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Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” In the 21st century, the term is often used in a rather loose way to imply “control of any system using technology.” In other words, it is the scientific study of how humans, animals and machines control and communicate with each other.
Cybernetics is applicable when a system being analyzed incorporates a closed signaling loop—originally referred to as a “circular causal” relationship—that is, where action by the system generates some change in its environment and that change is reflected in the system in some manner (feedback) that triggers a system change. Cybernetics is relevant to, for example, mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive, and social systems. The essential goal of the broad field of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with desired goal, and again to action. Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks. Cybernetics includes the study of feedback, black boxes and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines and organizations including self-organization.
Concepts studied by cyberneticists include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaptation, social control, emergence, convergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy, and connectivity. In cybernetics these concepts (otherwise already objects of study in other disciplines such as biology and engineering) are abstracted from the context of the specific organism or device.
The word cybernetics comes from Greek κυβερνητική (cybernēticḗ), meaning “governance”, i.e., all that are pertinent to κυβερνάω (cybernáō), the latter meaning “to steer, navigate or govern”, hence κυβέρνησις (cybérnēsis), meaning “government”, is the government while κυβερνήτης (cybernḗtēs) is the governor or “helmperson” of the “ship”. Contemporary cybernetics began as an interdisciplinary study connecting the fields of control systems, electrical network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, and psychology in the 1940s, often attributed to the Macy Conferences. During the second half of the 20th century cybernetics evolved in ways that distinguish first-order cybernetics (about observed systems) from second-order cybernetics (about observing systems). More recently there is talk about a third-order cybernetics (doing in ways that embraces first and second-order).
Studies in cybernetics provide a means for examining the design and function of any system, including social systems such as business management and organizational learning, including for the purpose of making them more efficient and effective. Fields of study which have influenced or been influenced by cybernetics include game theory, system theory (a mathematical counterpart to cybernetics), perceptual control theory, sociology, psychology (especially neuropsychology, behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology), philosophy, architecture, and organizational theory. System dynamics, originated with applications of electrical engineering control theory to other kinds of simulation models (especially business systems) by Jay Forrester at MIT in the 1950s, is a related field.
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