Diagram: Cybernetics


Cybernetics is the study of systems that self-regulate: 'steering' the system so as to align operations with a pre-determined outcome.

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Cybernetics is an important early precursor to Complex Systems thinking.

The work Cybernetics comes from the Greek 'Kybernetes', from the Greek meaning 'steersman' or 'oarsman'. The word comes to us in English as the word 'Governor' - but in this case cybernetics are interested in dynamics that lead to internal rather than external governing.

A good example comes from the root greek work of 'steersman'. If we imagine a ship, sailing towards a target (say and island), there are various forces (wind and waves) that act upon the ship to push it away from its trajectory. In order to maintain a trajectory towards the island, the steersman need not be aware of the speed or direction of the wind, or the velocity of the waves. Instead, he (or she), just needs to keep their eye on the target, and keep adjusting the rudder of the ship to correct for any deviations from the route.

In a sense, we have here a complete system that works to correct for any disturbances. The system is comprised of the target, any and all forces pushing the ship away from the target, the steersman registering the amount of deviation, and subsequently counterbalancing this through means of interaction with the rudder.

While it is true that the steersman is the agent that 'activates' the rudder,  it is also true that the amount of deviation the target presents also 'activates' the steersman.  Finally, the forces acting upon the ship are what activates the deviation. We thus have a complete cybernetic system, where the forces at work form a continuous loop, and where the loop, in turn, is able to self-regulate.

A cybernetic system works to dampen  any disturbances or amplifying feedback that would move the trajectory away from a given optimum range. Thermostats work on cybernetic principles, where temperature fluctuations are dampened.

Like CAS, Cybernetics is concerned with how a system interacts with its environment. However, Cybernetics focus on systems subject to negative feedback: ones self-regulating to maintain regimes of stable equilibrium where disruptions (or Perturbations) are dampened.

Macy Conferences


Watch Stafford Beer, one of a group of early proponents of Cybernetics,

discussing the Watt Flyball Regulator

As Cybernetics theory is concerned with how systems might self-regulate towards an optimum, its insights were considered to be relevant for any system seeking to optimize performance in the absence of an external regulator. Urban environments are one such system 0 comprised of parts together forming an environment that subsequently (in a recursive loop) regulates and alters the parts within. As such, throughout the 1960s and 1970s a natural offshoot of cybernetic thought was conceptualizing ways in which healthy urban environments might be stabilized through cybernetic principles.


Photo Credit and Caption: Underwater image of fish in Moofushi Kandu, Maldives, by Bruno de Giusti (via Wikimedia Commons)

Cite this page:

Wohl, S. (2019, 9 October). Cybernetics. Retrieved from https://kapalicarsi.wittmeyer.io/definition/cybernetics

Cybernetics was updated October 9th, 2019.

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  • There would be some thought experiments here.