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Second-order cybernetics

Second-order cybernetics, also known as the cybernetics of cybernetics, investigates the construction of models of cybernetic systems. It investigates cybernetics with awareness that the investigators are part of the system, and of the importance of self-referentiality, self-organizing, the subject–object problem, etc. Investigators of a system can never see how it works by standing outside it because the investigators are always engaged cybernetically with the system being observed; that is, when investigators observe a system, they affect and are affected by it.


The anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead contrasted first and second-order cybernetics with this diagram in an interview in 1973.[1] It emphasizes the requirement for a possibly constructivist participant observer in the second order case:

. . . essentially your ecosystem, your organism-plus-environment, is to be considered as a single circuit.[1]

Heinz von Foerster attributes the origin of second-order cybernetics to the attempts of classical cyberneticians to construct a model of the mind. Researchers realized that:

. . . a brain is required to write a theory of a brain. From this follows that a theory of the brain, that has any aspirations for completeness, has to account for the writing of this theory. And even more fascinating, the writer of this theory has to account for her or himself. Translated into the domain of cybernetics; the cybernetician, by entering his own domain, has to account for his or her own activity. Cybernetics then becomes cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics.[2]

The work of Heinz von Foerster, Humberto Maturana, Gordon Pask, Ranulph Glanville, and Paul Pangaro is strongly associated with second-order cybernetics. Pask[3] recommended the term New Cybernetics in his last paper which emphasises all observers are participant observers that interact.

See also


  1. ^ a b Interview with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, CoEvolution Quarterly, June 1973.
  2. ^ Von Foerster 2003, p.289.
  3. ^ Pask, 1996.

Further reading

External links