Cybernetics is the study of control and self-organizing processes in systems, including living organisms, human organizations, and machines. Cybernetic modeling is the attempt to use math or visual symbolic representations of system components and processes to understand the effect of feedback on a given system’s potential states of organization or performance.
The term cybernetics can be traced to Aristotle’s metaphorical reference to ship navigation to describe political governance. The industrial revolution of the 1700s produced rapid technological advances in self-regulating machinery, especially James Watt’s steam engine, and the notion of self-regulatory systems now permeates Western thought. In the 1940s, a group of engineers, biologists, psychologists, and others began to meet regularly to solidify disparate notions of systems theory and applied the term cybernetics to their work. Norbert Wiener, whose early interests included self-correction in antiaircraft guns and tanks, was perhaps the most influential. Anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were core members of the group. The group’s ideas were heavily influenced by the Austrian biological and social theorist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Many of the group’s early works were published in the General Systems Yearbook.
Among cybernetic principles, homeostasis is the tendency of a biological or social system to resist change and maintain itself in a state of equilibrium. The household thermostat is a common metaphor for negative feedback, which keeps processes in equilibrium. Positive feedback increases deviation from a goal or equilibrium. Cybernetic theory has strongly influenced social science, engineering and physics, psychology, mathematics, communications, organizational management, biology, artificial intelligence, and the computer revolution. The concept of “feedback” has become so pervasive it is now used in common parlance.
It is difficult to identify the complete effects that cybernetic theory has had on anthropology, because the idea of “social systems” is so prevalent in Western thought, but cybernetic theory is clearly discussed in psychological and ecological anthropology. Gregory Bateson influenced the emerging field of psychological anthropology through his theories of mental illness. Rather than treat the human mind as an individual entity, he considered it part of a culturally created system with positive or negative feedback. In the 1950s, Howard T. Odum and Eugene Odum applied cybernetic modeling to ecosystems research in ecology. Archeologists and cultural anthropologists adopted these tools to model human ecosystems. Perhaps best known is Roy Rappaport, who modeled Maring spirituality, nutrition, social organization, and natural resources as a system of feedback mechanisms that regulate ritual and warfare. Critics claimed that the focus on equilibrium precluded an explanation of how social systems change over time, artificial boundaries used to define systems were meaningless, and choices of which system components to model were arbitrary. Cybernetic theorists now focus more on system components that lead to change. New theories of complexity, chaos, and resiliency share the notion that relationships between components of a system may determine the future direction of a system but specific outcomes are difficult to predict because the relative importance of initial conditions cannot be identified. Some anthropologists focus on the unique histories of social systems rather than universal components that should be modeled and are experimenting with computer models that include individual agency as a component of system complexity.
- Heims, S. J. (1991). Constructing a social science for postwar America: The cybernetics group. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Kohler, T. A., & Gumerman, G. J. (Eds.). (2000). Dynamics in human and primate societies: Agent-based modeling of social and spatial processes. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Rappaport, R. (1984). Pigs for the ancestors: Ritual in the ecology ofa New Guinea people. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.