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CybCon 2002

The Cybernetics Society held its 27th Annual Conference at the London School of Economics on Saturday, 14th September 2002. The main theme was "Developing Second-Order Cybernetics".

Dr Alex Andrew FCybS
Reminiscences of McCulloch and Pitts and some others

He recalled a colourful and productive period in the early development of cybernetics. The emphasis was strongly, though not exclusively, on neurophysiology and reference was made to experimental work on receptors in the knee-joint as well as to a major project of the McCulloch group in studying activity in the cat spinal cord, and to later work on frog vision. These studies were prior to the emergence of second-order cybernetics, but the beginnings of some trends in thinking can be seen.

The studies of spinal cord activity demonstrated the complexity of the relationship of sensation to primary receptor activity and laid foundations for revolutionary studies of pain mechanisms.

The frog vision studies were associated with a viewpoint on perception that has been challenged and the debate has arguable significance for consideration of evolution generally.

An early development in brain scanning was described, both because it was the start of another major development and to give an impression of the current level of technology at the time.

Mr A Booth MCybS
Essential Structure in Physical Observation

At the heart of any process of observation there are certain basic things which must happen. These might be analysed in abstract terms, or then again in terms of the quantum physical irreducibles. Here the attempt is to link between these concerns with the aim of clarifying a path to the quantum mechanical form of model, and at the same time to provide the basis of a macroscopic model.

There are some substantially separable aspects to the meaning of the word "observer". One of these is concerned with the point of view or frame of reference which is involved in the observation and another is connected with the information or data which is gathered by and subsequently made accessible by this sub-system referred to as an observer. There is also another aspect involved which might be regarded as forming a "point of view", and that is the way that the data is interpreted before it is finally expressed, but that issue will not be discussed explicitly here.

There is an implication within the meaning of the word "observer" that information may be gathered which is absolute in the sense of being objective. There is thus a curious paradox in the usage of the word because the sense of point of view of observer is strong in its meaning and contradicts the idea that the result of the data gathering operation is in some sense absolute or objective. Splitting apart the functions within observation as is done here offers clarification and a path round this paradox.

The essential role of amplification, its nature and its involvement in observation is brought out. By studying how we view the interactions and processes of observation the picture is developed such as to point to novel ways of modelling microscopic systems.

Mr N Green FCybS Real Time Study Group, Department of Computer Science, University of Wales, Cardiff
Axioms from Interaction of Actors Theory

Gordon Pask spent a lifetime interpreting concepts, exchanged by multiple participants in the manner of second order cybernetics, as the product of self-organisation. At the end of his life he enunciated his "Last Theorem". It states

Like concepts repel and unlike concepts attract

All circular processes that exert forces qualify as concepts to Pask. Although initially seen as a theory of learning it has produced a theory of self-organisation and evolution through consideration of the concurrent retention of stress in solids, liquids, gases and plasmas. Actors or Self-Organised systems retain a hard carapace which exerts a repulsive force protecting the concepts they embody.

While Pask was consulting commercially he stated a series of properties or axioms of Interaction which form the basis of Conversation Theory (CT) and its kinetic dual Interactions of Actors (IA) Theory. Definitions of the axioms are offered but exactly how to treat them is the subject of discussion. Condensation of several axioms into one or expansion of a single axiom into several is possible. They may be interpreted differently as their properties are applied in thinking and acting.

Context and Perspective is the local neighbourhood and the position of the participant observer or actor in it.

Respectability and Responsibility is Observability in both the classical and quantum sense. Excitation of a respectable actor is required if it is cold to make it responsible.

Amity is the availability of actors for interaction.

Agreement and Agreement-to-disagree is produced when a concept is shared. In Agreement a stress is copied and a repulsion produced. In Agreement-to-disagree a stress is not copied and an attraction is produced.

Purpose and Unity that is not uniformity defines the difference that is feedback. Unity that is not uniformity defines a similarity defining a group. Purpose retains applicability in referring to convergent behavioural outcomes of the potentially equifinal kind. The goal of goals is to stay warm.

Faith is a property of a concept or assertion that persists until a contradictory counter example is found. The duration of an observation or experiment.

Beginnings and Ends (CT) and Eternally interacting (IA), Kinematic(CT) and Kinetic(IA) properties distinguish CT and IA.

Similarity and Difference distinguishes concepts that attract and repel.

Adaptation, Evolution and Generation are the consequence of change and growth.

Conservation of Meaningful Information Transfer both Permissive (Ap) and Imperative Application (Im) : The equilibrium of imperative forces produces permissive application of concepts.

