Cybernetics as Phoenix:
What Ashes, What New Life?


Cybernetics, where have you been and where are you headed? A phoenix rising, a discipline born in the 1940s and seeming dead from the 1960s, cybernetics today is more prevalent than it has been since its inception. It is being credited as foundational for interaction design, design methods, adaptive architecture, antidisciplinarity. A world-famous media lab is arguing that cybernetics is central to the participation of science as a member of the toolset required to tame the wicked problems of the world.

Never dead, cybernetics has all along been implicitly infusing its concepts of feedback and systemics into the imagination of countless fields. Simultaneously it has been applying its principles to itself, emerging as a rigorous way to view conversation, problem framing, and language-creation. In this conversation, we argue that these elements of second-order cybernetics are skills critical to the practice of design in a world of unpredictable, unknowable complexity.

While its first-order systemics gives foundation to understanding emergence and unintended consequences, second-order cybernetics offers an ethical, clear-eyed argument for transparent, value-driven design processes. Can cybernetics be a core teaching for schools and design practitioners, such that ethics and responsibility may overtake the hegemony of AI and computing, governments and ideologies? What else is necessary? Let’s dIscuss.

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Thanks to Liss C. Werner and the conference organizers.


Paul Pangaro’s career spans research, consulting, startups, and education. He relocated to Detroit in April 2015 to become Associate Professor & Chair of the MFA Interaction Design at CCS. He has taught systems and cybernetics for design at School for Visual Arts, New York, and at Stanford University in Terry Winograd’s Human-Computer Interface program. His most recent startup is General Cybernetics, Inc., dedicated to new ways of reading and writing in digital media. He has worked with and within startups in New York and Silicon Valley, in product and technology roles. His consulting clients including Nokia, Samsung, Intellectual Ventures,, Instituto Itaú Cultural (São Paulo), Ogilvy & Mather, and Poetry Foundation. He has lectured in São Paulo, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Linz, and in cities in the US. His writing explicates “designing for conversation” from his research and his implementations of software and organizational processes. Pangaro was awarded a Bachelor of Science in humanities and computer science at MIT. He was hired by Nicholas Negroponte onto the research staff of the MIT Architecture Machine Group, which morphed into the MIT Media Lab. With Gordon Pask as his advisor, he was awarded a Ph.D. in cybernetics from Brunel University in the UK.

© Copyright Paul Pangaro, 2016.