Cybernetic Models for Design and Communication

Cybernetics deals with goal oriented systems, and the management of feedback for the attainment of goals.  It is the most precise language which can be applied to this domain. Second-order cybernetics might also be considered ethical cybernetics.  In this evolution, we find the notion of re-entry, in which systems purposefully sensitize themselves to their environment. Communication theory and conversation theory emerge from the discipline of cybernetics, and as such theories of the design process find articulation through cybernetics. The core cybernetics models which we work with in the design process are described below.

1. Second-order Cybernetics and Confronting Paradox

The true beauty of cybernetics cannot be understood without understanding ‘paradox’. Paradox is the path through which an observer ‘externalizes’ stable entities, while ‘internalizing’ disturbances to their world view, recursively.  This can be mapped on any self-organizing dynamics.  For instance, Paul Pangaro’s Designing Conversations, makes sense of this duality, whereby a design process is ‘self-constructing’.

Beyond the reach of mechanics, paradox is embraced with the statements “I am the relation between myself and the world.” And “my world is the relation between myself and myself at another point in time.”  Without understanding this, we see the possibility for contradictions in approaches to governance and structured inquiry, as I discuss in my article: “Exploring Foundations and Value Boundaries in Social-Ecological Systems.” 

2. The Viable System Model

The Viable System model represents one applications of Cybernetics to management.  Developed by Stafford Beer, the Viable System model distinguishes production units, from the coordination of productions, from the system which manages operational control which optimizes and regulates, from the system which looks forward and adapts to an environment to the system which institutes policy.  The Viable System model emphasizes that these operations take place at every level of the organization.

3. Heinz Von Foerster, On Constructing a Reality

Related imageIn this seminal piece Heinz von Foerster, models the sensorimotor system as a donut (torus). We find that ultimately perceptions are meaningful in terms of actions and actions meaningful in terms of perception.

When we consider communicating systems it is important to consider the manner in which a system links signals and activities, and also the manner in which a system changes this structure.  As we extend more broadly into our environment, we collect novel streams of information, but these information streams are only meaningful in terms of their ‘allowances’. Further, our actions become meaningless if we cannot perceive their change;  This is the challenge of complexity; which requires alternative management techniques.

Imagine communicating something ‘REALLY IMPORTANT’ to an audience.  This message gains meaning to the extent that the audience can act on it; participate with it, and is empowered to make change.  If you consider the actions which your audience can take, you invite them to have a conversation; to make meaning.  This action might mean shifting priorities, making a decision about which product to purchase, getting involved with a campaign, or identifying with a particular group, for example.

Imagine providing many opportunities for your audience to take action.  How closely aligned are these actions, with the signals you have embedded?  How can you effectively plant the triggers for action and keep your audience engaged? Eg. make sure you ring the bell at meal time, consistently; to link your signal, your symbol, with their action.

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The inverse questions can be asked of our own organizations!  What are our information sources, our signals?  Through which channels do they operate?  Are these sources based on our past activities?  Are they in alignment with our present activities? Our future actions?  How directly does a signal target the appropriate actor?  What is the mechanism through which this selection is achieved?  How does regulation of this selection correspond with the speed of change in a particular environment?

3. Autopoiesis: Network of Interactions

Related imageAutopoiesis came to describe the autonomy of living organisms, and in the case of organizations can be considered organizational closure.  In a basic manner we can think of an organization or an organism as a boundary producing entity, which separates themselves from their environment and yet simultaneously produces the possibility of interaction with the environment.  In this, we find a circular feedback which moves through stages of ‘identity’, ‘aims’, ‘networks of interactions’, and ‘operational closure’.  Through each circle, an organization or organism bounds their repertoire of activities according to various ‘homeostats’, and aims; and reproduces these homeostats according to their network of activities.

How does the identity of our audience change when we introduce novel manners for participation?  How do actions change when we offer alternative identities and aims?

4. Heinz von Foerster’s self-organizing systems

Image result for autopoiesisVon Foerster defines a self organizing system as an entity whose total redundancy is increasing over time.  Redundancy is defined in information theory by Shannon as the ratio of the shortest possible description of a system to the longest possible description of a system.

For instance, we might want to describe our company in extreme detail, inch by inch.  Doing so would make maintaining a coherent image difficult.  However, if our description is too short, we miss out on subtle changes we might make.  If our description is too short every change ‘goes to the top’.  Need new staples? Tell the CEO.

There are many mechanisms by which a self-organizing system can maintain diverse and coherent self-images, in order interact ethically, effectively and efficiently to changes in the environment.  Often times we see that it is necessary to evolve ‘language’, with changing operations.  For instance, does the EPA ‘regulate’, or ensure particular standards are met through a variety of means?  As environmental challenges become increasingly complex, the way the EPA describes themselves and their operations should adapt, such that new opportunities become apparent.

Based on Maxwell’s demons (information theory) this definition of a self-organizing systems yields two ‘organizing demons’. One demon works to increase the conditional probabilities of elements within the system, say by increasing knowledge, or tying elements of the system together, and another demon works to increase variety within the system by adding new elements which can be incorporated within the system, only in so far as these new elements are in alignment with the systems aims or homeostasis.

5. Balance, difference and information theory

Communication is an art.  Communication is a dance.  Communication builds on stability, but information disrupts this stability.

We make meaning out of change. We make change out of stability. We make stability out of meaning.

We develop a shared language. We develop a shared understanding. We create shared meaning.  Through this we can change each other, shape each other, generate novelty, be creative.

We develop a pattern of change.  We develop a pattern of transformation.  We develop invariant variation.  We are constantly changing, but we maintain equilibrium.

This is a conversation.

6.  Metaphor theory

In the cybernetic world view, mathematics, logic, science, and language are all built on metaphors. We understand one thing in terms of another.  This is like that.

The sun is warm.  The color is warm.  I am here, and yet ‘here’ is something different than me.

Imagery operates at a subconscious level and has an enormous impact on the way in which we frame conversations and communicate.  For instance, we might find this in interpersonal communication.  One says ‘the way I see it’, and the other says, ‘it feels like’.  These two people are speaking different languages hoping to arrive at different destinations and it will not be surprising if they speak past each other.

Imagine if one person imagines the economy like a biological organism.  Infinite growth would be a very bad, and impossible thing!  If another imagines the economy like ‘the hand of God’ (as it was originally conceived), then infinite growth is highly virtuous!

Strategic communicators place careful attention on the metaphors they use and the imagery it produces.

Is the clean water act a mechanism for regulation or protection?

7. Tension Mapping, Varela’s calculus of indications

“We recognize only one Law, the Law of Harmony, of Perfect Equilibrium.”- (K.H.)

Tension mapping is an exercise which we have created which places trades offs visually on a map.  This allows observers to consider the space which they have created between a variety of trajectories and to explore synergies, and challenge their own conceptions.


8. Design for embodied cognition and Visualization methods

Research in cognition, neuroscience and behavioral science shows that our subconscious is ultimately the ‘creator’, while our conscious mind is largely the transformer or regulator.  We often arrive at decisions long before our conscious mind becomes aware of our decision.

Techniques for accessing the subconscious, has throughout time been an implicit part of designing, planning.

Generating the conditions for inspiration and design is an essential component of the process.

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