The concept of cybernetics

What is cybernetics?

Although there are many ways of describing cybernetics, it boils down to a system of thinking about various systems, how they work, their constraints and possibilities, as well as their structures. In scientific terms, it usually means thinking about ways in which systems, or machines, interact with people – and sometimes animals, too. One of the key things to take on board about cybernetics is that it gets into many, many fields of human research including – but not limited to – mathematics, sport science, engineering, management systems, psychology, engineering, education and even, in some cases, art. In fact, because it often factors in diverse phenomena, such as communication, biology, mechanics and social systems, there are few areas of academic research where it cannot be applied. Although Plato first used the term, it became more widely used in the twentieth century.

 How can you define cybernetics?

Various definitions exist, but these usually relate to a specific field in which it is being applied. For some, it is simply the art of establishing effective organisational structures. For others, notably in computing, it is a science devoted to the study of systems that can receive, store and process information. There again, it has also been defined as the study of understanding itself.

Where can you study cybernetics?

Many degree-level courses will include sections of study or whole modules in cybernetics, but few institutions run degrees in it in its own right. Principally, you will find it being offered in applied mathematics courses, computer science programmes, psychology degrees and in some aspects of art and design. Postgraduate courses in cybernetics are more common, but these tend to be applied to certain fields, for example, sociology or bio-mechatronics, to name but two.

What is cybernetics in management?

When people study management systems, one of the theories they are likely to come across is autonomous agency theory. Developed in the 1950s, this theory is really an applied version of cybernetics. Similarly, organisational cybernetics is often applied in management theories, particularly in operation research studies, for example. Viable systems theory is another way in which the over-arching field of cybernetics plays a part in modern management theories.

How are cybernetics applied in biology?

In the 1970s and 80s, some cybernetics researchers began to realise that their work could be applied in molecular biology in novel ways. As a result, these thinkers developed a form of the discipline which became known as new cybernetics. Although it uses the same principles, this form is often seen as being more suited to the organic organisations which are to be found in nature, such as the way certain insect colonies behave, for example. In other words, this form of cybernetics is strictly focussed on systems and structures which humans have not invented and which - in many cases – pre-date the presence of homo sapiens entirely.

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