernetics was rooted in neurophysiology.

Second order science

ASA:  Perhaps the introduction of a „second order“ into the language of science was revolutionary. Heinz von Foerster expanded the concept to the sciences in general since it relates to the language game of recursive facts. Second-order organization is referred to as the organization of organization, while second-order observation refers to the observation of observation.

SU:  Yes, Observers have always been fundamental to science.  Observers formulate hypotheses, test hypotheses, and evaluate research.  However, for many years scientists said that the observer should be excluded from consideration in order to achieve objectivity.  The current view is that science without an observer is not physically possible.  Who would formulate theories and hypotheses and conduct experiments and present results?

ASA:  You mention the concept of a „second-order science.“ Can you describe a little bit more what the science of science would be, how cybernetics has contributed to this second order, and what is the gain for the sciences when you speak of a second order?

SU:  According to Karl Mueller, second-order cybernetics gives rise to second-order science, where the observer becomes a central object of analysis.  Thus, when one acknowledges the role of the observer, they enter the realm of second-order observations. 

Second-order cybernetics for social systems.

ASA:  Moreover, this research aims to enhance the applicability of cybernetics to social systems. It has been noted that second-order cybernetics was predominantly focused on the cognitive/biological aspects linked to the nervous system. Moreover, this research aims to enhance the applicability of cybernetics to social systems. Therefore, the focus must shift toward social systems, going beyond biological cybernetics.

It is imperative to question whether the inherent non-social nature of the second-order cybernetics approach lies in its emphasis on communication systems. One example is the research conducted by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, who aimed to enhance the effectiveness of feedback mechanisms and circular causality in social systems. Both Mead and Bateson played a significant role in the Macy conferences, which led to the formation of cybernetics. In what ways do you believe that cybernetics lacks emphasis on social research?

SU: I do not believe that the field of cybernetics lacks emphasis on social research.  Some scientists may hold a different view.

Cybernetics of the third order

Three Words on Third Order Cybernetics

ASA: The purpose of this issue of „Neocybernetics“ is to highlight the new paths of cybernetics. It should be noted that these developments cannot be generalized systematically, as cybernetics‘ history represents a diverse practice of knowledge. Previously, we discussed the paradigm shift of second-order cybernetics in the sciences. Now, I will delve into the ways cybernetics is continuously growing and changing.

The foundations of third-order cybernetics draw upon concepts attributed to V.S. Tepid and V.A. Lectorsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Vladimir Lepskiy conceptualized third-order cybernetics, which was further developed by him and his colleagues at the Institute of Philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). 

 The search for theoretical foundations and practical provisions of third-order cybernetics has recently become a topic of scientific interest. Would you kindly provide a brief explanation of the core concern of third-order cybernetics? 

SU:  Third order cybernetics was concerned with the context of social processes.

Coupling between society and idea

ASA: The interrelationship between social systems and ideas appears to be a crucial aspect of third-order cybernetics, potentially fostering the development of a humane society (Umpleby 1992, 2002).

But is not the interaction between ideas and society already present in the second order, insofar as the systems consist of observers, shaped by their respective ideas and prejudices, from whose interaction a collective intelligence emerges?

SU: Each “order” of cybernetics calls attention to phenomena that require examination.  The issues involved might pertain to a discipline that the scientist may not be familiar with, for example neurophysiology or government and law or environmental concerns.

Management for a humanitarian model of society

ASA: The realization of achieving a humanitarian social system, a key concern in third-order cybernetics, can be achieved through organizational science or management. Therefore, the focus of third-order cybernetics is to look at modern management theory and practice from a new approach, addressing the philosophical foundations. The goal of the new cybernetics is to develop management mechanisms that are suitable for human nature and can overcome its lack of subjectivity. Can you provide some examples of these mechanisms?

SU: An example of considerations that the scientists may not be familiar with would be the political factors at work in Chile in the early 1970’s when Beer’s Viable System Model was used in managing government processes in Chile.

Another example would be the environmental consequences of CO2, as would be the buildup of plastics in the environment.

ASA: Do you think that the interaction between society and ideas can be observed and managed with a technical-organizational tool?

SU: Yes, the participatory management methods developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs provide ways of bringing citizens, govt officials and scientists to assemble information and hold meetingsThinking and reflection are involved in these processes.

Third order Cybernetics

ASA:  Finally, I want to address a crucial aspect of third-order cybernetics. Certain individuals argue that the third order is redundant since the second order demonstrates the infinite recursion of self-reference. Does this imply that the third order is implicit within the second?

SU: It is essential that we clarify our intended message, examine comprehensible themes, and avoid complex concepts causing ambiguity.