Informational Openness and Organisational Closure are the conventional requirements of second order cybernetic systems.

Void and Not-Void is the structure of the space supporting Actors which support M-Individuals in which P-Individuals interpret their concepts.

Professor Gerard de Zeeuw FCybS
Knowledge acquisition in the case of more than one observer

Publications on systems ideas and systems thinking often start by noting that traditional methods of knowledge acquisition need renewing and replacing. Little headway seems to have been made yet, however, in demonstrating that the new is indeed able to do what the old wasn't. The core problem will reside either in the solutions or in the nature of the problem. It is argued that the latter constitutes the main obstacle.

One way of dealing with this obstacle is to deny that there is a need to identify what solutions are sufficient. The quality is in the journey towards a solution, it is claimed, not in arriving. The journey should be such that nothing human is reduced to knowledge. One must respect and even love one's subjects, one's users, one's audience. A thousand flowers must be made to bloom, a thousand authorities allowed to claim their domain.

There are more interesting ways to deal with the problem of identifying what will remove defects in knowledge acquisition. Characteristically they aim to clarify what used to be seen as proper approaches to acquisition, and how these may be extended or adapted to deal with new events. A typical analogy is the resolution of the paradoxes inherent in absolute speed, the speed of light - by reconstructing the notion of an observer by way of multiple observers.

In the paper the latter notion is explored in the area of second order cybernetics, and the results linked to more general developments in the field of knowledge acquisition.

Dr Ranulph Glanville FCybSSchool of Architecture + Design RMIT University Melbourne
Thinking Second-Order Cybernetics

Cybernetics is essentially about circularity. In second order cybernetics, the circularity is taken seriously and examined. Where a traditional cybernetic analysis of a simple control system, such as a thermostat, would have one element (the switch on the wall) controlling the other (the boiler and radiators); a second order cybernetic analysis would consider that the control lay between both elements in the loop: each controls the other. This becomes clear when we consider what it is that controls the switching of the switch.

What emerges is that in circular systems, the action of the system is not so much in one element of the system (lording it over another) as between the elements, shared-or distributed in all of them. The behaviour does not derive from the action of one part dominating the behaviour of another.

This has interesting consequences. Consider communication. In first order cybernetics, the model that has been popular relates to Information Theory, in which messages are codes transmitted from sender to a receiver, where they are decoded and the meaning is flawlessly transferred. In contrast, second order cybernetics considers a conversational communication. In this, meanings are not transmitted: we listen to others and construct our own meanings which we can re-present to the speakers in our own words which the original speakers make their own meanings from and compare with their own original meanings. If they match, communication has taken place. If not, we try again. This is how humans typically communicate: coded communication is effectively restricted to the paramilitary.

Here, the meaning is distributed in each participant. The form of conversation is not a set of linear commands but a circle. It accommodates difference and is, thus, a means by which we may discover the new. It does not attempt to fix itself in one place: stability is not generally related to an external point of reference, but is generated internally as a sense of continuing to be. In traditional cybernetic terms this suggests that such systems don't really have goals (as we have understood them). Purpose becomes less absolute, and we ask what the goal is of the goals!

Dr Bernard Scott FCybS Cranfield University Royal Military College of Science
Second Order Cybernetics: A Historical Introduction

In 1974, Heinz von Foerster articulated the distinction between a first order and a second order cybernetics, as, respectively, the cybernetics of observed systems and the cybernetics of observing systems. Von Foerster's distinction, together with his own work on the epistemology of the observer, has been enormously influential on the work of a later generation of cyberneticians. It has provided an architecture for the discipline of cybernetics, one that, in true cybernetic spirit, provides order where previously there was variety and disorder. It has provided a foundation for the research programme that is second order cybernetics. However, as von Foerster himself makes clear, the distinction he articulated was imminent right from the outset in the thinking of the early cyberneticians, before, even, the name of their discipline had been coined. In this presentation, I gave a brief account of the developments in cybernetics that lead to von Foerster's making his distinction. As is the way of such narratives, it is but one perspective on a complex series of events. Not only was my account a personal perspective, it also included some recollections of events that I observed and participated in at first hand.

Panel Discussion

Convened by Dr Glanville and Dr Scott, and featuring all presenters with the aim of clarifying understandings of what second-order cybernetics is, what it has to offer and what may be looked for by way of future developments.

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Professor Martin Smith presided

Dr Alex Andrew

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Anthony G Booth

Nick Green

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Professor Gerard de Zeeuw

Dr Ranulph Glanville

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Dr Bernard Scott

The panel discussion

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Photography by D. J. Stewart

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