the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine

— Norbert Wiener

At MIT in particular, there was a tendency to take "the image of the machine as the basis for the understanding of man"

— Harold Hatt

  • (first-order) cybernetics deals with feedback systems
  • John von Neumann extended cybernetics with cellular automata, and then universal constructor concept, which led to the concept of self-replication, adopted by cyberneticians as a core concept:

    The concept that the same properties of genetic reproduction applied to social memes, living cells, and even computer viruses is further proof of the somewhat surprising universality of cybernetic study.

  • notes related to cybernetics:

The idea that Man and his environment are mechanical systems which can be studied, improved, mimicked and controlled (...) gave way to disciplines such as cognitive science and artificial intelligence.


Bush not only proposed that the machine might learn from the human via what was effectively a cybernetic feedback loop - he proposed that the human might learn from the machine. As the human mind moulds the machine, so too the machine "remolds" the human mind, it "remolds the trails of the user's brain, as one lives and works in close interconnection with a machine"

The Technical Evolution of Vannevar Bush’s Memex

This is yet another application of Self-Cybernetics on myself making my experiments visible to me, reminding myself to reflect on them, and presenting them to myself in a way that works around my psychology.

  • relying on self-cybernetics to model ones behaviour could make one completely lost without those external inputs
    • reference: "Accelerando" and Manfred's glasses
  • influenced by cybernetics, Claude Shannon, communication theory, Birkhoff's semiotics
  • related to cybernetics
    • interested not in "thinking machines" but "machines that make us think" (tools for thinking, bicycle for the mind)

    The work of art is more amenable to cybernetic analysis than a work of science, precisely because its criteria of validity are much less exact and above all much less coherent than those of the latter. Non-representational art in particular claims only that a certain quantity of order is present in the product to give it a consumer value, without indicating the distribution of that quantity of order existing in the different levels of this hierarchy of utilized semantemes.

  • similar to how I leave physical things I need to take with me near my shoes - Self-Cybernetics

second-order cybernetics refers to the practice of cybernetics where cyberneticians understand themselves to be part of the system they study. This is strongly associated with Heinz von Foerster

  • is Self-Cybernetics a Second-Order Cybernetics?
    • or even higher, since the cyberneticians not only understand that they part of the loop, but also changes the loop based on the feedback from that loop?
  • Cybernetics applied to oneself, by oneself
    • creating feedback loops where there aren't any
    • making personal data visible, actionable
    • creating the environment to promote specific way of acting / thinking
  • Cybernetics and Me

    Model: Viewing yourself and your environment interacting as a system Action: Generating your own cybernetic systems to alter what you do

    1. Storing information into your environment
    2. Treating your future self as an unreliable actor and trying to influence it
    3. Creating or using tools/rules that generate a self-cybernetic system

    non-cybernetic thinking: what type of note-taking system is the easiest to look things up? cybernetic-thinking: what type of note-taking system will cause me to write things down in a way that is easy to look them up?

    • Self-Cybernetics is about building systems (tools, visualizations, feedback loops) to guide behaviour

    How do you know when you're caught in a harmful cybernetic system (...)?

    • there are issues with Self-Cybernetics approach - I found out that the way I show the time-tracking data to myself can have a huge impact on how I act, and I can't always easily control the side-effects (for example overshooting on too much client work) - You Get What You Measure

    Do self-cybernetic systems weaken your willpower? Or is an emphasis on willpower less compassionate and understanding of the social environments that affect us? As opposed to self-cybernetics, what are self-agency exercises? Travel is perhaps an exercise where you do not design environments but appreciate them.

    • I'm not sure how "chanting" and other repeated "magic words" are related to this, but I think that there are some connections here, maybe a way to "program" yourself through words (also further related to ideas of Linguistic Determinism)
Szymon Kaliski © 2021