Lepskiy was interested in third-order cybernetics or the social and political context of control processes. building upon the disciplinary basis of sociology and political science. 

Matjaz Mulej suggested fourth order cybernetics or the environmental context of control processes. He pointed out that industrial processes that disregarded the sustainability of the environment could not endure. He emphasized the ethical aspects of any activity. Hence, one can imagine a hierarchy of control processes based in several academic disciplines.

Von Foerster pointed out that only second-order cybernetics is needed.  Observers have the freedom to incorporate any relevant factors they wish.

Second-order cybernetics has the capacity to accommodate these supplementary factors.

Complexity Research

Third order and global governance

ASA: Cybernetics involves the self-organization of social systems or societies at the macro level, resulting in self-governing societies, provided that society is understood as a reflexive system. This concern reminds me very much of the main concern of complexity research, insofar as it deals with the governability of global social orders. A mulitude of interactions and interdependencies are purported to underpin a collective intelligence. To this end, complexity research is concerned with „order parameters“ to ensure the global governability of the planet, to minimize conflicts, and to reduce complexity. 

SU: Complexity issues can be dealt with often using the Law of Requisite Variety.  Complexity requires that either the system observed needs to be simplified or the regulator needs to increase its capabilities.

LRV is often not used by complexity scholars.  They more often focus on emergence of new patterns or processes. Your interpretation should adhere to the language used in the original formulations.

ASA: Would you agree with the idea of an overlap of third-order cybernetics and complexity research?

SU:   Yes these fields discuss many of the same concerns but they often use varying language, terms or principles.

Complexity research and modeling

ASA:   Let’s talk a little bit about complexity research. It has self-organization and emergence as its central research agenda. The main question for complexity research is how self-organization comes about, and how to recognize orders and patterns that emerge in a system. Complexity research was founded on the scientific revolution of self-organization that explores how order emerges from disorder.. At first glance, this seems very close to second-order cybernetics, in particular the surface concern of self-organization that Heinz von Foerster reveals in his article „On Self-Organizing Systems and Their Environments“: „Order from Noise“.

How, if at all, do you think BCL’s research on self-organization differs from complexity research?

SU:  Self-organization is a natural process – systems tend to go toward their stable equilibrial states.  Think of self-organization as an expanded version of the second law of thermodynamics.  It is not mysterious.  It is ubiquitous.  Emergence produces something new (in the mind of an observer) but it is the result of the same process – systems moving toward their equilibrial states.

The BCL view is that self-organization is a natural process – systems moving toward equilibrium. Complexity scholars view the emergence of new order as somewhat miraculous, but in  essence, the processes remain the same. This fact is not surprising for cyberneticians but remarkable and wonderful for complexity researchers.  The difference lies in the observers.  BCL was an early research site for self-organization.    (It would be helpful to know when and where the terms “self-organization” and “complexity” were first used.)  The Santa Fe Institute commonly utilized complexity, whereas BCL  did not adopt complexity as a scientific concept  and instead used requisite variety.  Complexity research did not employ either term.

ASA:  In your previous article, you mentioned that BCL had to shut down due to lack of funding. Coincidentally, the Santa Fe Institute for Complex Systems was established around the same time. Do you believe that Santa Fe Institute established itself as a research institute for self-organization and obtained funding, while BCL did not? Would you assert that Santa Fe Institute continued the work previously done by BCL?

SU: No, see above.  Complexity and cybernetics interpret novelty differently.  I would say that complexity researchers are confused about what is going on.  Old familiar processes (second law) are adequate explanations.  No new scientific phenomenon has been observed or discovered in the literature on complexity.  Elements came together to form something new, but the process was a movement toward equilibrium.  Stick with fundamentals, cybernetics, avoid hype.

One organization was doing science, the other was looking for attention.

I see systems, cybernetics, and complexity as three different fields, each with its own leading figures and favored research questions.  The people in these three fields may have heard of people in the other groups, but they did not know each other well. They did not attend the same conferences or cite the same authors in their references. They were working on different problems.  Each group may have thought that they were working on the important problems, and the other two groups were doing less interesting work.

In cybernetics there is Ross Ashby’s Principle of Self-Organization – “every isolated, determinate, dynamic system obeying unchanging laws will develop organisms that are adapted to their environments.”  Hence, self-organizing systems develop naturally, automatically.  They may contain organisms and environments. They are not deliberately constructed by a designer.  A complex system, on the other hand, is often created by a designer.  Cybernetics and complexity are two different ways of thinking.  See the table describing the three points of view in the 2019 paper, “Systems, Cybernetics, and Complexity.”

ASA: Thank you very much for the conversation.